|Emphasis on Discourse with Philosophers Proves To Be a Prize Winning Approach
December 10, 2007
Contact: Bill Giduz
In tackling the enduring questions of human existence, Davidson’s philosophers must employ a wide range of mental reasoning. And in teaching students the methodology needed to effectively address those questions, the American Philosophical Association (APA) says Davidson’s philosophy program does it right.
|Davidson's philosophy faculty includes (clockwise from lower right) Sean McKeever, Bob Maydole (emeritus), Meghan Griffith, Douglas Young, Dave Robb, Lance Stell, and Irwin Goldstein. (Not pictured is Paul Studtmann.)|
The APA has designated Davidson’s philosophy department as the winner of its 2007 Award for Excellence and Innovation, and will present the award at its annual meeting in late December.
The award honors a curricular approach that impresses on students that philosophy isn’t just something you learn about —- it’s something you learn to do.
Department chair Professor Dave Robb explained that the study of philosophy involves a systematic approach to foundational questions, an approach that stresses clarity and attention to detail. Comfort with the methods of philosophy will prepare students well for many fields of professional endeavor, he said. The department’s web site states, “Students taking philosophy courses learn to reason carefully and critically; to express themselves clearly in writing and speaking; to think creatively and constructively about difficult, abstract problems; to detect and debunk fallacious reasoning and superficial, facile solutions; and to identify and evaluate their own beliefs.”
The APA lauded in particular Davidson’s senior year capstone experience for majors, which facilitates immersion in philosophy with visiting speakers on campus and at a retreat. Robb said, “I’ve worked in three or four other departments, and I’ve never seen anything quite like our program for seniors.”
In the fall term, senior majors write a thesis under the direction of two professors. One of three senior majors this year, Rebecca Renninger ’08 described the thesis class under the direction of Professor Irwin Goldstein as “a shared intellectual experience.” Though each of the three students pursued a different thesis topic, their time together made for stronger individual papers, Renninger said. “It helps how you structure your own thesis by looking at what others are doing,” she said. “We gave each other a lot of constructive feedback on ideas we didn’t understand or disagreed with. It was also fun to read subsequent drafts and see the papers improve throughout the semester.”
The semester’s curriculum since 2002 has also included a weekend mountain retreat with a guest philosopher. Readings have been distributed and discussed in advance, so that students are familiar with the philosopher and the issues.
This year’s guest was George Graham, a Wake Forest University philosopher. “We talked about philosophy all day long, and that’s a lot of fun,” said Renninger. “A lot of subjects tend to get brought into the mix. Some of them don’t have any answers, but I’m realizing that’s the case with a lot of things in life.”
The fall semester also featured visits to Davidson by two other outside philosophers who discussed their work in class, gave a public talk, and dined with students.
At the end of the fall term, students present their theses to the whole department. Since by that time they have worked over their theses many times in class, and are well acquainted with their professors, the atmosphere tends to be collegial rather than combative.
John Heil, who previously taught philosophy at Davidson and nominated the department for the award, wrote, “By the end of the term, students are conversant in the topics to a level that goes far deeper than the usual undergraduate level of mastery.”
The visitors also generally present a public lecture so that the entire college community can benefit from the visit. Topics have included Richard Hanley speaking on “The Matrix” and Simon Keller on “Duty to Parents.”
Mitch Green, Cavalier’s Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, chaired the APA committee that selected Davidson for the prize. He confirmed that the Davidson program promotes academic discourse at a far higher level than what’s found at most schools. “It brings to campus distinguished living philosophers and allows them to get up close and personal with students. That’s exciting for both parties,” he said. “One of my colleagues visited and was very impressed with the preparation of students. They were at a level where they knew how to question and object to philosophers. It became a two-way exchange—as good for the professor as going to high level academic conference.”
Heil, who now teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote of the Davidson program, “I remain convinced that it is a model undergraduate program. I base this assessment on my observation of students going through the program and on numerous stints as an outside assessor of philosophy programs in other similar liberal arts settings. The Davidson program provides a medium of interaction with working philosophers that is in my experience utterly unique.”
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. # # #
Posted By: Bill Giduz