Posts filed under ‘Education’

Review: Gary Gregg, The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology

Gregg’s book is divided into two parts, the first containing three chapters on the social ecology of the Middle East/North African (MENA) cultural area, and the second on periods of psychological development people experience within it. I picked up the book hoping to expand my background on middle eastern peoples and cultures; because of the focus of the pilot study I helped design and analyze last year, most of my knowledge is centered on Pakistan. I was hoping to expand my limited knowledge to the areas which Gregg describes, geographically stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.

For this, the book did exactly what a sprawling survey should do: it complicated everything. Gregg opens the book with a chapter titled Misunderstandings, which was a good introduction to the subject. His writing is cautious and lucid, and Misunderstandings sets the tone for the rest of the book. Gregg is in the business of psychology, not the creation of national or regional sterotypes. He is thusly very open that The Middle East can only cover so much. Unfortunately for my purposes, he eventually has little to say about education, and only slightly more to say about Islam. Most of the influences on psychological development that Gregg describes are social, and he only has so much space in which to describe them. He also had to pick and choose which topics to describe in depth. It seems as though Gregg is perfectly comfortable going on at length regarding particular debates over the effects of certain practices on development, but the book has a lot of ground to cover in 378 pages. The stand-out parts of many chapters were the “debate” sections near the end, in which Gregg built on the framework laid in the first section (the social ecology section) and earlier chapters to discuss a topic in depth. For example, the Early Childhood section featured the most extended and complex discussion of the developmental effects and societal role of male circumcision and female genital cutting (FGC) that I have yet read. Of course, FGC is only practiced by some groups (mainly concentrated in Northern Africa more than the Middle East, but tightening the cultural area under discussion is the price of increased depth.

In the later chapters, Gregg begins to focus on some more concrete details of identity formation. There was also more explicit discussion of the impact of modernity (read: Western influence) and feelings towards tradition, as there is growing awareness of both in later development. A frequent theme in the last four chapters of the book is Gregg’s intuition that (slightly) more accesible education creates perceptions and expectations for success that are not, unfortunately, in line with the opportunities in underedeveloped nations. The impact of this mismatch between expectations and opportunity has not been well explored, and is likely of increasing importance to the psychological development of many in the MENA region.

This book was very helpful to me, and I hope to make use of Gregg’s copious endnotes and citations for further exploration. A great deal will have to wait, because I shouldn’t go back to research yet– but to help shore up my grounding on MENA cultures I don’t think I could have found a better book. Now, if only someone could write something centered around youth and adult development, with an in-depth discussion of the impact of Islam… maybe my own future research could make a contribution to the text.

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June 18, 2009 at 8:20 pm Leave a comment

Evolution Education and Philosophy in High Schools

There’s a very well written op-ed article in today’s Washington Post that I was alerted to over at Science and Religion News. The title of the article is Evolving Towards a Compromise, and the gist of it is that some changes in science curriculum could help diffuse the support for the outright teaching of creationism. Rather than simply teach evolution, the article proposes teaching about what is and is not implied by evolutionary theory. To allay one of the specters brought up again and again by those who misunderstand evolutionary theory, for example, it is suggested that teachers explain that the description of the evolution of human behavior does not necessarily imply how humans should act.

I think that the article suggests a good direction that should be pursued by defenders of evolution education. Different polls show again and again that a majority of Americans are in favor of joint classroom time for both creationism and evolution. By discussing what evolution does not imply, perhaps educators can answer the public’s desire for a fair curriculum without having to go off the deep end and teach creationism.

There’s a major problem, though: class time. The authors of the op-ed apologize for asking educators to “shoulder another burden”, but between national and state standards it’s pretty hard to squeeze everything people want into the curriculum. Maybe better synchronization and communication between teachers could help with the compromise proposed– if, for instance, a social studies or history teacher could teach about the naturalistic fallacy while the biology department taught about evolution. The concepts would then be communicated at the same time, but the pressure on biology teachers to balance the demands of the public would be distributed amongst the faculty. The school district where I grew up tried to structure class groups along these lines (at least in middle school, where the district could largely determine which classes a student took) and it frequently had good results.

Something implied by the article, yet not explored, is the question of if and how to fit philosophical material into the public school curriculum. My high school was aberrant in that there was a single semester elective philosophy course open to juniors and seniors. I was too busy filling every elective slot with a music class at the time, and so unfortunately didn’t take it. A few friends did, however, and it was a class they truly enjoyed. So there is a high school audience for philosophy.

If there were a philosophy class included in the curriculum, there would be a natural setting where things like the naturalistic fallacy could be taught. There are a few problems with the inclusion of a philosophy class, however, that transcend the usual problems of funding and demand. First, there would be little point in making philosophy a required subject. In my experience, philosophy demands student curiosity and interest in order to be taught. The word means “love of knowledge” or “love of wisdom”, after all. Second, at least in my district biology was taught during freshman year. While I hope to have carried my high estimation of the intellectual abilities of high school students with me as I’ve gotten older, I don’t think that a philosophy class is for high school freshmen. It’s hard enough to take an introductory philosophy class as a college freshman. I’m not sure if biology is always taught, or has to be taught, during freshman year, however—does anyone out there know the reasoning behind placing biology the first in order of high school science classes? Is it the mathematical elements of chemistry and physics that requires that they be taught later than biology?

Having an elective philosophy course available alongside a biology class, even for a semester, makes a great deal of sense. It would create an appropriate space for the discussion of how philosophy and biology interact, and it would also provide an option for those parents who feel strongly that their child should be trained in critical thinking. It’s too bad that there are hardly available resources for such a class, and also that the class may be impossible to schedule. It’s a nauseatingly cheerful thought, but wouldn’t it be great if people realized the importance of a good philosophy class as a result of the long-running fight over evolution education?

July 26, 2008 at 12:59 pm 2 comments

Why Philosophy Should Emphasize Interaction Over Specialization

In the last century, philosophy as it exists in academia has specialized itself heavily, sometimes to the detriment of its ability to interact with outside fields. Such specialization is a modern phenomenon, and it’s impact on debate in multi-disciplinary subjects like that of science and religion has been detrimental. A general philosophical background and thorough understanding of topics external to but considered by philosophy is necessary to advance debate in those subjects, but this is discouraged by specialization in philosophy.

Some might say that specialization has always existed in philosophy, and has helped rather than hindered debate. It is true that philosophers have long found rich patrons and been instated at the Academy. All the same, I would bet that increased professionalization in philosophy parallels professionalization in the sciences. The growth of Universities from the nineteenth century onward increased professional opportunities for philosophers as well as anyone else. And with this professionalization came increased specialization.

It is also true that there have been separate branches of philosophy ever since the field was formalized in Ancient Greece: metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology have long been distinct categories of philosophy. That said, there are more “philosophy of…” categories today than ever. Philosophy of science became a titled specialty through the research and Diaspora of logical positivists like Carnap and Hempel. Philosophy of action came about as a field largely through Wittgenstein and G.E.M. Anscombe. Philosophy of mind as a specialty has really taken off since behaviorist psychology imploded and neuroscience took its explanatory place.

As these specializations gained increasing recognition, schools began offering courses of study that focused on a particular philosophical segment and not others. Philosophical specialization as it exists today is a modern phenomenon.

I don’t mean to present a simplified view of modern philosophy. These different subjects I’ve introduced as my examples do not exist in a vacuum, and they are increasingly forming new and innovative combinations. But this hybridization seems only to increase the amount of specialties rather than emphasize a more universal philosophical standpoint. Bioethics, neuroethics, social studies of knowledge, and more all show that hallmark of increased specialization: graduate programs devoted to their study. These programs are certainly attractive; I’m aiming to head into one, myself. I’m just not convinced their impact on philosophy has been altogether positive.

Why am I writing this now? Where I’ve taken classes in plenty of “philosophy of…” categories, this semester I took a class on science and religion. In the class, I’ve focused on the topic of causation with a specific historical interest in the topic as it was discussed by figures that have philosophical taxonomists lying awake at night, asking their pillows, “Should I put Avicenna down as a physician? A philosopher? A theologian? Damn!” My research for the class has largely concerned itself with figures like Aristotle, Augustine, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, Averroes, and Aquinas… a formidable chronology of philosophers who blended (each in a distinct manner) philosophy, science, and theology in the examination of their world.

So I can’t help but wonder where the Avicenna of today might be found. In doing so, I’ve had the pessimistic thought that it’s unlikely that the current academic system could steer someone to a path similar to his. Interested in theology? Go to seminary! Interested in medicine? Go to medical school! Interested in metaphysics? Better head over to the Philosophical Gourmet to get a good idea of where the great metaphysicians of today are teaching! It could be that my finals-related stress is spilling over into angst regarding my future in the field, but philosophy as it has previously existed was not as easily classified as so many graduate programs. It was also not so easily classified as the philosophical want ads are these days: “WANTED: A Phd in Philosophy with a background in philosophical Logic, Philosophy of Science, and Philosophy of Language. Non-tenure track position with 3-year limited fellowship.”

Could it be that all this categorization is a bad influence on philosophy? The 20th century had did have its Renaissance figures, several of which were brilliant polymaths. This is not to mention that there are good reasons for specialization– not the least of which is the staggering increase of information that arrives each year. If I go to graduate school for philosophy of science, there is easily enough material to take up the rest of my life in debate. The same can be said for any of category of philosophy.

Where the specialization of philosophy seems to be the most damaging is where the specialization seems to pit philosophy against other disciplines. The conflict between science and religion has, at times throughout the year in my class, seemed to be transmuted to a conflict between philosophy and religion. This idea is not new. Augustine put theological knowledge over all other varieties, and there is a reason Al-Ghazali’s famous work is titled The Incoherence of the Philosophers.

Looking backwards, it seems that for every Augustine and Al-Ghazali there is an Averroes and Aquinas. There seems to be a component in the debate between the works of those authors, however, that is missing today. Aquinas and Augustine may have been theologians first, but their works also place them amongst the great philosophers. Averroes may likewise be considered more of a philosopher than anything else, but he was also a theologian, physician, and a lawyer. Their thought epitomizes the great work that can come from interdisciplinary scholarship. In considering any area where philosophy seems to conflict with another discipline, their example should be considered.

Philosophy is conducted better from a multi-disciplinary background. The most important thing to take away from such a background is the knowledge of how to take other viewpoints seriously in debate. Medieval conceptions of causation are not poorer because they came about in a theological framework, even though such a framework might not allow for the most complete explanation. Likewise, theologians should take philosophy concerning the possibility of miracles from the perspective of metaphysics seriously. Philosophy has benefited from interaction with other fields before, and the importance of this interaction cannot be overstated. In preparing students to participate in the historical debates of philosophy, academia as a whole should keep this in mind: specialization doesn’t always lead to the best explanation.

December 9, 2007 at 10:44 pm 2 comments

Re: Question of the Day on Adventures in Ethics and Science

Question of the Day on Adventures in Ethics and Science: Is extra credit fair?

I think the question is only valid in relation to educational settings in which a grade is given. For schools which use written evaluations (Waldorf schools, New School in Florida, Hampshire College in Mass., Evergreen in Washington, and (formerly) UC Santa Cruz, among others) in place of grades, there can be no problem regarding extra credit. This is so because there is no out-and-out point system of evaluation. Students can be motivated (and encouraged) to do extra work or an extended number of paper revisions as a way of extending their own learning and then exhibiting that learning to the professor. Students who do not do such extra work miss out on those additional benefits, but they are just that: additional.

I suppose the implication for this on more traditional grading systems is this: if the choice to do extra work is ultimately left to the student, free of pressure or constraint (ie: “I have to do this extra paper so I can bump the “C” on the exam up to a “B”.”), then extra work (and accompanying credit) is beneficial. Unfortunately, that lack of pressure seems awfully unrealistic within the trappings of a more conventional setting. Viva alternative education!

September 12, 2007 at 12:20 pm Leave a comment


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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