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Academics

Philosophy Department Seeks to Add More Diversity in its Curriculum

by Lukas LaRiviere, guest writer

“All of the marginalized voices of philosophy have something to offer and we ought to look at them,” said philosophy professor John Casey. Photo by Jackson Bicknell.

As this academic year winds down the philosophy department is already looking ahead. The departure of esteemed professor Matt Whitt, who is leaving in order to take a research position at Duke University, is not the only change we should expect to see from the philosophy department in the coming years. The department is strongly considering incorporating more diversity into the required curriculum of the major.

Department head Sally Fischer is seeking to build into the philosophy major a diversity requirement that would expose students to different epistemological perspectives, such as

critical race, feminist and queer theory.

The idea is that professors, along with teaching the standard texts and contents of specific philosophy courses, would include other primary and secondary sources that would offer these different epistemological perspectives. However, the department doesn’t want this inclusion to seem artificial, but rather Fischer sees these diverse articles fitting naturally within the traditional content of the course. The goal behind the inclusion of this material would be that no student can graduate with a degree in philosophy without being exposed to these diverse perspectives.

Yet Fischer is hesitant to make any changes that would add to the burden of Warren Wilson philosophy students.

“We don’t want to make it difficult for students to graduate,” she said.

Instead, Fischer sees the burden of work on the professor to incorporate these perspectives into the content of their courses, so that students can complete the program getting these different perspectives.

Fischer is hopeful to see this revision to the philosophy department’s curriculum implemented for the 2014-15 academic year.

The motivation for these proposed changes comes when the field of philosophy itself has become more critical of the perspectives it has long held. Almost the entire history of philosophy, and the current field of philosophy, is made up of straight white men. Although in recent years the field of philosophy has expanded to include more diverse perspectives, seldom are these marginalized voices included into the curriculum of philosophy departments across the country. For Fischer, the inclusion of these historically marginalized perspectives is about changing the field of philosophy.

“Unless we start from an undergraduate level and expose students who study philosophy to different epistemological perspectives—critical race theory, queer theory, feminist theory—how are we ever going to change the whole field of philosophy?” Fischer said. “Especially if we don’t begin at the very beginning point where most people come in contact with reading philosophy at more academic setting.”

So far Fischer and the department have received nothing but positive feedback. Fellow philosophy professor, John Casey, welcomes the changes.

“I’m all in favor of increasing diversity of all kinds within the major,” he said.

However, Casey believes the changes should make sure to go outside the field of traditional western philosophy.

“All of the marginalized voices of philosophy have something to offer and we ought to look at them,” he said.

A supporter of the philosophy department’s proposed changes is Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the College, Paula Garrett.

“In philosophy, certainly bringing secondary texts in where you can take a particular lens and lay it over top of texts you have read before, but maybe from a more traditional perspective, is fantastic,” Garrett said. “It just opens texts up; it opens up ideas so you can see them from a number of different perspectives.”

The benefits of including different perspectives to texts is not foreign to Garrett, who recalls one of the most memorable articles from her graduate studies being one that analyzed the homoeroticism in Huckleberry Finn.

Garrett remains as optimistic as Fischer about the reception of these changes.

“I think doing this in philosophy will be of great interest to our students and will broaden the perception of philosophy, because it’s easy to assume philosophy is all European white guys but it’s not,” Garrett said.

Furthermore, Garrett is supportive of any department that seeks to add diverse perspectives.

“In an ideal world all of our classes would deal with, fairly, majority and minority voices,” she said.

However, Garrett is cautious not to encroach on the academic freedom that is essential to the success of a liberal arts education.

“The faculty in each department are responsible for shaping the curriculum of each major,” she said.

Nevertheless, the philosophy department’s changes will, Garrett thinks, “prompt every other department to do some looking at its own curriculum.” Ultimately, however, the success of these changes—and their possibility of spreading to other departments—Garrett believes, depends on the students.

“If the philosophy department were to make these changes and their classes fill up even more, if it became obvious that students responded very favorably to this, then that’s the best motivation for any other department to take a look at its major similarly,” she said.

Yet this raises the question of whether or not these changes should already be a part of our liberal arts education. If students have been schooled canonically, lacking these critical perspectives, isn’t it the job of a liberal arts education to introduce these perspectives to students who haven’t been exposed to them before? Coupled with student demand, departments should be instigating revision themselves, making sure to include these diverse perspectives into their respective majors for the ultimate benefit of Warren Wilson students.

 

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