Lots to think about in this NYT piece on Kelly Jolley and the Auburn philosophy department. I have some sympathy for, and deep suspicion of, sentiments like this:

Jolley says he thinks of his relationships with his students less as teacher-student than as master-apprentice. His goal, as he sees it, isn’t to teach students about philosophy; it is to show them what it means to think philosophically, to actually be a philosopher. When the approach works, the effect can be significant….

Jolley’s early efforts to change the culture of the philosophy department at Auburn met with quite a bit of resistance from the university’s administration. Among other things, they rejected his requests for money for more upper-level philosophy classes. Determined to build up Auburn’s philosophy major, Jolley simply taught the courses himself, free of charge.

Many of Jolley’s colleagues were similarly skeptical of what he was trying to do. Several of them urged him to “tone it down,” he recalls, when they noticed the intimidating syllabus for his first class, the history of ancient philosophy, taped to the door of his office. They advised Jolley against wasting his time trying to start a philosophy club at Auburn — the club now has about 30 members — and called his approach to teaching “aristocratic.” In particular, they objected to the fact that he was grading students not on how well they learned philosophical terminology and definitions but on their ability to think philosophically.

If I did this, of course, I’d be fired, but that’s not the main problem. More bothersome is that this comes across as a polite description of how to give the finger to 75% of the students passing through your classes. The people who drop after day two either end up being some other philosopher’s problem* or don’t do any philosophy. (There also some concerns about measuring “their ability to think philosophically.” Over the years I’ve developed elaborate rationales for my boring test construction, but the short version is that I think grading has to be done in a way that’s fairly assessable and that allows smart-ish students without the philosophical knack to get by all right.)

The other worry is the way that teaching philosophy in the tone of “come, o select students, let us ascend to the realm of Being” invites a sort of intellectual snobbishness. I wonder, sometimes, if philosophers’ reputation for tiresome arrogance comes from the habit, inculcated early on, of thinking that we’re the chosen few who get to glimpse the thing-in-itself while more prosaic intellects toil away on ephemera. Dana, do you have thoughts on this? (I’m trying to come up with porny librarian jokes, but no luck.)

*(I’m not sure about this, so take with a grain of salt, but I think Auburn relies on a regular contingent of short-term adjuncts, as opposed to hiring replacements only for sabbaticals. So the approach is “aristocratic” in another sense as well. The most brutal JPF ad I remember was from Auburn, along these lines: 4/4, $28k, and the kicker: “we expect significant departmental involvement.” Again, all from memory, subject to future correction, etc.)