Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Sunday, July 26, 2009

THE IDEAL UNIVERSITY: PART FIVE

Here is the fifth part of my extended essay on my ideal college. If you would like to read the first four parts of the essay, you can find them by clicking on this link: http://people.umass.edu/rwolff/archiveidealuniversity.pdf

FIFTH POST: 26 JULY, 2009

Considering the history of experimental undergraduate education in America, it might be natural to suppose that I have in mind some special set of required courses as the core of the curriculum of my ideal college. One thinks immediately of St. John’s College, at which students read classic texts in the original Greek and Latin, or the University of Chicago of Robert Maynard Hutchins, with its broad interdisciplinary survey courses in Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities, and its final capstone course based on Aristotle’s classification of knowledge [a program in whose final dying throes I taught for two years]. One thinks as well of General Education at Harvard, which first became a regular part of the curriculum in 1949 [the year before I entered as a freshman] and continues, with many alterations, into the present day, or the famous required course on Contemporary Civilization at Columbia, which draws on the talents of the university’s most distinguished scholars.

Not a bit of it! Those programs are perfect for your typical bright, well-prepared, directionless undergraduate, for whom college is a way station on the road to a career in one of the professions, and who is content to sample bits and snatches of Greek tragedy and philosophy, Russian literature in translation, history, sociology, anthropology, and perhaps even the laboratory method in the life sciences. But the students at my ideal college will be recruited not for the equanimity of their idle curiosity but for the intensity and passion of their thirst for knowledge, and I hope and assume that many of them will be possessed by very specific epistemic obsessions. I have in mind someone like the young E. O. Wilson, who was fixated on ants at a time when the social behavior of animals was utterly d̩class̩ in Biology. [My sister, Barbara, was a fellow graduate student of Wilson in Biology at Harvard in the early fifties, and she describes him as reclusive and eccentric. I once spent an afternoon with Wilson in his lab Рa sort of arranged date Рand can attest to the accuracy of her memory.]]

One student may arrive at our college desperate to learn as much mathematics as she can, as fast as she can. A second my have become fascinated by the periodic open air markets of 13th century Flanders. A third may be launched on a quest to find some common insight uniting all of the major religions. The very worst thing that could possibly happen to each of these young people, as they arrive at the doors of our college, is to be told, “That is very nice, dear, but first we have seven required courses we think you ought to take so that you will be prepared to take your place in adult society as a citizen of a democracy, or so that you can participate in the great conversation that we educated folk have been carrying on for the past two and a half millennia.”

There will be a certain amount of unavoidable direction. During that first weekend when new students are unpacking their bags and scoping out their classmates, we may require everyone to read the same book, so that serious conversations can begin immediately. Something challenging but manageable – perhaps Plato’s GORGIAS, or THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, or THE SELFISH GENE.

We want immediately to establish two principles that shall guide students during their time with us: First, that the jobs they choose or are assigned as part of their contribution to the communal life of the college take precedence over all else, because their fellow students and instructors are relying upon them; and second, that there is absolutely no book, no discipline, no idea that they cannot master with sufficient hard work and guidance from their instructors.

There will, of course, be a wide array of courses from which the new students may choose, and those who are not hell bent on following a pre-existing obsession will receive all manner of helpful suggestions from the faculty. But no effort at all will be made to turn out well-balanced, broadly educated citizens.

I openly admit that I am here reproducing the distinctive features of my own undergraduate education. Despite having to take two large surveys, in the Social Sciences and the Humanities, as part of new General Education Program at Harvard, I was left pretty much to my own devices when it came to choosing courses. In my first semester, I took symbolic logic with Willard van Orman Quine. In my second semester, having just turned seventeen, I took a rather specialized graduate course in Philosophy and Logic with Nelson Goodman. The next year, I took five courses in mathematics, graduate mathematical logic, and set theory and three advanced courses in philosophy, together with the required Humanities course. Taking all in all, I had the most appallingly unbalanced undergraduate education imaginable. It was wonderful!

I anticipate that the students will put considerable pressure on the faculty, who will have a hard time keeping up with them. But that is as it should be. One final story, this one possibly apocryphal, will capture the spirit of my vision. This story is about Paul Samuelson, who went on to become the first person to win the newly created Nobel Prize in Economics. It is said that when Samuelson came up for his doctoral orals at Harvard [prior to writing the dissertation], he was examined by three extremely brilliant and distinguished economists, including the great Wassily Leontieff, who himself won a Nobel prize. After two hours of intensive questioning, the candidate was asked to step out of the room while the committee deliberated. When he had closed the door, Liontieff turned to his colleagues and said, with a smile, “Well, gentlemen. Did we pass?”

`Now THAT is my idea of a student.

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