January 24, 2018
What Should Be The Preface To Any Writing Guide

I have recently finished another iteration of my undergraduate writing guide. It started as a two-page document born out of rage and disappointment with recurring essay failures. It has now ballooned into a nine-page document written in a slightly more relaxed tone. Still, the guide doesn’t even come close to saying everything I have to say! (I could include pages of ranting about layout alone…) So I have found myself working on a follow-up guide, cautiously titled “Details of Good Writing”. The rough idea was to provide a more hands-on, detailed guide to writing—one that looked at details such as how to use the words “subjective” and “objective” in philosophical writing, or the proper use of the semicolon. Such a guide would accompany the general advice of the first guide which often seemed to me too generic (“be precise!”, “structure your essay well!”, etc.).

I quickly encountered a problem though: that second guide started to look incredibly pedantic. Now I am a pedant, and being overly pedantic with undergraduates can be a plausible pedagogical strategy. Still, the authoritative know-it-all tone of the guide made me feel uncomfortable. After all, the one piece that has influenced my writing the most is actually a piece of anti-advice: Geoffrey Pullum’s withering critique of Strunk and White’s famous The Elements of Style, aptly titled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”. Pullum has consistently attacked “zombie rules” in his and his co-authors’ excellent blog, Language Log. It is hard to read Pullum’s contributions without coming to think that almost all advice on writing is too dogmatically prescriptive. It insists on highly specific rules which are pointless at best, contradict the usage of even highly respect writers, are almost always simply made up, and sometimes even harmful to good writing.


October 21, 2017
Can We Teach Philosophy to Undergraduates?

This might sound like a silly question, but I’ve recently come across an old article by Deirdre McCloskey, who, asking the same question about economics, answers “No” (Pointer from Tyler Cowen, some brief discussion). McCloskey’s argument, liberally reconstructed, is the following:

  1. There is a difference between teaching about economics, and teaching students how to do economics. The first, while not trivial, can be done; the second, she claims, is almost impossible to do.
  2. No matter how she modifies her teaching, very few of her students genuinely learn How To Think Like Economists—even if they learn how to regurgitate various facts about economics.
  3. Even from her own experience, she has fully learned the economic way of thinking only many years after finishing school. Only a few “naturals” get economics outright.
  4. She tentatively suggests an explanation: most students have protected, care-free middle-class upbringings, which makes it hard for them to fully understand the scarcity- and choice-based discipline of economics.
  5. On this basis, McCloskey tentatively suggests, perhaps the emphasis in teaching should be shifted towards teaching about economics. This would make economics more akin to the literary sciences (which teach you about literature, but not how to write it yourself).

It’s not hard to think of an analogous argument for why it’s impossible to teach philosophy to undergraduates. Indeed, McCloskey mentions philosophy in an off-hand remark (“economics, like philosophy, cannot be taught to nineteen-year olds”), so she seems to think the case applies here, too. (Given the age of the piece, McCloskey of course might no longer be committed to the claims contained within it.)