Marx, Mill, Rawls and Nozicki! Sheesh, I haven’t been involved in a good old-fashioned philosophical debate since my college days. But, on Tuesday I attended Dr. Douglas Parvin’s Philosophy 101 Knowing and Being and was reminded first-hand of the importance and impact of liberal education.
Parvin’s emphasis on critical thinking and clearly communicating an idea was apparent from the beginning of the class through the end.
Let me start with some take-aways from the class:
*Parvin used very relevant examples to explain very complex theories. In fact, his use of a cookie example in describing distributive justice was very helpful.
*Parvin was very transparent about his teaching method. He stated that his class is about “taking you on a ride between all of these different ways of thinking.” It’s clear to me that Parvin wants his students to think and think deeply. He summarized his method by stating that he wants his students “to be able to place a viewpoint within a philosophical approach.” This is what I’ve always believed a liberal education to be about.
*International students add greatly to classroom discussion. During a very thought-provoking discussion on distributive justice, which of course also touched on taxation, one student talked about how higher education is financed in his home country in Europe and the understanding that one gets something for their tax dollars. Another international student, while taking about what is just, brought just war and the impact of war on justice. They added important perspective
*Parvin also offered some grad school advice: He told the students that the most important concepts are going to be discussed in the first chapter of a book or in the first couple of paragraphs of an essay.
*Parvin is a skilled teacher who works hard to bring the best out of his students. He’s practical as a philosopher and tries to bring real life into the class. One of the things Parvin said, and I wrote in my notebook, will stick with me for some time to come. He reminded the class that “a wealth of theory will help you find common ground.” In this fractured world, Parvin makes the case for liberal arts education with that reminder. We could all stand to build our wealth of theory to work to find common ground.
Now, if you want to read a little more about my time in class and understand why Dr. Parvin is holding a big yellow die read on below.
10:20 a.m. Tuesday, September 17
Parvin greeted me when I entered the classroom and asked if I’d like to participate in an activity that he planned to use later in the class. I agreed–more on that later. He told me that each class begins with “a chance of a quiz,” which I soon discovered revolved around a big yellow dice.” Students were clearly reviewing class material in preparation.
A roll of the dice would determine whether or not there would be a quiz, which there was.
The quiz focused on the readings for the day, which included essays by Rawls and Nozicki, and it required a brief written statement summarizing Nozicki’s main points.
Parvin is an experienced teacher and knows his students. He told students that “an honest stab will result in full credit.” It was clear to me that he wanted to test engagement more than anything. Parvin also invited students who had not fully completed the reading to write a haiku. It amused me (and I think the class) that each of the Hi-kus, which Parvin read, included an apology for not reading and a promise that it wouldn’t happen again.
Parvin’s class started with a review of the previous class and then jumped right into a lively discussion of what constitutes a social contract. From the beginning Parvin pushed discussion and critical thinking. Parvin even described one student’s description of a social contract as “beautiful.” Parvin asks tough questions, but shows his experience as a teacher by asking for examples and clarifications that strengthen the respondent’s argument. This is a gift to future employers because these students will be critical thinkers who can communicate well.
The discussion of social contract was the lead-up to the exercise Parvin invited me to join. He divided the class into three groups and within each of the three groups he divided individuals into economic class categories. He asked everyone to create a character. Incidentally, I was asked to create a character who was destitute. Parvin then asked each character to introduce themselves to the group. And, then Parvin asked each participant to choose from systems of laissez faire, utilitarianism, equality of welfare and Maximin to identify which system would benefit one’s character most. This was an interesting exercise and might be the first time I was arguing for equality of welfare!
Finally, Parvin asked each participant to randomly select a character someone else had created, and then choose a system not knowing which character they were representing. The characters were then shuffled and redistributed, and students had to justify their choices in writing to their new characters. This was a pretty nifty exercise to get students thinking about something pretty challenging. I was impressed with the level of discussion in my small group.
This class session was a great reminder to me of the sustaining value of liberal arts education and the purpose of introductory classes like Philosophy 101, which I took in the late 1980s while a student.
Dr. Doug Parvin is an associate professor of philosophy. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Harvard and Ph.D. at Rutgers. He specializes in Philosophy of mind, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Decision theory, game theory and logic.