College Drops Kant, Purchases Clickers

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Diana Senechal

Oklahoma City—In what may become a dramatic overhaul of the teaching of humanities, Moyen College removed all books from its philosophy courses and instituted clickers in their place. Funded by a group of wealthy alumni, this change promises to make every student successful and to reduce the emphasis on obsolete content.

“The former professor refused to change his methodology and ended up leaving,” said Gertrude Bouleverse, a newly hired assistant professor of philosophy. “I am basically a neo-Heraclitean. I believe in change. My specialty is media hermeneutics.” She took us into a classroom to demonstrate the new procedure.

Every day, explained Bouleverse, when the students enter the room, they take out their clickers and click answers to three multiple-choice questions displayed on the screen: “How motivated am I today? How would I like to engage in learning today? How much of the homework did I complete?” The software then assigns them to groups. Once settled in their pods, they read a short philosophical passage—from Kant, for instance, but simplified for the modern reader—and answer real-life questions together. At the end of class, they click answers to a satisfaction survey. The software then sends them a tailored homework assignment.

“When I circulate around the room, I hear the liveliest discussions!” gushed Bouleverse. “They’re talking about really sophisticated things, like means and ends, but applying them to their own lives. That’s what philosophy should be. It isn’t about the texts. It’s about being a philosopher in your own right. Wait—I just remembered that we recorded yesterday’s discussions. I can play one for you.”

We sat down at one of the pods and listened to the following exchange.

Student A: “OK, so the question for the group is ‘Have you ever felt like someone was treating you as a means? What did that feel like?”
Student B
: “What’s a means?”
Student A
: “I don’t know. I think they mean a time when someone was mean to you.”
Student B
: “You were mean to me just now when you asked me what happened to my hair.”
Student C
: “No, that’s not what Kant’s talking about. He’s talking about using people as objects, using them as a way to get something.”
Student A
: “Oh, yeah. I have felt like that. Like when Jerry invited me to the party and treated me like his date and stuff and it turned out he was trying to make Briana jealous.”
Student B
: “That sucks. Yeah, it’s like when I had that Volvo and started driving people to see the RedHawks and stuff. Then I realized I was really popular. It was fun until the car broke down and Mom wouldn’t pay for it and I saw half of my friends disappear.”
Student C
: “I think Kant’s talking about something more than that.”
Student A
: “Why don’t you go read in a corner if you want to get into Kant. We’re supposed to be talking about real life.”
Student B
: “Yeah, Professor Bouleverse told us that we are the real philosophers. The texts are just there to help us get going. Oh, there she comes!”

Professor Bouleverse stopped the recording. “You can see all the creativity that’s coming out of these discussions,” she said. “A lot of these kids would have been bored stiff under the old system.”

What about the study of philosophical works? They don’t learn any Kant beyond a few bullet points, she acknowledged, but they get to talk and succeed. “Most people in the real world don’t know Kant either,” she explained. “It isn’t a necessary skill. What matters is the social interaction around an essential question. These students are proving my own thesis that this works.” A research report, she said, would be published soon in Science.

According to Bouleverse, almost all students excel at this. Only a few cling to the outdated idea that the text has some importance as an end in itself. “Students like that tend to derail the discussion,” she said, “but soon they’ll be extinct. We’ll have an interactive environment without obstruction.”