Philosophy is not like science…


Every semester about this time (as in, getting the second set of grades back) — I get e-mails from worried students.  The students who e-mail me are usually good students, concerned that they might get a B — and seeking advice as to how to do better… I love that!  Ask those questions, try hard, do your best — work the material over in your mind and see what comes out.  Many of these students are satisfied with the answers I give them — to take risks, write well, and think a lot.  They often do get As…

A few of those students want to know, precisely, why they lost a point or two — they’ve done good work.  They’re consistently meeting the standards, but they want to know why they lost a point here or there.  I get that — and those students often aren’t happy with my answer. The basic answer is that philosophy isn’t like science..

I’m seeing this more and more as the K-12 educational system increases the use of standardized tests.  On a standardized test, there is a right or wrong answer.  That’s how they work — when you get the results back, you can look at your work and see the mistakes.  You can look up the information and see if the test key was correct.

Generally, that’s how science works too, at least as an undergrad.  If the question is, “at sea level, what’s the freezing point of fresh water?”, the answer is pretty much 32 degrees.  If you say 50 degrees, it’s wrong and you lose a point on the exam.  More advanced science courses deal a lot more with theory than factual observations — and that’s where philosophy and science ARE similar… (FYI, science is an off-shoot of philosophy, as is every other academic discipline in some way, that’s why a PhD in Philosophy is a Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy, because we’re the first discipline.  The first scientists were philosophers first.. ).

The thing is, humanities courses (at least the good ones, the ones that teach  you what a humanities course should) don’t work that way.  They just don’t.  It’s all about shades of gray.  This is because excellent answers come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

When I’m grading something, the process is more or less like this:

  • Did the student fulfill the requirements for an assignment?  This part is actually objective.  Did the student write the minimum number of words for a discussion post to “count”?  Did the student answer the question I asked?  Did the student get the basic facts right?  Was what the student wrote a reasonable interpretation of the text?  Did the student follow the norms of academic writing etc.

All of that will get you a “meets expectations”.  In my classes, that’s usually a B. If a student’s grade is lower than a B, it’s easy to point to objective reasons why.  Usually a C response came close to doing this stuff, but it missed in some basic and easily identifiable way.  I can point to a paragraph that’s off, or something else that is incorrect.  D and F responses miss the above in a significant way.

Once I’ve determined that the answer meets expectations, the next thing I ask is:

  • Did the student show that they not only understand the material, but expand the conversation about the material? That’s the work philosophers do, they expand the conversation.  They make meaningful contributions that result in greater understanding of a topic.  They give new ways of thinking to, or reacting to, a topic.  They give us new things to think about, even new topics to consider. Those are the A papers..the ones in which students start to think like philosophers.

That’s where things get tricky for students who want philosophy to be like science.

Generally, those students are concerned when they get a grade indicating that they meet expectations.  They protest in some way that they need to know exactly why their assignment was a B instead of an A.  They want me to point to some thing that exists in their answer to justify the loss of a point or two.

The problem is, it isn’t what’s IN their answer that makes the difference between an A and a B, it’s what isn’t in the answer.  There is no way I can point to something they wrote and say that, specific thing, is why your paper was a B instead of an A. That’s because I can’t point to what’s not there.

I can tell them that their answer is more or less what I expected from first-year philosophy students – therefore, it meets expectations.  I can tell them that other students made contributions to the philosophical discussion, and that’s why the other student got an A.  I can write a lot about philosophy and tell them that they need to do things LIKE that, but in their own way… but I cannot tell them that _____________ (thing in their paper) is the reason they lost a point.

That’s because philosophy isn’t like science.  In philosophy, we start with an assignment, we tell students what to look at for inspiration, and we encourage them to fly with the ideas.  Most don’t do that, most get Bs, and that seems pretty fair.  As should be reserved for students who do the exceptionally difficult work of innovating about philosophy. Pushing the discussion forward is difficult, especially since that discussion has been going on for thousands of years… That sounds like an impossible task, but my students have done it every week of every semester, of every year.  So, it’s not impossible, it’s just hard.

When I’m grading a philosophy assignment (and lord knows I do a lot of that!) I don’t start by thinking that this is an assignment worth 100 points, and then deduct for mistakes.  Instead, I look to see whether the student did a reasonable job with the assignment, and then whether or not there is something extra.  It’s the extra that earns an A.

The tricky part about the extra (or, as I sometimes call it “sparkle”), is that it’s unique to the student. This is because it’s a product of the student’s background, observations, thinking process, and creativity.  Every A assignment is unique in some way, that’s what MAKES it an A — that uniqueness.  I can’t tell a student how to be unique.  I can’t tell a student how to process the information they read in a new and novel way.  That’s not possible — if it was, then that new and novel way would become the expectation and I’d need to find something unique as a reason a student earned an A.  That’s called a vicious circle folks, and you don’t want to go there.

The real problem, from my point of view, is that our educational system relies on standardized tests as a measure of success.  That’s all fine and good if what you’re teaching has an objectively right or wrong answer… if the answer relies on the student’s ability to correctly apply a formula to data, if the answer requires a student to recall and connect information, or if the answer is more like my logic courses — where there are rules (with justification) about moves you can make.  That’s not how humanities work.

The problem for students who have been successful at standardized tests then becomes the idea that everything in their education needs to be like those standardized tests…. but, it isn’t.  And, it’s precisely because it isn’t like that, that humanities are valuable.  A humanities course should help a student develop those independent thinking and critical writing skills employers want.  A humanities course should give a student the opportunity to understand how persons unlike themselves think, what motivates them, what offends them, and why the problems of others matter.  You can’t measure that with a standardized test.  It’s just not that kind of thing.

Maybe an analogy would help — If I was presented with a ruler and then was asked to use only the ruler to determine the air temperature on a nice day — would I be successful?  Nope, because I have the wrong instrument for the job.  I could put the ruler on the ground and see that there is no snowfall, or in some water to see that the water isn’t frozen — but, I couldn’t tell you, based on the ruler, if it was 70 or 75 degrees…

That’s the thing, standardized tests — like the ruler — cannot measure what humanities courses really set out to teach students.  Folks in the humanities use standardized tests all the time, to measure students’ basic knowledge of the course material, but — in my opinion (after teaching for 14 years or so, at this point), they cannot evaluate a student’s ability to think critically about complex issues.  They can’t do that, because there is no one RIGHT answer.

This, folks, is why I think the extensive use of standardized testing in K-12 education is a travesty.  It used to be that students started practicing this kind of work when they wrote papers and those papers were evaluated.  The papers were looked at by a real human being.  They were evaluated as to content, structure, and reasoning.  Flaws in reasoning were pointed out, and discussions happened as to possible alternatives etc.. In this way, students learned to write better, think critically, and generally how to process the world outside of the binary trap of “right” and “wrong”.  Students earned grades and graduated from high school based on their ability to do this kind of work, if only in a preliminary way.  Now, what happens is that many students, if their K-12 education didn’t do this, are met with a nasty surprise when they hit a humanities course.  I’m sorry about that, but I’m also not going to change how my course works to conform to the bar set by the standardized tests my students take… sorry, nope.


1 Comment

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One response to “Philosophy is not like science…

  1. Jcd

    A lovely post – and glad to see you writing again! 🙂

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