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Sacrificing Teaching on the Altar of Talent

By Samuel Duncan

We philosophers are in love with the idea of talent. As a group, philosophers think talent more important for success in our field than do members of pretty much any other academic discipline. Only mathematics really comes close to us but philosophers hold talent to be more important for doing well in our field than do even mathematicians for theirs. I worry very much about this and think our field would be better off if we did not venerate talent in this way. Now I am hardly the first person to worry about the way philosophers think about talent and success in our field; Alison Gopnik and Eric Schwitzgebel among others  have written some excellent pieces on the role our talent worship plays in the woeful lack of diversity in philosophy PhD students as a whole. Here and in the next few posts I want to explore another way that our emphasis on talent hurts philosophy: Belief in talent leads to bad teaching and our belief in talent no doubt makes philosophers worse teachers than we could be. While there’s no easy way to measure this, I’m also fairly certain that it makes philosophers on average worse teachers than our colleagues in less talent obsessed fields like history, political science, and art history. And unlike many other talent obsessed fields like mathematics, computer science, and economics philosophy cannot afford bad teaching.

Why do I say that belief in talent leads to bad teaching? I think there are some simple and fairly obvious reasons for this and some more complicated and subtle ones. In this post I will focus on the more simple and obvious ones. To begin, consider the research on effective teaching; one huge lesson from this is that good teachers don’t put weight on talent as a driver of success while mediocre and bad teachers do. In his “What the Best College Teachers Do” Ken Bain notes that one thing that unites almost all bad and mediocre college teachers (or as he euphemistically puts it “unexceptional” ones) is a belief that student success is largely determined by talent. Good teachers (exceptional ones in Bain’s formulation) don’t think this way. Instead they believe that students can get better through effort and that good teaching can make a crucial difference in helping them do so. Cathy Davis makes the same point in her “The New Education” and notes that a belief that talent is largely fixed is particularly detrimental to student success when teaching students from disadvantaged social groups who tend to be less academically prepared for college work.

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