Discussions of diversity in philosophy spark curriculum changes

Graphic by Natalie Kulak ’21

Graphic by Natalie Kulak ’21

BY AVERY MARTIN ’22

Philosophy, as an academic field, tends to be extremely homogeneous. The majority of material covered in academic philosophy comes from a “canon” of western philosophers such as Plato, Socrates and Nietzsche.

To combat this issue, a group of junior and senior philosophy majors at Mount Holyoke has organized a call for the philosophy department to pursue more diversity in terms of both curriculum and faculty. The discussion began when Imara White ’19 raised concerns about a lack of diverse philosophers on the syllabus of a professor’s ‘Philosophy of Education’ class in the fall of 2018.

“I asked, ‘Hey, are we going to read any non-white people here? That seems really important to me,’” she said, “and then we got into a very heated argument about whether or not it was important to include people of color on reading lists.”

White then emailed a group of advanced philosophy majors and organized a meeting with students who were interested in changing the curriculum’s lack of diversity. The group created a list of their concerns as well as ways these concerns could be addressed by the department itself. Their main problems were with the lack of courses focused on non-western philosophy and a corresponding lack of philosophers of color taught in existing classes. They also identified a lack of professors of color within the department. Gabrielle Kerbel ’20, who participated in these discussions, said, “It’s really easy to go through [the philosophy major] requirements and only read western philosophy, and it’s actually far too [easy] to go through the major without any significant training in non-western philosophy.”

Following the students’ meeting, they went on to meet with the four permanent faculty members in the department on Oct. 17. Professor James Harold, chair of the philosophy department, welcomed the discussion. “My conclusion was that, actually, there’s more diversity on the syllabus in the class where [the argument] happened than in many of the other classes, and people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” he said. “I think there was a little bit of self-reflection, and saying, ‘were none of us doing the job that we ought to be doing? So what can we do?’”

Since their original meeting, the philosophy faculty have continued to speak with each other and students, and have put forth several plans to address the concerns. One area of difficulty, according to Harold, is that the professors in the department do not, for the most part, have the knowledge or experience required to teach a course on another philosophical tradition. “If you respect these figures and these texts,” Harold said, “then you have to really study them before you teach them.”

To remedy this issue, professors are changing some syllabi mid-semester and considering new courses to offer next year. Professor Katia Vavova has created a new advanced seminar, which will be offered in the spring of 2019, in which students will bring in readings and topics of their own.

White is enthusiastic about Vavova’s class, and hopes it will help to diversify the curriculum. “We might know more at this point than our professors do,” White said. “It’s work that we can do as philosophers to give back to our department and to allow them to construct courses that can cater to a wider variety of needs, wants and philosophical interests.”

Racism in the field of philosophy seems to extend beyond curricula. “I was told my first year, when I was starting to be a philosophy major that people of color didn’t do philosophy and never had,” White said. “The consequences of the field’s lack of diversity, White believes, extend beyond the classroom. White said, “it is literally about the fact that your ideas, your concepts and your understandings of things change when you take into consideration different circumstances.”

Harold regrets that the offerings of the department have failed to meet students’ needs thus far, but is optimistic about the outcome of these discussions. “I wish we had done more,” Harold said. “I’m glad that these students came forward, but it just makes me think that labor shouldn’t have fallen to them. It always makes more sense to look forward than to look back.”

“I think there’s progress in the fact that we’re having these conversations,” said Kerbel. “I think that the fact that we have a philosophy department that’s willing to sit down with us and willing to take us seriously is valuable in itself,” she added.

White agreed that continuing discussions in this regard is an important step in the right direction. “I think that a lot of what Mount Holyoke wants to do, as an institution, is put people with different backgrounds and ideologies in a room so that they can converse, and so that together we can make something new,” White said. “Hopefully better, maybe not, but we won’t know until we try.”

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