Sunday, March 30, 2014

Open letter to Professor Fritz McDonald

Dear Professor McDonald,

As a token of my appreciation for the invaluable services you have rendered to me and will undoubtedly render to many of your future students, I am responding to your most recent publication in Oakland University's virtual newspaper.  

"This university is a wonderful place. It is amazing that it even exists. You are incredibly lucky to go to such a university."

Yes, Fritz, I completely agree with you. We are incredibly lucky to spend $50,000 on a four year degree that will leave us even worse off than we were when we started. Please remind me how you get people to major in philosophy? Oh, that's right: you lure them in with that "life of the mind" claptrap. My dear child, don't you want to be wise? Don't you want to be the beneficiary of all that the intellectual life has to offer? Don't you want to be able to think for yourself instead of having your life directed by religious demagoguery, political propaganda or arbitrary social conventions!? Oh, of course you do because you are a bright young man, so how can you not major in philosophy!?

What's the problem with this rhetoric? Academic philosophy has little to do with the pursuit of wisdom as Socrates conceptualized or even how most ordinary people see it today. Instead of focusing on the important questions of life and pursuing the life of the mind, you'll just be rehashing the views of popular modern philosophers. If you're lucky, you'll be regurgitating the ideas of the authors of the classics. Oh sure, you will be asked to analyze some of their arguments, but that task will comprise 20% of your essay or final exam, at the most. What could possibly be wrong with that and who cares if you know how to think for yourself!? On the other hand, the ability to rehash every line of Roderick Chisholm's free will defense will truly make a positive difference in your life!

Is regurgitating the views of other thinkers pursuing the life of the mind or is it just providing an account of how others have done so? So, Fritz, what's your response to that? Last time you've ducked the question by asserting that you were in class to answer questions about the upcoming exam and justifying your practices simply was not part of your job description.

Here, let me help you. I know that the pursuit of academic philosophy has little to do with the "life of the mind", I am here to teach you the skills that professors of philosophy practice in their scholarly journals. You will never be able to publish a peer-reviewed article without demonstrating a thorough understanding of the views of thinkers who are preeminent in your sub-discipline of philosophy. So, why should I set you up for failure in your philosophical career by not teaching you the skills that my academic establishment recognizes as very important? Well, your chances of becoming a professional philosopher are practically non-existent, especially since you're graduating from a tier-four school, but I am not going to advertise that, alright? 

In other words, most esteemed professor McDonald, what you're saying is that you're teaching us the skills we will need for a job that we will never obtain, correct? You're more than happy to encourage us to drown in debt obtaining skills that make us none-the-wiser and not any better off in the real world, isn't that true ?

Didn't your office neighbor, Mark Rigstad boast that he gets a dollar for every new philosophy major?  Didn't you make an argument to your 2009 Capstone class that the rigor of your program would be increased if the university was to have all of its expenses covered by the government because you would no longer have to charge tuition? Right, that would exempt you from the charge that you're enticing students to get buried beneath a mountain of debt, but it will also empower you to keep on teaching them the skills that are worthless from the intellectual and a practical standpoint. At least now, some students may have the good sense to not major in your discipline because it is financially non-viable, but then you won't even have this impediment to your objectives.

 Yes, students were incredibly fortunate to have this experience in 1962 when courses in the humanities were much more rigorous and degrees far more instrumental in the job market than they are now. So, what exactly have you accomplished other than exploit the naivete of the callow youth?

"To only go to classes is to miss out on the experience of going to college itself."

Do you mean the experience of attending over-sized classrooms taught by TAs who do not even understand the most rudimentary principles of pedagogy and trudging through curricula that impart virtually no valuable intellectual or practical skills on students? Admittedly, the OU classes are much smaller than the classes of many more prestigious institutions and are less likely to be taught by TAs, yet my last criticism stands.

"When I was in college, I wrote for my university's alternative weekly. I met friends for life."
Why don't you be a little more specific here? What year was this and where did you meet these friends? In your undergraduate program or graduate school? How many of your friends were fortunate enough to spend the rest of their career in the college cocoon? Do you have an intellectually honest way of making the argument that your experiences will be shared by the students you are writing to?

" I was a member of the philosophy club, getting a good preparation for my eventual career and discussing some deep stuff."

Again, what are you doing to help your students prepare for their eventual career and what was the "deep stuff" you were discussing? You mean the nuances of Peter Singer's argument for infanticide and Robert Kane's libertarianism? While you may have engaged in some critical thinking in your graduate level academic institution, how many of your students will ever advance beyond the very basics of philosophy? What kind of "deep stuff" will they be discussing once they graduate with $50,000 of debt with virtually no viable career prospects?

"I understand that many of you work full time, sometime many jobs"
Of course you understand that because they are paying your salary or preparing themselves for a life of paying off student debt working jobs they could have easily procured before even attending college.

" Here is my advice to you: do as little work as you possibly can outside of college. College is a full-time job."

Yes, I completely agree with you, let's set them all up for a big fall: let's keep them ignorant about how the real world works. Keep them insulated from the realities of the job-market and most importantly, discourage students from having experiences that enable them to understand the difference between preparation for a career as an academic philosopher and the actual pursuit of the life of the mind.

"Go ask your parents for more money, if they have it." Of course, what grown child in his late teens or early 20s ever dreams about being independent, let alone becoming a productive adult who makes valuable contributions to society!  Now, serving society as opposed to the narrow interests of your academic institution is something that you know a great deal about, don't you?

Feel free to dismiss me as an envious libeler, after all, I should have followed your advice to extend my college life for as long as possible, right? I just couldn't have done better than to have insulated myself from the real world for 10 full years to obtain a PhD, who could have ever questioned the precious wisdom of that proclamation!?

Perhaps your colleague, William Pannapacker would have? Have you ever considered exposing your students to an alternative point of view by citing links to his publications in the Chronicle of Higher Education? Oh, right!? He is a crank, a marginalized radical and probably even a shill for the Republican Party! He teaches in Holland, Michigan; a relatively small town that is much more conservative than Oakland University, the bastion of independent thought, forward-looking values and the pivotal actor in the progress of the Western civilization.

Forget about the thousands of PhDs in philosophy who compete with high-school drop-outs for entry level jobs. Forget about the shrill cacophony of voices from thousands of adjunct-professors who are hovering on starvation and the hordes of unemployed PhDs who echo Pannapacker's central message.

What can I say, you're a good man, Fritz: you truly have your students' best interests at heart. They don't need to grow up or worry about their staggering student debt. Forget about all of those pesky statistics regarding the plights of students with the kind of degrees that you are promoting. After all, who cares about the mundane banalities of the economic world when you live the dream of the life of the mind!

Besides, a college degree is your ticket to the middle class, right? So, what could possibly be wrong with going deeper into debt, squandering your parents' money and postponing exposure to the real world until you're well into your early 30s, like yourself? You don't even need to preach the noble lifestyle of perpetual childhood, your life is the embodiment of your teaching.  

Your Sincerest Admirer,


  1. lol Aleksey-Fritz and others are trying to maintain their job...selling an image for the sake of doing so is quintessential. What choice does he have..? To write against obtaining a degree in Philosophy? That would put him out of business. Politicians as you've stated, will see you an idea, a program..whether the program is a good one is not so important as long as they obtain what they want. Nevertheless that was a fun read

  2. Good point, Marius. I think his students have the prerogative to know who he truly is: a grown child who makes a living off the naivete of the callow youth.

  3. I still can't get over the nerve Fritz had to tell his students to go ask their parents for more money...if they have it...WTF. That's such terrible advice, whether the students come from a well to do family or are self made and working their way through school. Marius makes a good point and I understand that Fritz probably needs students to keep taking those philosophy classes or he will be out of a job, but there are some lines not to be crossed. Professors and teachers should really try to be better role models to their students and it is necessary to expose them to some important realities about the job market. If they're not willing to do it because they are biased to keeping their own jobs, well then that responsibility falls on those who once were naive students but now know the reality of it our friends Aleksey and Aaron are doing, thank you.

  4. Can I summarize his position succinctly?

    "Please please please keep forking over that tuition money. I know you will be drowning in debt and you'll come away with almost nothing of value for your years spent here. But my colleagues and I don't want to leave this place and have to get real jobs like you. At this point we are all but unemployable outside the cocoon. So please show some mercy!"

    1. Yes, that sounds mostly accurate.