The Question-Based Education of BCB: A Conversation With Michael Weinman

Michael Weinman
Michael Weinman (right) with Elaine Leong at Max Planck Institute for the History of Sciences (credit: Sopo Kashakashvili).

As a student of Michael (Weinman), I’ve been constantly impressed by his scope of knowledge, fascinated by his pedagogical style and inspired by his own intellectual passion: He reads ancient Greek and has written his Doctoral dissertation on Aristotle, but at the same time he engages with post-modern thought and has written on the works of Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida— he even has a lot to say on the subject of (early) modern science! In seminars, he can always light up the room with his brilliant articulations of complicated theories without oversimplifying them, along with his humour and charismatic comic presence. More importantly, perhaps, through his sincerity he has enhanced my passion for liberal arts education, like when he shared his conviction that “teachers should be model learners first.”

This time, I interviewed Michael on his view with regard to the education offered by Bard College Berlin and asked for an articulation of the approach that our school is taking. Here are his responses:

Andy: You joined ECLA (the European College of Liberal Arts), as it was called at the time, in 2010. Since then, the school went through a series of transformations. I’m curious about the reason why you were attracted to the college in the first place, and how you think of the changes.

Michael: I came to this school largely because I strongly identified with the Core Curriculum. Therefore, it has always been a real labor of love to try to articulate the transformation of the Core Curriculum from the BA in Value Studies (2007-2013) to the BA in Humanities, the Arts and Social Thought (2012-present) as well as the BA in Economics, Politics and Social Thought, (2014-present) along with the change in the academic calendar from trimesters of 10 weeks into semesters of 14 weeks.

The current six-semester-long Core module in the two current BA programs largely tracks what used to be the core component of the first two years of studies in the “Values Studies” BA. At that time, the first year was made up of Plato’s Republic and Its Interlocutors, Forms of Love and Renaissance Florence while the second year was made up of The Idea of a Character and Reason, Faith & Skepticism and Property. When I arrived at the school, I related to this curriculum very strongly. Hence, I’m glad that we have preserved so much of it that in many ways we have really built upon it.

The first three of the core courses (Plato’s Republic, Forms of Love and Renaissance Florence) remain mostly the same, with more time to dive more deeply into each individual course, since we have 14 weeks now (instead of 10). Following those, we now have Early Modern Science and Origins of Political Economy, which in many ways each overlap with Reason, Faith & Skepticism and Property. Only The Idea of a Character and the previous 4th-year Core Course The Idea of Objectivity are no longer preserved. So, overall, the current Core Curriculum largely preserves the previous one, only with a slightly different emphasis, which I actually think is not unhealthy. And I also like the change to a semester system. So, overall I’m happy with our current Core.

Andy: Here is an example of the “different emphasis:” in the Values Studies curriculum, there’s the theme of “Ancients vs. Moderns” debate, but it is dropped in our current curriculum. What do you think about this change?

Michael: I do find the framing of the curriculum as a debate between the Ancients and the Moderns to be a venerable tradition of liberal arts education, which was indeed one approach that we took in the Values Studies BA. We mainly periodized the dominance of the Ancients and the dominance of the Moderns, with the underlying question of “who’s right?” However, I’m not convinced, ultimately, that this is necessarily the best way to frame the curriculum. I’m happier with a Core Curriculum that tries to present a conversation (instead of a battle) in a roughly chronological order.

Overall, I find a Core Curriculum that attends to the continuity and change in the development of responses to questions in what came to be disciplines, a.k.a. intellectual history, as the most productive undergraduate education one can have. So I would say that this change is a positive one.

Andy: Is this view on undergraduate education also influencing your way of teaching?

Michael: Yes, indeed. This is the reason why, from a pedagogical perspective, I devised a syllabus with the Truth in Action course or the Constitutions course in which one or two classical/Greek sources are read in combination of two or three High Modern sources, and then maybe with another pair of contemporary authors.

More importantly, perhaps, the syllabus puts less emphasis on a conviction concerning the answers but more on the questions themselves. The idea is that the questions, rather than disciplines (or the requirements of contemporary disciplinary knowledge) should guide the design of the curriculum. Since those questions are the reason why disciplines exist in the first place, the disciplines always come up inevitably along with the questions. So, the education I endorse is truly a problem-based education or question-based education, or, as one of my teachers put it, “an education in educated questions.”

But I want to stress that it is not an avoidance of the disciplines (since those who teach here all have a disciplinary training). Rather, it’s an insistence that disciplinary knowledge does not introduce itself as a pre-given in the conversation among students and teachers. Here is an example of a pedagogical style, which I would avoid: “Here’s the body of knowledge you need to know if you’re a philosophy major, because a philosophy person knows it.” I would rather say: “These are the questions that a philosophy major…”

So, if you do follow that approach, you will also understand why people who teach at this college always face these challenges: How do you shape a reading list? Do you give preference? If so, based on what do you justify your decision?

Andy: As a response to your distinction between a question-based approach and a disciplinary approach, I would like to share with you some feedback from taking your Truth in Action course. Four months after the course ended, I have forgotten a lot of the academic jargon, but the central question that we focused on — “Is it possible, and is it desirable, to rationalize our moral intuitions?”— has remained with me and has become even more pressing. I find it to be a question of relevance to my life. Therefore, would you also argue that a question-based approach is perhaps closer to life than a disciplinary approach?

Michael: Since the Truth in Action course is within the Ethics and Moral Philosophy Module, I would suggest that there are questions which might be even closer to life than the example you give, because the disciplinary question within Ethics and Moral Philosophy is literally: “How should one live?” or, perhaps, “How should I live?” (those not quite being the same). So, maybe we’re loading the dice if we take the example of that class and that question, but let’s do it anyway.

In a disciplinary approach to ethics, in a course titled Introduction to Ethics, for instance, you look at ethics as an academic discipline with a consolidated body of knowledge. Therefore, during the course, either you talk about all the “code names” like “deontology”, “utilitarianism” and “virtue ethics,” or you speak about important figures such as Kant, Mill and Aristotle, along with their canonical works. Finally, as the course ends, the students will hopefully be able to say “deontological” at the right time without embarrassing themselves.

In following a question-based approach to ethics, on the other hand, we find ourselves being engaged in a different project which is to ask and think about different ways to answer the questions like “How should I live?”, or, “Is it possible, and is it desirable, to rationalize our moral intuitions?”. Then we try to find texts (and authors) that are also dealing with those questions, but we also engage with the questions beside the texts. Put another way, instead of laying out all those fields and subfields and trying to master them as a project, we throw out a series of interrelated questions and pursue them avidly as very personal knowledge.

Furthermore, I would argue that even in terms of disciplinary knowledge, we do no worse than a disciplinary approach because we also fulfil our mission in mastering the discourse of Ethics as a sub-discipline within philosophy. Therefore, as we do that along the way, if we are trying hard enough by committing to the course work, we are also gaining a large set of structured discourses with which we can engage if we so choose in a second degree or in a professional context. Ultimately, what I’m saying is that in a question-based approach, we are addressing questions that are close to our existence but at the same time we are exploring a certain academic field — they are not incompatible.

At the end, in the line of thought of a question-based education, I would like to go back to the core question raised in the Language and Thinking Program: “What does it mean to be human?” and  share with the reader a personal anecdote in my encounters with Michael, in order to (hopefully) shed some light on the question, without offering “the Answer”.

Once, during a lunch table conversation, out of curiosity, I asked him a question that would mostly be perceived as personal:

“Michael, what is it like to be father?”

“Well, it’s not like anything.” he first responded with his typical humor.

But then, he gave me a more articulate response (which I can’t fully remember) about the existence of an “ontological difference” between being a father and not being a father, which results in an “epistemological barrier” in describing what is it like to be a father (since you need to be one in order to know). Then he went on to comment that one element of parenting a child is the mutual questioning of “Who are you?,” which he found to be an interesting process.

After receiving that answer, I was struck by the fact that he had fully integrated philosophy into his life to the extent that even family was not “exempted” from a philosophical inquiry. So I went on to ask him whether there’s a “question of balance” between family and philosophy for him:

“Have you ever thought about how much more you can accomplish in philosophy without having to take care of the family obligations?”

“Well, there’s definitely a trade-off between family and philosophy. But, in fact, I’ve always thought about the opposite of what you said — how much more time I can spend with my family if I can have less obligations in my philosophy projects?”

At that moment, I couldn’t help but feel a bit jealous, in a benign way, of the two children of Michael — Ido and Rona. But more importantly, I was touched by the humanness of Michael — I realized that he is not only someone who philosophizes about being human (or being a father), he is also a human being who is passionate about philosophy, family and life.

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