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Trouble the Comfortable

Reason #303 why Steven Gerrard is a great professor.

Associate Professor of Philosophy and Associate Dean of the Faculty Steve Gerrard led a philosophical discussion on Saturday in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall. The hour-long function, part of the Spring Family Weekend activities, addressed questions concerning the nature of virtue and its ability to be taught at Williams.

Gerrard, roving around in the front of the hall as if in a classroom, began his presentation with the first scene from the Platonic dialogue Meno, in which the young and ambitious Meno asks Socrates: “Can virtue be taught?” Gerrard quickly turned to the medium-sized audience, composed almost solely of parents visiting the campus for the weekend, and asked them to make a list of virtues. The list was certainly a broad one,including a sense of justice, the ability to forgive, a sense of humor and the ability to trust and be trusted.

This was more than a decade ago. I hope that Gerrard has given the same talk many times since. The parents would love it.

“I take the Socratic method seriously,” he said, “and its first step is always meant to get everyone’s feelings out in the open.” But Gerrard added emphatically that the method is based on careful logical argumentation and criticism. The feelings and original thoughts are important, but they must be subjected to strong criticism.

“This is what Williams tries to foster and nurture,” he said. “My view is that true respect for others and other cultures does not come about with a mere exchange of feelings. When differences between cultures show themselves, one can say ‘we’re both right’ or one can say ‘I understand where you’re coming from, but I’m still right.’”

Gerrard says he sees only one plausible answer. “At the end of the day, we have to believe in Truth and we have to believe in the Good, and we have to fight for what we believe in. We have to ask these questions concerning virtue and what is right. And this is our job as teachers.”

Exactly right.

Gerrard paraphrased the Talmud to complete the discussion. “‘It is the job of the teacher to comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable.’ I believe that this is true. And I believe in Truth.”

Ahhh. But does Gerrard really believe that when the “comfortable” are he and his fellow Williams faculty? I hope so, but time will tell. For example, I have never seen a Williams (academic) faculty member criticize affirmative action. Have you? EphBlog is preparing to make some “trouble” on that topic.

Stand by for some “uncomfortable learning,” in the style of Robert Gaudino.

Speaking of Gaudino, Professor Sam Crane wrote:

First, Kane is not the heir of Gaudino. Gaudino confronted privileged Eph men with “uncomfortable” material truths, taking them to Appalachia and India to see first hand the ravages of poverty and prejudice. Kane is a Reagan-era conservative trying to defend The Bell Curve and its crude conceptualizations of intelligence. With his narrow understanding of culture and society, Kane would make Williams ever more exclusive. Gaudino worked against that impulse.

This is charmingly incoherent. I suspect that Sam has few, if any, meaningful conversations with “Reagan-era conservative[s]” and so has little, if any, idea about how we think. I have never heard of any current member of the Williams faculty described as a “”Reagan-era conservative.” But the more interesting phenomenon is how Sam has taken a Williams legend and twisted him to fit into the hegemonic ideology of Williams today. The thinking goes something like:

Robert Gaudino was a great teacher.
Standard Williams liberalism — Épater les prepsters — is a great belief system.
Therefore, Gaudino’s main focus was to confront “privileged Eph men with “uncomfortable” material truths.”

How Gaudino would chuckle at that characterization of his work at Williams!

Rory makes the same mistake.

Gaudino would have tact. Gaudino never would have written or said comment six.

I (did not) know Robert Gaudino. You, sir, are no Robert Gaudino.

“Tact,” eh? Stand by to eat those words. I suspect that my comment six would not rank among top 10 most outrageous things that Professor Gaudino said at Williams, probably each semester!


Closing the loop on a Philosophy Class

For anyone who was curious or remains interested about the class taught by Prof. Stephen Gerrard in which he “taught Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s autobiography,” (previous discussion here) you can see more below the break.

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Perception of the Facts

Letters to the editor must be short but Professor Steven Gerrard’s effort in the New York Times today (hat tip: Jeff) seems to do as little as possible with the space that he has.

To the Editor:

We are now moving from Stage 1 of a national spectacle (what do the events in Cambridge, Mass., tell us about America?) to Stage 2 (what do the commentaries on the events tell us about America?).

Says who? From the very start of the controversy, people have been writing about the meaning of other people’s comments. Doesn’t Gerrard read blogs? Consider this Crooked Timber thread, which I linked to last week. It is filled with discussion about what various commentaries “tell us about America.” The same has been true for blogs on the right and in the center.

Not only that, but there is still an active discussion about Stage 1, even about Stage 0, i.e., what actually happened that day. Why does Gerrard waste this valuable space with an untrue claim?

As a professor who years ago taught Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s autobiography, “Colored People: A Memoir,” in an ethics class,

Although Gerrard is not an EphBlog fan, I am a Gerrard fan and have heard nothing but good things about him from students over the years. Still, what sort of “ethics” class would include Gates’ autobiography? I am not sad to see that Williams no longer seems to offer this course.

I am struck by so many critics’ failure simply to put themselves in either Professor Gates’s or Sgt. James M. Crowley’s very different shoes,

Again, this is just not a factual description of reality. Virtually every critic I have read has tried, with varying degrees of success, to place themselves in the shoes of one or both protagonists. But don’t take my word for it! Look inside yourself. Didn’t you try to imagine what it would be like to be Gates, to have some police officer hassle you while you were in your own house? Didn’t you wonder what it must have felt like to Crowley to have someone screaming accusations of racism against you for no reason whatsoever?

I bet that every single reader of this blog tried the different shoes exercise.

as if our experiences had no bearing on our perception of the facts.

Danger, Ephraim Williams! Pomo storm clouds ahead!

Now, to be fair, Gerrard is correct. Our experiences do shape our perceptions. And, perhaps more importantly, our biology and genetics shape our perceptions. My color-blind brother perceives the world differently then Gerrard. My old eyes see much less well than my young eyes did back at Williams.

But we need to be very careful about what conclusions we draw from this fact. If we all perceive differently, is there no common reality that we inhabit? Are jury trials a farce? Justice impossible? Two decades ago, Philosophy Professor Lazlo Versenyi
used to (rhetorically) beat up we immature post-modernists as bleating animals, for that is what the denial of a common reality implied about our own position. I hope that Gerrard challenges his students with similar gusto, if not with such an amazing accent.

I am not denying the complexity of these issues, but Gerrard seems quick to conclude that these facts lead inevitably toward his preferred political positions. They don’t.

My moral lesson at this stage is that President Obama was right about Judge Sonia Sotomayor: in order to judge well you need empathy.

A conclusion which has nothing to do with his premises. Empathy is the very last thing I look for in judges. Can Gerrard put himself into my shoes?


Gerrard on Taylor

Jeff points out this letter to the New York Times from Professor Steven Gerrard.

To the Editor:

Mark C. Taylor, a former colleague, raises some good points. Abolishing tenure is not one of them.

Fellow professors across the country will be surprised at the hidden inference that tenure is now old-fashioned because McCarthyism is dead. It was only a few months ago that Sarah Palin attacked Barack Obama for associating with “yet another radical professor from the neighborhood.”

Tenure protects free thinkers (like Mr. Taylor) from the pitchforks of the current mob, and until human nature changes will always be needed.

Steven B. Gerrard
Williamstown, Mass., April 27, 2009

This seems 99% wrong to me. Click below if you want to know why.
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Gerrard in NYT

Philosophy Professor Steven Gerrard had a letter in the New York Times.

To the Editor:

Defenders of our government’s displaying the Ten Commandments face a religious dilemma. If the Ten Commandments are worth publicly displaying, then they are religious; it is their religious meaning that gives them their significance. Otherwise, secular formulations like Kant’s categorical imperative or John Stuart Mill’s greatest happiness principle would do.

If, however, the Ten Commandments are secular, then they are stripped of any special power and are not worth the fuss.

Regardless of the legal issues involved, a government display of the Ten Commandments strips them of their religious power and should be opposed for religious reasons.

Steven Gerrard
Williamstown, Mass.
March 2, 2005
The writer is a professor of philosophy and chairman of Jewish studies at Williams College.

Is this really a dilemma? One could argue that the Ten Commandments are worth publicly displaying because of their historical significance to American history and law. I don’t care much either way, but, like any good radical anti-Federalist, am happy to let the nice people in Alabama display what they want as long as they don’t try to tell me and my Massachusetts friends what we must or must not display.


Previously Marginalized Voices

Continuing on the diversity theme, Philosophy Professor Steve Gerrard has an article that ties the debate to Wittgenstein. After a too long preamble, he concludes with:

My Wittgensteinean argument has been: the pursuit of truth depends on the selection of a plurality of salient and representative examples; the selection of such examples is, at the very least, partially determined by what strikes the individual as salient; thus, the pursuit of truth partially depends on a community of seekers of truth who consider different examples salient.

What kinds of diversity are epistemologically relevant is a contingent matter, and it is a contingent truth that in our particular society at our particular time, race and gender (and not, say, the color of one’s eyes) are crucial (but not necessarily overriding) factors in determining what examples an individual considers worth noting and investigating. This becomes especially significant in the case of individuals who are members of groups that have historically been marginalized in the academy.

Thus, in addition to the moral, political, and pedagogical reasons for Williams College’s affirmative action programs, our institution, as a community of seekers of truth, depends on the increasing participation of diverse and previously marginalized voices.

If the United States Supreme Court voids affirmative action programs, that would not be the first time that government has made philosophy more difficult.


1) I shouldn’t be too critical since I love it when professors write for the Record and otherwise engage in the public intellectual life of the College. Williams needs more of this, not less.

2) To be cool, remember to say, “Vittgenstein.”

3) It has been a long time since I read Wittegenstein, but, as best I remember Professor Lipton’s class on the topic, Gerrard is perfectly correct in his argument.

4) As a “contingent matter,” I couldn’t disagree more with Gerrard’s claims about the importance of race, at least as it is currently used by Williams. While it is true that my lovely daughters are members of group (women of mixed race ancestry) that has been “historically been marginalized in the academy,” I don’t think that it is true that their perspectives will be different enough from randomly selected Anglo (more polite terminology than “white”, in my view) applicants to warrant a preference in the admissions process.

5) But I would still go along with this argument — i.e., that Williams provides a better education with preferences than it would without them because of the increased diversity of viewpoints thereby provided — if it were more widely applied. For example, an applicant who had grown up in a city like Sarajevo or Grozny or Bahgdad would be likely to have a dramatically different viewpoint regardless of the color of her skin then one who had grown up in the typical US suburb. If affirmative action as practiced at Williams bought more of these students to Williams, then it would seem a lot more reasonable than a program which seems mostly designed make for pleasingly diverse pictures in the admissions brochures.


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