[Editor’s note: Although Aristotle recently suffered a fall, we are pleased to report that the doctors maintain that he has fully recovered from his head injury and is free to resume his regular activities. Aristotle, too, swears that he is back to normal. Still there has been scuttlebutt among his associates that not everything has fallen quite back into intellectual place. The need for practical wisdom for those in academe is so urgent, however, that we, the editorial board members, have decided not to wait for further testing and thereby delay Aristotle’s own desired return to his periodic advice column. The entire editorial board is grateful that Aristotle has jumped back into the fray with his singularly lucid voice to guide us in our goals during these interesting times.]
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I am a teacher who is having trouble constructing a syllabus and planning a course for the next term. I am uncertain how much reading to assign from the works of certain authors. I need some practical wisdom. Where better to turn for phronēsis than you? What should guide me in my syllabus-crafting and teaching activity?
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Dear Uncertain Academic,
Your predicament is not uncommon. Take comfort in that. I have overheard others who recently visited the Lyceum speaking of the current climate on college campuses among your poleis. Let me summarize the various opinions on the matter that contribute to what I believe lies at the heart of the tension you feel before offering you some thoughts.
On the one hand, from your letter I am confident that you believe it to be your vocation and duty to educate your students by conveying substantial content (i.e., assigning a responsible amount of reading) and leading them to engage it critically. This is challenging to the students, because it prompts them to become better students than they currently are. Many pupils, I have been told, don’t like that nowadays. They are not used to exercising those muscles and have been habituated to other activities. This is a defect, as I discuss near the beginning of my Nicomachean Ethics, with their early education. Students need the proper habituation when they are young to prepare their capabilities for virtuous activity when they are older.
On the other hand, these students, their parents, and the taxpayers who fund their government loans are paying a lot of minae for students to go to college these days. They really want the students to enjoy the experience (find it pleasurable) and pay them back (find it useful).
Further, and third, many colleges (am I right?) place heavy emphasis on student evaluations in their decisions about the continuing employment of professors and their compensation. What students think of their courses and teachers is second only to not getting sued and being the subject of a front-page scandal in the administration’s list of values. Just ask Socrates! Well … anyway … And many students typically dislike demanding classes. The university does not usually bestow honor on professors whom students rate poorly, yet honor remains a virtue, and the good consists, as I have written about elsewhere, in engaging repeatedly in activities that are in accordance with virtue.
These, then, are the facts on the ground. In view of these, it becomes clear that you really are making this a lot more difficult than it needs to be.
You are correct that your work as a teacher needs to be oriented to some goal. And the most excellent syllabus in the most excellent class will be the one that is most goal-like, or final. And having surveyed the various opinions about what is the most goal-like aim of a university course, we have found them wanting. With regard to learning, it is deficient in money-making. With regard to job-securing, it is deficient in pleasure and excessive in anxiety. With regard to personal edification and improvement, we find an excess of self-indulgence and deficiency in excellent relations to others, or justice. None of these is most goal-like, or final, because they are all sought for something else: learning is sought for honor; job-securing, for wealth; personal edification, for pleasure.
Further, none of these is self-sufficient, for none is complete in itself, by which, as we have shown before, we mean that the self-sufficient is that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing. Therefore, the most excellent syllabus in the most excellent class, as we have said, will be the one that is most goal-like and most self-sufficient. And what is more goal-like than the excellence in giving honors where they are merited except receiving them? For the great-souled and magnificent man will collect the honors that are due him for his greatness of soul in accordance with the large-scale benefits that he bestows on others, such as in dispensing education on behalf of the commonweal.
Therefore, the most excellent syllabus of the most excellent course will have as its end the pupils’ giving the most excellent student evaluation scores to the instructor, who, in accord with his own excellence, will actively receive them in keeping with his greatness of soul. In this way, he will display his overall excellence, as one who participates in the activity in accordance with excellence. Now, then, we have demonstrated that the excellence proper to and constitutive of syllabi-making and course-execution is excellence in student evaluation scores. Let this be taken as our account of the nature of syllabus-construction in particular and course execution in general.