Teaching Value Theory to the Disenfranchised

By James Rocha
California State University, Fresno

Photo of Professor James RochaJames Rocha grew up off Crenshaw Blvd. in South Central Los Angeles and is currently assistant professor of philosophy at California State University, Fresno. He received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in philosophy at University of California, Los Angeles.

Philosophers in the Classroom Book CoverHis essay Teaching Value Theory to the Disenfranchised is one of 24  included in the forthcoming (September 2018) Hackett book Philosophers in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching, edited by Steven M. Cahn, Alexandra Bradner, and Andrew P. Mills.

If you were to ask me which philosopher, living or dead, I would like to have dinner with, it would be difficult to answer. It certainly would be hard to turn down a long conversation with Immanuel Kant. While I have studied his works for pretty much my entire adult life, there’s one small problem: Kant’s a racist, 1 and I’m not white.

Okay, maybe that’s not a small problem.

Portrait of Immanuel Kant
18th century portrait of Immanuel Kant. Source: Wikimedia

That might make for a rather uncomfortable dinner conversation. Yet, I still might do it. Even though there are other philosophers with whom I could better enjoy table banter, I still would choose to talk philosophy with Kant—primarily because I believe there’s so much I could learn from him.

And there’s the rub. I wish to learn from a racist, who, were he alive, might not like me very much. As a half-black, half-Chicano who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, Kant would surely doubt my philosophical abilities—which both philosophy students and professors routinely do. There would certainly be frustrations in engaging with him. I would not feel fully respected by either the man or even some of his philosophical positions. Yet, in spite of it all, I do not doubt his significance as one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Even though his theoretical work contains both embarrassing foibles and outright bigoted beliefs, Kant’s works are inherently interesting and often provide plausible groundings for important philosophical positions, especially in moral philosophy. Though I must admit this opinion is biased, as I have already devoted my entire adult life to studying the man, and so clearly I’m hoping there’s some valid reason for having done so.

My reasons for teaching Kant (along with other racist, sexist, heterosexist, speciesist, and otherwise bigoted philosophers) to a wide variety of disenfranchised students—whom Kant and those philosophers might ignorantly hate—mirror my reasons for wanting to have dinner with Kant. In my opinion, you can be both a bigoted and good—even great—philosopher. To explain this view, I will use my life story, and then I will share some of my methodologies for working around philosophical bigotry.

As a philosopher, I believe philosophy is incredibly valuable for everyone. Disenfranchised students, in particular, may benefit the most from learning more philosophy. Obviously, I’m biased: I just said that as a philosopher, I think philosophy is incredibly valuable. Duh. To be more precise, though, I believe that the kind of philosophy that is important even for disenfranchised persons often is the very kind that honestly does not overtly apply to their lives. Even while it is essential to teach feminist theory, philosophy of race, queer theory, and other topics and theories that apply directly to real lives, what I’m interested in here is why it is so important to also teach topics that lack such clear connections.

From Ghetto Dreams to Cartesian Love

There are a good number of reasons that disenfranchised persons are underrepresented as philosophy majors, philosophy graduate students, and professional philosophers. I will address three. To start, the field contains a significant amount of bigotry. We teach a ton of dead white men, and their concerns often do not relate to the lives of disenfranchised persons. There’s little I can do in this chapter to help with this first problem, but, hopefully, my life story will encourage thought about the other two.

My life starts pretty much as far from the academic setting as one can get. I was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles—where I learned to rush out of the living room when gunshots went off on our block or to try to get sleep in spite of the sounds of police helicopters and sirens ringing throughout the neighborhood. One of my earliest childhood memories is of the blood of a grocery worker, with whom my father regularly chatted, running down the aisle—the store still in full operation, even before the blood was cleaned up. Nowhere in Kant’s otherwise diverse and sizeable opus does he discuss the ethical issues that revolve around a shopkeeper wishing to do good business, right after one of their employees has been murdered.

Prior to my siblings attending college, no one in my family had done so—neither a distant aunt, an uncle I never met, nor a cousin several times removed had a college degree. My sister majored in psychology, and my brother majored in computer science. But I was the first person in my family to take a philosophy class, and I would be the first to take on an allegedly impractical major. My father read a good bit of philosophy, especially Asian philosophy, on his own. During my childhood, we would often drive around town with philosophy books on tape playing on the car radio—and I hated every moment of it.

In spite of that childhood reaction, as soon as I started my first year at UCLA, I was desperate to learn Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, and other philosophers who I thought would express the existential dread that I felt at a young age growing up in the ghetto—a deadly trap from which I was not confident that I would ever escape. But, of course, this was UCLA—one of the most analytic of analytic departments—and there were not a lot of classes on existential dread. Instead, I began with Philosophy 1: “Beginnings of Western Philosophy.” Instead of pondering the meaning of God’s death or the precise date on which Meursault’s mother died, I would be learning the theory of the forms and hylomorphism. I was fairly certain that neither topic would connect to the many hours I spent listening to the police scanner, pondering the various ways in which I was surrounded by needless death.

Yet, in spite of the fact that my philosophical interests have always been grounded in my life experiences, I thoroughly enjoyed the class. And I really fell in love with philosophy in my second class, Philosophy 21: “Skepticism & Rationality.” We spent a lot of time on Descartes, but also covered the British empiricists. And, to be honest, we spent a lot of time on whether I was dreaming, evil demons, and the problem of induction, but, of course, no time at all on the doubts we might raise about the mainstream view that we should blame personal choices for racial inequity. That is to say, I was a poor black/Latino kid from South Central loving philosophy even while acknowledging that it had no clear relevance to life in the ghetto—or at least none that I could see. But, at the same time, I wanted to learn more about the construction of rationality and the nature of knowledge. I didn’t see how these topics were relevant, but I loved metaphysics, epistemology, mind, and so on.

While we must recognize that my life provides only anecdotal evidence, it is important to note the danger in thinking that students from disenfranchised backgrounds will not be able to appreciate purely abstract philosophy—the kind of philosophy that has no clear relevance to real life. Even well-meaning stereotypes miss the mark a large percentage of the time: the assumption that students who have experienced oppression will wish to use philosophy to study oppression may often be true, but will not apply to all such students. Given the power and influence of the professorial role, we must take active steps to ensure that our passive presumptions do not place artificial limits on our students. While earning my undergraduate degree, I was most interested in working in metaphysics, mind, and epistemology. Those were the topics that excited me—the topics I wanted to spend my life pursuing. I chose philosophy as a career while studying the epistemology of Descartes and Hume. that’s what hooked me, and could likewise hook others like me.

Portrait of Rene Descartes
17th century portrait of René Descartes by Frans Hals. Source: Wikimedia.

During my graduate work, however, I again felt the pull of relevance. While I wanted—and continue to want—to spend my life learning about Descartes, Hume, metaphysics, and epistemology, I felt that I needed to write on topics that were a little more relevant to the problems I had experienced in the real world. So, I turned to ethics and political philosophy, with an eye toward future work in philosophy of race. My first idea for a dissertation project was to figure out why Kant believed the state owed welfare payments to the poor. I felt this project was relevant, historically significant, person-ally interesting, and philosophically rich.

Yet, it quickly became clear that, in order to complete this more relevant project, I first would have to acquire a much deeper under-standing of the foundational issues and concepts. Thus, I wrote a dissertation on the concepts of autonomy and coercion, and the relation between them, asking whether it was possible for someone, such as the state, to coerce an autonomous agent into doing what they ought to do. My topic was now a few steps removed from real-life issues. The point of the new project, to me, was clear: philosophically, we are better positioned to grapple with the questions we truly care about once we have tackled the more fundamental, historical, and often abstract issues that structure our contemporary debates. Although this certainly is not the only way to engage in philosophy, it is an approach that I remain grateful for having learned. I resolved to prepare my students in this way, as I began to teach value theory.

From Socratic Methods to Malcolm’s Bullets

Thus, in graduate school, I developed an appreciation for learning abstract fundamentals from dead white guys, with the hope to utilize this knowledge in later, more practical pursuits. I’m neither saying this is the only proper foundation for socially relevant philosophy, nor that we cannot prepare to study contemporary social issues by looking to philosophers who are not dead white men. What I do want to emphasize is the utility that I have gained, and wish to impart to my students, from the careful study of certain dead white men. Thus, I will share some of my pedagogical techniques that make use of dead white men, many of whom are bigoted dead white men, but also damn good philosophers. I will show how I incorporate activist voices; engage students in applied discussions, through questions about the reading; and provide sufficient room for students to follow their own interests when writing term papers.

Our field has already promoted the inclusion of philosophers into our courses who are not cis, straight, white men. We should be wary of a syllabus that contains only cis, straight, white men. Significantly, I add to this impulse by attempting to incorporate the voices of social justice activists, which demonstrates how the abstract theories we discuss can be used to bolster more practical and activist arguments.

For example, suppose I want to teach human rights theory, which can be a largely abstract and conceptual enterprise. To avoid the feeling that abstract political philosophy may be irrelevant to students’ lives, I start with Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Clearly, this speech is controversial. The point of teaching it is not to get students to agree with it, but to see how a historically significant figure attempted to use human rights discourse to argue for political change. Malcolm X believed that there was a practical need to expand from arguing for civil rights, to arguing for human rights—specifically because the latter allowed oppressed persons to challenge the United States on an international level, for example, through filing complaints with the United Nations.2 Thus, the utility of introducing Malcolm X’s speech is that it establishes how politically active people utilize human rights discourse. Whether or not you agree with Malcolm X’s controversial stances, students recognize how he employed a philosophically abstract concept, human rights, to fight for his political causes. This instructional strategy begins with some-thing concrete and socially relevant, which later motivates a transition to the more purely conceptual discussion of human rights, in particular, and political philosophy, in general.

Malcolm X waiting for a press conference to begin on March 26, 1964.
Malcolm X waiting for a press conference to begin on March 26, 1964. Source: U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

Another technique I use to keep students involved is graded daily participation. I begin every class by asking random students questions about the readings. There are a few purposes for this graded, verbal assignment. First, it encourages students to do the reading, as they will be publicly questioned. Yet, since the questions are fairly easy and randomly assigned, there is less pressure than there would be with pop quizzes. Second, I use this method to determine what the students learned from the readings and what puzzled them. One of the most important questions I ask is “What questions did you have about the reading?” This tells me, before I start to lecture, what in the reading puzzled and challenged my students. Moreover, it is a hard question to guess at, if they did not do the reading at all. Third, and most relevant here, the question-and-answer period allows us to find the practical relevance of our abstract readings together.

Because I will often ask students how their readings might be relevant to contemporary issues and/or their lives, students come to class having thought about why these abstract and conceptual issues, often written by dead white men, are relevant to both practical concerns and events from their own lives. In this fashion, it is not entirely up to me to determine how our philosophical issues connect to real life—and it should not be. While I hail from tough beginnings, my experiences are necessarily personal, anecdotal, and limited. Yet, I do not believe that philosophical concepts, issues, and questions are similarly limited. While Kant’s bigotry is unquestionably real and problematic, the formula of humanity remains philosophically interesting and applicable to a plethora of real-life issues for a diverse population struggling to make it in the world. Asking the students to examine the relevance of an abstract, philosophical issue to their lives and to their social/political concerns adds perspective to and enriches our classroom discussions.

In this way, our classroom is jointly owned, as our discussion is cooperatively produced. While reading a particular dead, white, bigoted man, our understanding of that philosopher’s work is produced by compiling the ideas of a diverse and often disenfranchised audience. While Kant did not believe in same-sex marriage, I have had numerous LGBTQ students who have used Kantian ethics to enrich arguments for LGBTQ rights and activism. My courses regularly move back and forth from purely abstract discussions to students Finding and conveying their own real-life applications.

Finally, following along this track, I try to provide students the largest available latitude for their term papers. While a term paper has to demonstrate learning from the course texts, I encourage my students to apply our course materials to their interests—including, if they wish of course, their real lives and politically motivated applications. Even if the course is about the ethical theories of Aristotle, Kant, and Mill, I encourage students to apply those ethical theories in their term papers to topics that most interest them. While I may encourage students interested in graduate school to consider more abstract questions, I leave the choice in their hands. I let them know that they can do good philosophy while pursuing their interests—including their political or activist interests—while also grounding their work in philosophical history and abstract theory.

Based on my own experiences, I understand both the over-whelming desire to make philosophy relevant to one’s own life experiences and the importance of keeping even applied philosophical work theoretically and historically grounded. Since many of my students, especially as I now work in the California State University system in Fresno, come from similar disenfranchised backgrounds, I under-stand that they may struggle to find the value in philosophy. Yet, I believe that I can reach many of these students by selecting significant historical figures and connecting their philosophies to students’ backgrounds; encouraging discussion about the practical applications of more abstract theories through graded questions and answers; and assigning open-ended term paper topics.

From Kant’s Formulaic Bigotry to Empowered Students

The primary reason that all of this work to make philosophy more welcoming and inclusive matters is specifically because philosophy really is good for the students. It is of the utmost importance that philosophy is shared among disenfranchised persons, because philosophy is one of our great social resources. The fact that philosophy is not more equally shared among various social groups is a significant, but largely overlooked, problem for distributive justice. And, no, I do not at all feel that I’m exaggerating.

I have probably given roughly a hundred speeches recruiting students to major in philosophy. To a large extent, recruiting philosophy majors is a Herculean task—as students, by and large, do not arrive at college interested in our major. At the same time, the major almost sells itself, once you can convey to students some basic information: empirical evidence, from test scores to midcareer earnings, shows that philosophy majors excel at a wide variety of tasks. We philosophy teachers know that the reason for these positive results is that we are teaching our students incomparable skills. there’s little more important in life, whatever your career, than being a good speaker, writer, and thinker. Regardless of whether students later remember how Hume and Kant differed on the power of reasoning, philosophy teachers provide students with the power of reasoning. In brief, we are making our students into better people: better thinkers, better writers, better speakers, and hopefully better moral agents.

This raises a significant problem of distributional justice, for philosophy is provided to members of oppressor groups at a much higher rate than it is to oppressed persons. If students gain so many essential life skills from a philosophy education, then educators should ensure that all students have equal access to that education. While philosophers show great concern for other distributional injustices, unequal access to philosophical education is largely overlooked. Yet, ironically, as philosophy teachers, this injustice is closest to our lives and, thus, the one we might most easily rectify.

Ultimately, I am working to draw connections between my early life experiences in South Central to my current teaching at Fresno State, in order to increase access to philosophy. Though I would like to bring more philosophers from disenfranchised beginnings into our professional academic community, that is not my primary goal. Instead, my main hope is to teach philosophical skills to disenfranchised students, so that they can use those skills to improve their lives, no matter what career they might choose. So, I teach my students a bunch of dead, cis, straight, white, male, privileged, and bigoted philosophers. I also assign philosophers from backgrounds similar to those of my students, and I teach nonphilosophers who use philosophical tools to fight for social justice and other political causes. Finally, in every class, I encourage students to find their own ways of applying philosophy to their lives. This call for engagement culminates in the students writing a term paper on a topic of their choosing—which allows them to follow their own interests and to find their own motivations for using their new and hard-won philosophical skills in social application.

In the end, maybe Kant would not be happy with so many students of color, women, and LGBTQ students learning and then using his philosophy to pursue ends with which his anachronistic writings did not agree. But who cares? Kant was a bigot. And maybe the best way to teach him a lesson is to have all of these disenfranchised young people employing his theories to empower themselves.

1. For discussions on Kant’s racism, see Christian Neugebauer, “Hegel and Kant— A Refutation of Their Racism,” Quest Philosophical Discussions: An International African Journal of Philosophy 5, no. 1 (1991):50–73; Thomas E. Hill, Jr. and Bernard Boxill, “Kant and Race,” in Race and Racism, ed. Bernard Boxill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 448–72; Charles W. Mills, “Kant’s Untermenschen,” in Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy, ed. Andrew Valls (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 169–93; Gabrielle D. V. White, “Should We Take Kant Literally?: On Alleged Racism in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime,” Philosophy and Literature 37, no. 2 (2013):542–53.

2. Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” in Malcolm X Speeches, ed. James Lite (Amazon Digital Services, LLC, 2012) Kindle Edition.