Newswise — New Brunswick, N.J. (March 12, 2019) – At Rutgers-New Brunswick and other U.S. universities, the study of philosophy – both the canon of works that are taught and the makeup of the faculty – remains mostly white and male.
But a new course on African, Latin American, and Native American philosophy is expanding the canon to include voices that speak directly to fundamental philosophical topics as well as urgent issues such as immigration, cultural appropriation and the #MeToo movement. The new course is part of Rutgers’ effort to attract a more diverse group of students who may become the philosophers of tomorrow, according to Associate Professor Alexander Guerrero.
Guerrero spoke with Rutgers Today about the ways society can benefit from engaging with Native American philosophies on how to live, Latin American discussions of identity and African theories about knowledge itself.
How do students, and society as a whole, benefit by bringing more diverse voices to the study of philosophy?
Philosophy helps people think about questions that preoccupy all of us at various times: How should I live my life? What should I be doing? What, if anything, is really meaningful? How should I treat my friends, family, co-workers? What exists? What should I believe? Philosophy can also help students learn to evaluate arguments carefully and critically and to clearly formulate their own arguments. This is useful for science, law, politics, business, education, journalism and pretty much every major.
Second, there are the benefits of philosophy to the broader community and broader culture. Many human innovations and ideas like democracy, the U.S. Constitution, computers, animal rights -- all stem more or less directly from the work of philosophers.
While we offer undergraduate courses on Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic philosophy, the much of what is taught here and at other philosophy departments is work by white men, whether the canonical figures—Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Nietzsche—or more contemporary philosophers such as John Rawls, David Lewis, W.V.O. Quine, and Saul Kripke. While it’s important that we study their works and contributions, there is much to be gained by expanding the curriculum to include philosophers from under-represented demographics, especially since they can bring attention and clarity to issues that are urgently affecting women and people of color.
For example, many philosophers from underrepresented groups are writing about immigration, mass incarceration, misogyny, rape culture and the #MeToo movement, cultural appropriation, racial solidarity, and much else.
What topics do you cover in the African, Latin American and Native American philosophy course? And has it been successful in attracting minority enrollment?
One topic we cover is Yoruba epistemology – the study of the Yoruba-language equivalents of concepts like knowledge, belief and justification—particularly as they are discussed by philosophers working in Nigeria. We look at how these concepts might differ between Yoruba-speaking and English-speaking communities.
We also read the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, an American philosopher of Chicana cultural theory, feminist theory and queer theory, to discuss what it is like to be a person whose identity straddles literal and figurative borders or who is a part of multiple communities.
Throughout the course, we examine how colonialism, racism and Eurocentrism have affected philosophy and what "counts" as philosophy. We also take up questions of what it means to be an "authentic" Latin American, Native American or African philosopher. Is there anything distinctive about the philosophical views produced by members of these communities?
This first class has maxed out its enrollment at 25, and more than 50 percent of the students in the class are students of color. On the first day, one student commented that it was by far the most diverse philosophy course he'd ever been in.
How else is Rutgers seeking to expand diversity in the study of philosophy?
Currently, about 15 percent of our philosophy faculty members are from under-represented populations, which, although still far too low, is a considerably greater level of diversity than at the philosophy departments of similarly ranked schools. And we are seeking to recruit additional distinguished faculty members from diverse backgrounds. We are also working to encourage more diverse students to study philosophy as undergrads, to go to graduate school in philosophy, and then to become professors. The hope is that, over time, these numbers will get better throughout the field.
Also, Rutgers sponsors the Summer Institute for Diversity in Philosophy, created and run for 20 years by professor Howard McGary. The Summer Institute is a seven-day opportunity for undergraduate students to interact with faculty members from Rutgers and other universities and to learn about graduate studies and careers in philosophy. And Athena in Action, a networking and mentoring workshop for graduate student women in philosophy, is organized by Rutgers philosophy professors Elizabeth Camp and Jill North (as well as Princeton professor Elizabeth Harman). Then there is Minorities and Philosophy(MAP), a student-organized group that aims to create a community space through events for members of underrepresented groups in philosophy.
To schedule an interview or for more information, contact Cynthia Medina.
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Broadcast interviews: Rutgers University–New Brunswick has broadcast-quality TV and radio studios available for remote live or taped interviews with Rutgers experts. For more information, contact Cynthia Medina firstname.lastname@example.org
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