mars 2, 2024

Abolitionist Pedagogy in Introductory Philosophy Courses

13 min read
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To continue the ongoing struggle of transforming higher education beyond merely reproducing the world as it stands, I here outline my rationale and process in developing a unit for introductory philosophy courses that initiate students to the practice of philosophy through the writings of political prisoners. By studying political prisoner writings, as well as the concept of parrhesia as a method of analysis of “speaking truth to power,” the unit introduces students to logic, fallacies, and argument analysis, while they also learn the techniques of both structural and immanent critique. This unit culminates in a speech project wherein students choose a politically persecuted person and offer a defense on their behalf.

I have worked on this unit for four years across nine different institutions and it has gone differently every time. The results and topics covered have varied depending on the collection of students and the surrounding local and national events. As I will show, it is easy to swap out figures and texts studied to connect with concrete local and current events that students are already thinking about. I offer this sketch of my approach and reflection on its effectiveness in the hope that the unit described and/or the rationale offered in support of it will be useful to philosophy teachers across different institutions and course levels.

Philosophy, Parrhesia, and Abolitionist Pedagogy

What brought me to philosophy and keeps me invested in philosophy as a discipline is its ability to engage different histories and ways of relating to reality on a structural level. This makes it particularly well-positioned for teaching structural forms of critique. For this reason (among others), I consider the opportunity to teach introductory philosophy courses a serious gift and opportunity. It means you are teaching the history and consequences of ideas and whole systems of thought. Often times it is many students’ first time taking seriously that the ideas they subscribe to have histories of their own. I’ll never forget my experience in my first philosophy class when I realized all the questions I got in trouble for asking in church had already been asked by very respected thinkers for hundreds of years. Indeed, perhaps even more important, I realized they had been asked with a great degree of variation in articulation and focus, variation that brought a depth of meaning to those questions.

In a time where fascism is on the rise globally, philosophy classrooms are strategic places to combat fascistic forms of thinking. We teach students the ability to analyze ideas, follow arguments to conclusions, look for hidden assumptions, and offer new arguments to counter dehumanizing ways of understanding reality. I am not arguing that good arguments alone stop injustice or fascism; these latter forces are functions of imperialist colonial capitalism. Nonetheless, good arguments play an important role in fighting injustice and fascism.

Further, it is my experience that many students repeat dehumanizing arguments without knowing the origins or structure of those arguments. Sometimes when students learn about these unsavory connections and logical conclusions, they want to find alternative ways of understanding the world and themselves. The recent upsurge of a desire among students to rely on AI to do their thinking needs to be seen as another aspect of this move toward authoritarianism. Why should we trust AI answers to our questions? Where are its citations and how can we assess the legitimacy of the claims and ideas that AI depends upon? How could we evaluate an answer without trails that show us how it got there? Teaching students critical thinking is also about showing them that a good argument can be followed up on and it shouldn’t be taken as given merely because an “authority” said it or it came up first on Google.

Sometimes we get students who want to assert dehumanizing arguments in our classrooms, at times even against people sitting next to them. In my experience, such students are generally not able to defend their positions coherently by putting forth arguments devoid of fallacies. Pausing to outline carefully and dissect their arguments in the classroom can reveal inconsistencies, some of which are obvious and others of which may take rich logical engagement to uncover. Doing this can, in turn, help other students learn how to argue more persuasively against those positions. Many students are not inclined to hold dehumanizing views, but they might not be sure how to argue persuasively against them and they aren’t prepared to confront someone who spreads them. Philosophy cultivates students’ ability to explain why they think what they do, and it offers them the tools to explain why they think someone else is wrong. Students who have studied philosophy have more in their toolkits than recourse to just saying, “You’re wrong.” This is fundamentally empowering and builds self-confidence even outside the classroom. 

Abolitionist pedagogy may offer an important intervention in the teaching of introductory philosophy courses because philosophy has for a long time bred an abundance of so-called “devil’s advocates.” Unfortunately, many falsely equate critical thinking with being a “devil’s advocate.” Frequently, abstract calls for philosophy to promote “devil’s advocacy” are aligned with spreading dehumanizing, racist, sexist, ablest, and eugenicist argumentation. In general, this promulgates reductive arguments that inhibit our ability to have a critical conversation. Most often, this is an invitation to provide reasoning that no one actually believes warrant the positions they are supposed to support. The ritual of asserting the legitimacy of this poor form of argumentation functions as comforting reassurance for those who adopt these dehumanizing conclusions in bad faith.

This is why I like to begin our study of critical argumentation instead with an analysis of the concept of parrhesia as a concrete way of understanding what “speaking truth to power” entails. Parrhesia requires the structural situation of speaking to power. An argument coming from this place cannot be from a place of power over the interlocutor. Rather, parrhesia requires the speaker to take a material risk in speaking what they believe to be truth. Parrhesia also requires that one actually believe the position they are advocating and demonstrate it in earnest from the intention that what they have to say is important for our collective well-being. This is not done in a dilettantish way nor for scoring points by dominating someone in a debate. Parrhesia is not speaking against something merely because it is a minority position nor in order to be a nuisance without good reason.

Thinking through the concept of parrhesia helps students see that if they want to develop their thinking, they will actually have to be honest about what they think and have a critical good-faith encounter with positions other than their own. From there they can judge whether their thinking needs to be changed or edited and they see how those alterations or developments might change their sense of self or how others relate to them.

What, then, do I mean by an abolitionist pedagogy, and why does it call for parrhesia and anti-authoritarian critical thinking? I find the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore to be foundational for understanding the methods and tasks of abolitionism, in pedagogy and beyond. Simply put, abolitionism today means embodying a way of being in the world that fundamentally opposes all modes of living that rely on the exploitation and dehumanization of others. Abolitionist pedagogy, then, seeks to teach those modes of being and engaging with others that oppose and undermine dehumanization and exploitation. It does so not only by introducing students to ideas that challenge exploitative forms of thinking and being in the world, but also by embodying a means of teaching that contests in practice prevailing tendencies toward dehumanization and exploitation in education.

Crucial here is Gilmore’s notion of an abolition geography, derived from “the infrastructure of feeling” of the Black Radical Tradition. As Gilmore explains it, the infrastructure of feeling is material, albeit not in the same way as, say, city infrastructure. It is material “in the sense that ideology becomes material as do the actions that feelings enable or constrain. The infrastructure of feeling is then consciousness-foundation, sturdy but not static, that underlies our capacity to recognize viscerally (no less than prudently) immanent possibility as we select and reselect liberatory linages” (490). The content students learn in any course interacts with previous experiences, their historical and local situation, and the contradictions they presently face in their lives which produce their material reality. Abolitionist pedagogy seeks not only to introduce students to particular kinds of ideas (such as those unearthed in abolition geography), but also to help students develop skills and habits through which they can critically relate these ideas to their past and present experiences, as well as their vision of what is possible.

Linked to what W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Y. Davis have called “abolition democracy,” abolition geography and pedagogy thus are “way[s] of studying, and of doing political organizing, and of being in the world, and of worlding ourselves…[that require] challenging the normative presumption that territory and liberation are at once alienable and exclusive—that they should be partitionable by sales, documents, or walls” (491). Abolitionist pedagogy seeks to manifest an intellectual lineage invoking histories of marronage, the underground railroad, and revolutionary rebellions through modes of teaching that wed contemporary opposition to the carceral state to developing students’ ability to think freely and deploy critical thinking toward liberatory ends. As such, it calls for shifting from overly-abstract notions of free thought that have too often reduced philosophy’s call for critical thinking into an unfettered license to play devil’s advocate poorly. Instead, abolitionist pedagogy grounds the call for critical thinking in the importance of parrhesia: one develops one’s critical thinking so that one can speak in good faith to those whose power impedes freedom, in hopes not of marginally enhancing the freedoms of a privileged few, but rather of abolishing all structural impositions of exploitation and dehumanization.

A Curriculum for An Abolitionist Pedagogy

Given the above sketch of an abolitionist pedagogy, implementing it in any particular context calls for reflection on the particular modes of exploitation and dehumanization relevant to students and their social milieu. For my context of teaching within the borders of the United States, for instance, I have concluded that abolitionist pedagogical practices demand cultivating among students a critical analysis of the formation and continuation of the United States as it posits itself as a project further “perfecting” a particular form of “freedom.”

Toward this end, I find that it is indispensable to introduce students to the study of logic and argumentation alongside the study of writings from those incarcerated within the U.S. Reading the works of political prisoners helps students to understand structural critique as coming with serious stakes. It also impacts their understanding of the place wherein they are currently studying.

Possible texts from political prisoners are myriad. Collections of such writings I have found particularly useful to draw from are Angela Y. Davis’s If They Come in the Morning and Joy James’s two edited volumes, Imprisoned Intellectuals and The New Abolitionists. The collections of writings by Russel “Maroon” Shoatz, Maroon the Implacable, Safiya Bukhari, The War Before, Sanyika Shakur, Stand Up Struggle Forward, and Kevin “Rashid” Johnson’s Defying the Tomb are also excellent sources. The Joy James edited collections are especially useful for teaching because each entry includes an introduction to the person writing and context of their incarceration. Writings in all of these collections have nicely segued into later classroom topics (epistemology, ethics, political philosophy).

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I spend a month of classes leading up to the speech project and the project typically spans two weeks of in-class work and take-home assignments. This past year, I began the course with an essay on argument structures and modes of argumentation. Then we read the chapters on fallacies from Maureen Linker’s text Intellectual Empathy: Critical Thinking for Social Justice. We then studied arguments in action with the ancient Kmt/Ancient Egyptian text The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant and Plato’s Apology. Following the Apology, we worked to define the concept and structure of “speaking truth to power” with a section from Michel Foucault’s lecture “Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia.” We then looked at parrhesia in action with writings from U.S.-based political prisoners Kuwasi Balagoon, Angela Y. Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., and José Solís Jordan. The political prisoner writings I draw on change every time I teach the course; teachers and professors pursuing a similar program should choose writings that focus on what they think is most relevant to their specific context and course content.

As we go through the writings of political prisoners, students begin the process of the project. The first step is to choose whom they will embody; this choice has to be approved by me, as the figure in question must be someone they can argue is actually in a position to embody parrhesia. I make sure students know it is not a history project, but an argument project. This means they shouldn’t spend too much time trying to do historical research or finding actual trial speeches. Rather, the purpose of the project is for them to see what the person was persecuted for and think about how they can persuasively defend themselves against these accusations broadly construed. I grade by analyzing the strength of the arguments against the accusations they come up with. I check their arguments for fallacies and how well they are later able to construct counterarguments and how they address them. Ultimately, I grade for creative and well-constructed argumentation and not historical accuracy.

After their chosen person has been approved, they begin work on the first draft of the speech, which requires them to embody that person. In the first draft, they must briefly explain the social and political context of their persecution that reveals how their speech will be an example of parrhesia. Then they must come up with two distinct charges and then, within the persona of their political prisoner, they defend themselves against each of the charges. Some ways to refute accusations might include: pointing out hypocrisies in terms of societal problems that accusers might put on you as an individual, pointing out inconsistent logic of the accusations, pointing out relevant facts of their life that counter the charges, or naming the real injustice that isn’t actually what you have done. Speech drafts are generally within 300–500 words and include a works cited page with any sources used.

The first draft has an in-class due date and students get feedback from both me and their peers. On that day students get into small groups to do peer review of their speeches. I give students worksheets to fill out after each student shared their speech where they can identify weak parts of their argument, fallacies, and they also brainstorm possible counter-arguments. In class, we do a counterargument exercise because coming up with counterarguments tends to be the hardest part of this project. Many times students want to just come up with more accusations rather than legitimate counterarguments to their original defense speech.

In a class session between the peer-review session and the final draft due date, I do an in-class speech competition. Students share their speeches in small groups and groups vote one student per group as the strongest speech. Students voted by their peers then share their speeches with the whole class and we analyze together the strengths of their speeches as well as talk through possible counterarguments. In the final draft of the defense speech students have to include everything that was required in the first draft, though hopefully edited for fallacies and weak arguments, and then they have to explain at least two possible counterarguments that someone could come back and retort to their original refutation of the accusations. They then have to refute these counterarguments and finally conclude with either a statement of innocence or guilt. Those that claim guilt then must explain why their actions were actually justified and how following the law would have been a greater injustice.

Many times, students will change the person they are defending or the accusations against them from their first draft to their final draft as they realize what it will mean to argue on their behalf and do so in a non-fallacious way. Students tend to like this assignment and it has helped them develop key skills needed to succeed in later units where they have to start diving into complicated philosophy texts. This assignment lets students get to learn about figures they don’t know much about, or they get to learn more about thinkers and activists they already respect challenging their societies for the betterment of all.

By looking at political prisoners from within the United States, students are confronted with the reality that they may not be currently living in the best of all possible worlds, and this opens them into a space where they can ask critical questions about what narratives and lines of argumentation have the most power and hegemony. We are all familiar with the cliché that “history is written by the victors,” yet students are rarely encouraged to actually apply this insight in their own social and political context.

Getting students to understand the stakes of persuasive argumentation as a tool of critical thinking is one of the major tasks of any philosophy course. By focusing on the writings of political prisoners and studying forms of structural critique, we can help our students begin to envision a world that does not require political prisoners. In showing students how to follow arguments to their conclusions, identify fallacies and unspoken assumptions, and study the history of ideas as they arise from specific material conditions and power dynamics, we can help them begin to understand what it means to study and struggle for the abolition of all forms of injustice, dehumanization, and exploitation.  

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Alex Adamson

Alex Adamson is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Babson College. Their current research focuses on decolonial critiques of political economy, scholar-activism, and queer and trans philosophy.