Lenfest 2015 Winner: Carol Rovane

March 09, 2015

Whether she’s teaching an advanced graduate seminar or a beginning undergraduate class, Carol Rovane wants her students to start thinking like philosophers.

“Unless a course is intended to be strictly historical, my aim is not that students should learn about philosophy, but that they should start doing it,” says Rovane, a professor in the Philosophy Department.

Therefore, when students enroll in her section of Contemporary Civilization in the Core Curriculum, they do not simply learn the history of Western theories about natural rights. “They must work out whether they actually believe there are such things as natural rights, and why or why not,” she says.

Rovane, who specializes in metaphysics, philosophy of language and mind, and ethics, says that teaching in the Core has deepened and broadened her own understanding of moral and political philosophy. She acknowledges her debt in the title of her forthcoming book, Out of Order: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy Based on Columbia University’s Core Curriculum.

Apart from inspiring her to write an introduction to philosophy, Rovane has found that teaching has contributed to her own research. “More than once, I have set out to teach something as a `service’ to my students, only to find that it opened out a fertile line of research.” This is how Rovane came to write her 2013 book, The Metaphysics and Ethics of Relativism (Harvard University Press), which argues that one can reject another’s beliefs without saying those beliefs are false.

She also brings her research interests into the classroom. One of her current interests addresses the nature of individual versus group responsibility. “While some of the moral perplexities that arise in connection with this matter are easily conveyed to the beginner, they also set topics for advanced doctoral work in the metaphysics of agency and mind.”

As to what makes a good teacher, Rovane, who earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Chicago in 1983, says there is no simple answer. “There are many kinds of good teachers and good students,” she says. “My least favorite kind of teacher is the ‘charismatic’ sort who relies more on personality than on the merits of the material. My least favorite kind of student is the ‘dutiful’ sort who is unwilling to challenge the teacher.”

What was the most significant lesson she learned from her own teachers and mentors? “The example they set for me, in their intellectually honest pursuit of the truths they wanted to learn,” she says.

All students recognize the honest pursuit of truth when they see it, she says, adding, “They are glad to have been exposed to it even if their own interests eventually lead them to other pursuits that are quite different from those of their teachers.”

—by Gary Shapiro