I was on leave last Easter term, and so not examining. But the previous year I commented here, under the heading “It’s tough being a philosophy student”,
It strikes me again while marking that it’s quite tough being a philosophy student these days: the disputes you are supposed to get your head around have become so sophisticated, the to and fro of the dialectic often so intricate. An example. When I first started teaching, Donnellan’s paper on ‘Reference and Definite Descriptions’ had quite recently been published — it was state of the art. An undergraduate [indeed, a final year undergraduate] who could talk some sense about his distinction between referential and attributive uses of descriptions was thought to be doing really well. Just think what we’d expect a first class student to know about the Theory of Descriptions nowadays (for a start, Kripke’s response to Donnellan [on our first year reading list!], problems with Kripke’s Gricean manoeuvres, etc.). True there are textbooks, Stanford Encyclopedia articles, and the like to help the student through: but still, the level of sophistication we now expect from our best undergraduates is daunting.
The same basic point struck me just as forcibly this year. Except perhaps now I’d say that textbooks and the Stanford Encyclopedia in some ways make things even tougher for students. Here’s a very good, well-briefed student: they’ve got their head round X‘s excellent text book presentation. They write four and a half crisp sides on topic, organizing the necessary points covered by X to answer the question set. Before the textbook appeared, we’d have been delighted with the answer. Now we read the same script and think, yeah, fine, a competent rehearsal of X‘s treatment — so nothing outstanding. So how is the poor student to really impress? It gets harder.