Alumni Profile of Winston Thompson, PhD
Interviewed and written by Tim Ignaffo
Dr. Winston Thompson is a graduate of the Philosophy and Education Program (2011). He is currently an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of New Hampshire. Previously, he was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Education at NYU. He has also taught at Hofstra and Teachers College.
What was your experience before becoming a PhD student? Did you jump right into your PhD studies after undergrad?
As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, I began formally studying philosophy. Discovering philosophy felt like a homecoming of sorts. It was as if my thoughts had always been “spoken” with what seemed to be a unique accent but through philosophy I discovered that others shared my tongue – and welcomed me into a larger shared conversation. Unfortunately, the politics of racial/ethnic difference and social life in Gainesville kept my entry into philosophy a relatively isolated experience (with the exception, of course, of my interactions with my heroes in print) but, knowing no better at the time, I assumed this to be the nature of university life and was relatively energetic in my studies.
In fact, I was at that time so thrilled by the larger questions of the pursuit of utopia, of thinking about even a marginally better social and political world, that I extended the scope of my studies to include sociology and religion as well. I was very interested in how these disciplines understood groups of peoples to describe improvements to social and ethical systems and, through related sets of questions, often found myself returning to the subject of education.
Why did you choose Philosophy of Education?
My passion for education as a fulcrum upon which social change might be leveraged lead to my initial application to Teachers College. I began studying policies and practices aimed at access gaps in higher educational admissions. Though these efforts were hugely rewarding, Greg Anderson (now Dean of Temple University’s College of Education), a faculty member with whom I worked in my early days at TC, wisely pointed out that my research interests pulled towards the conceptual and theoretical. At that point, after meeting David Hansen, my return to more explicitly philosophical studies seemed a natural shift.
Looking back, it is fair to say that in some ways, the trajectory of my studies was guided by a joint sense of loneliness and longing as many of my childhood friends were either denied access to university study or forced out by their own frustrations and failings. It is perhaps no wonder that, against that backdrop and with my own emerging interest in achievable utopias, I became enthralled by philosophical arguments brought to bear on issues of educational justice. This has been, and continues to be, my unifying theme of study.
Tell us about your PhD research?
My dissertation was an extension of the higher educational inquiries I mentioned earlier. Excitedly, I saw these issues anew, given my slow recognition of the core questions of justice-in-the-service-of-a-better-tomorrow that motivated my intellectual life. Recalling the friends that had faded away from educational institutions, I constructed my dissertation, entitled “Towards a Higher Degree of Justice: Considering Fairness and Capability in Higher Educational Access”, as an investigation of the underlying ethical issues relevant to policy discussions of educational access for underrepresented populations in pursuit of social, political, and educational justice goals. Buttressed by my social scientific background, this project rested upon a philosophical analysis of the concept of educational equality of opportunity for diverse learners as informed by political philosopher John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness coupled with a version of the capability approach pioneered by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Applying these frameworks in concert, I developed a model of distributive justice for education that pays rapt attention to the requirements of educational justice at multiple levels in its formulation. I indicated principles for identifying morally relevant criteria for access to education by negotiating, inter alia, the interplay between self-respect, recognition of human dignity, and agency freedom.
This project was a real labor of love and, in some ways, forms the basis for work that I continue to do at present. Many people describe a sense of palliative joy experienced upon finishing one’s dissertation, but I cannot speak fondly enough of the joy of realizing that one’s project is the first brick in a far larger and much more elegant structure.
When did you decide you wanted to be a Professor? What do you enjoy most about being a Professor?
It is difficult to pinpoint with much precision the moment at which I decided to pursue a life in academia. In truth, for quite some time now, I have been hard pressed to think of a better way to spend my energies and talents. Selfishly, I persist in the institution because the core of academia is hugely rewarding for me. To read, think, and study among others is a supreme gift for which I am perpetually grateful. Were I to cobble together some ideal profession for myself, these core activities would undoubtedly be present in my designs.
Less selfishly, I continue on in the institution because I seriously believe that the work I do is of real value. I am contributing to a body of knowledge that may in some small but meaningful way influence the movement towards the increasingly utopian world that I began to glimpse those many years ago. I feel a real calling in the professoriate and rest well in the belief that the essence of my activities is noble. These ideas – and getting them clear – matter.
What is your primary research focus right now?
My core interests continue to be questions of justice. At the moment, I am working alongside James Stillwaggon on an edited collection of work based in Robbie McClintock’s treatment of the concept of formative justice (as the regulative principle of education). I am also working on a constellation of papers addressing: 1) the intimate relationship between liberalism and education, 2) the similarities between civic and intellectual virtues as relates to a justice of the self, and 3) delineating the differences between educational misfortune and educational injustices.
What excites you about the field of education in our time? What concerns you?
Besides these projects (and a few others), I am also readying a project that may be of interest to your readers. I am launching a podcast, PIPEline: Profiles in Philosophy and Education (www.pipeline.fm). This short form monthly interview program aims to invite new students and colleagues in seemingly distant research fields to the world of and contemporary figures in philosophy of education.
What do you hope the project will accomplish?
Research in education, particularly in the humanities, need not lose sight of itself as it becomes more visible to those that would question its legitimacy or value. Instead, I see a huge opportunity to add dimension to the shape of a universally important field. I want the podcast to (at the very least) make the scholars and their work more accessible. Hopefully, the program will invite some students or educators (or others) to think about the ideas and discourses as dynamic processes in which they can participate.