Asking The Right Questions: Vanessa Miller | Philosophy and Education | Arts and Humanities

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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Philosophy Secondary

Philosophy & Education

In the Department of Arts & Humanities

Asking the Right Questions: Vanessa Miller

Vanessa Miller’s formidable curriculum vitae mirrors the philosophical earnestness with which she approaches every aspect of her life. Miller, an alumna of the Philosophy and Education Masters program at Teachers College (TC), is now a joint J.D./Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University where her research focuses on the relationship between race and gender, civil rights, and higher education.

Currently in her third year of coursework, she is the president of the university’s Latinx Law Association, co-chair of their Diversity Banquet, and sits on the executive board of the school’s Public Interest Law Fund. She also teaches undergraduate courses in the Department of Philosophy, and serves as a Graduate Assistant for the Schreyer Honors College. Given all this, it’s not surprising that she recently earned the law school’s Student Leader award, “I’m heavily involved in leadership. It’s just what I do,” Miller laughs.

Yet while she shrugs off personal accolades, Miller is dead serious when it comes to the ideals that motivate her scholarship: a belief in justice, inquiry, and human potential. When she speaks on these topics her eyes light up. “Honestly it's strange, but I always think ‘what would Socrates ask?’ It's a weird thing to do, but the Socratic method is how I've been living my entire post-TC career. I’m constantly asking myself, ‘How is this going to get me closer to the Truth with a capital T? Or, how is this going to get me closer to the things that I've been questioning?’”

Miller credits her time at TC with shaping the way that she approaches both legal and educational questions. “I approach my dissertation with a philosophical understanding of what it is that I'm asking. I'm not just asking ‘how does race relate to the First Amendment,’ but I'm also asking ‘what is race?’ If you don't know the correct things to ask, then a lot of your research falls apart.”

The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Miller inherited her passion for justice from her father, a Miami-based police officer and her mother, a forensic psychologist. Initially their influence led Miller to pursue an undergraduate degree in Criminology and Law at the University of Florida, but midway into her studies she felt there was something missing. “I was saying to my parents, ‘you know these are the things that I'm interested in but not on the criminological side.’” It wasn’t until her junior year of college that Miller took her first philosophy class and quickly fell in love with the discipline, eventually adding it as a second undergraduate major. This philosophy coursework helped Miller develop more precise language for thinking about the nature of justice, truth, and knowledge. “It was great to see that everything I had always been interested in had a name: It was all under this umbrella called philosophy.”

Miller became fascinated by theories of justice and morality, and she saw a natural connection between those theoretical interests and the real-world fight for civil rights and educational equity. When she learned about the Master of Arts program in Philosophy and Education at TC, she hoped that this could be the place for her to further investigate the intersection between philosophy, law, and education.

As a master’s student, Miller took full advantage of the College’s resources. In addition to taking classes on ethics and educational philosophy within her own program, Miller also completed coursework at Columbia University’s Department of Philosophy. Additionally, her strong interest in law drew Miller to take classes in the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis, where she was eventually asked to serve as Teaching Assistant for two of Professor Jay Heubert’s courses, Higher Education Law and K-12 Law.

In her second year at TC, Miller gained a coveted graduate internship at the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York Attorney General’s Office. There she worked closely with an attorney who specialized in civil rights and education. “It was absolutely phenomenal because I was able to see the ethical side of a subject, and then its transformation into the legal. I was taking a political philosophy class on Thursday where we would ask ‘what is fairness?’ and then on Friday I would go into the Bureau and watch these attorneys get justice for transgender people who had been denied employment or housing."

Now, as a law student and doctoral candidate in the field of Higher Education, Miller remains committed to her Socratic roots and even plans to include a philosophy professor on her dissertation committee. Still, it’s not always easy being the lone philosopher in your department. “I'm in the social sciences now, so when my peers hear ‘philosophy’ they think ‘that doesn't mean anything’ and I'm like ‘no it means everything.” She credits her time at Teachers College with giving her confidence to carve out an interdisciplinary path in academia. “It gives me credibility. I'm not just some person who's interested in this or that question. I have a degree to back it up. I have a master's degree from TC to show that I thought about these questions for two years.”

This November, Miller will be presenting at the annual Education Law Association Conference on the topic of educational malpractice. Her paper examines the recent influx of lawsuits that are being filed by students against universities for claims of academic fraud, “In tort law, there are a lot of elements that have to be met to establish negligence but one of the questions is ‘was there a duty?’ The philosophical question in these cases is whose duty is it to educate? Is it the students to participate in that education? Is it the individual faculty member’s? And if there is a duty what does it mean to be educated? Does it mean that you can pass a test? There are so many rich philosophical questions deep in these legal cases.” Miller’s conference paper builds on ideas explored in her thesis work at TC. In her master's thesis, she critiqued performance based incentives and the consumer model theory of education, arguing that this conception of schooling does harm to students, “Students start to say ‘I didn’t get a job, I want my money back.’ Miller worries that if a federal court rules in favor of this type of educational malpractice lawsuit it could jeopardize the true purpose of education, as envisioned by the ancient Stoics: to cultivate self-understanding and personal growth.

Speaking with Miller, one thing is wholly evident—that every one of the many academic and professional activities that she carries out each day is animated by her fundamental belief that all people, regardless of their backgrounds or identities, have the potential to flourish, and should have the opportunity to do so. It is this guiding principle that Miller, quite literally, wears on her sleeve. “I mark my academic journey through tattoos,” Miller grins, “After earning my philosophy degree I got the word ‘Socrates’ tattooed on my side, and after I was accepted into Teachers College I got this,” Miller raises her wrist to reveal the word Eudaimonia, a Greek term meaning ‘human flourishing,’ beautifully inked in dark grey. What does Eudaimonia mean to Vanessa Miller? “Aristotle would argue that in order to flourish as a human, you have to understand your highest capabilities and understand how you can cultivate them. For me, that’s education. How do I best flourish? It’s through education. How do I think others can best flourish? Education.”

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