Is There A Philosophical Version Of This Course?
Stanford University’s most popular class is called “Designing Your Life,” according to an article at Fast Company. Its aim is to get students to think more carefully about their life and career choices and learn ways to bring their lives in line with their thoughts.
Before Kanyi Maqubela became an investment partner at the Collaborative Fund, an early-stage venture capital firm focused on social enterprises, he was a typical Stanford student in need of career guidance. He was working with startups, studying philosophy, dating someone special—and feeling overwhelmed. Enter “Designing Your Life,” a new and wildly popular course for Stanford juniors and seniors that is grounded in design thinking concepts and techniques. The course’s lessons gave him the perspective he needed to navigate decisions about life and work post graduation.
“It really helped me understand what the concept of vocation was,” he says. “I had thought of it either as a narrowly religious concept or for a specific job. But it’s this feeling that I have true agency over my work, because I know what I stand for and I have tools to fix the things that I encounter in my life.”…
At the time, “Designing Your Life” was still an experiment, spearheaded by Bill Burnett, executive director of Stanford’s design program, and Dave Evans, who led the design of Apple’s first mouse and co-founded Electronic Arts before embarking on a second career in the classroom. They launched the course in spring 2010. “It took off in just about a heartbeat,” says Evans, who oversees instruction with help from guest lecturers and a small army of student volunteers, who lead discussion groups. Today, 17% of seniors enroll in “Designing Your Life,” and many more vie for the limited seats in each section. “We’ve had students literally teach the class on the side to their friends who weren’t enrolled,” he says.
Evans divides the course into two parts: first, he says, “We reframe the problem. That’s where dysfunctional beliefs get blown-up. Then we give them a set of tools and ideas to take steps to start building the way forward.” Each course section convenes for one quarter, two hours per week. Here’s what they learn: gratitude; generosity; self-awareness; adaptability. All reinforced by design thinking-based tools, from a daily gratitude journal to a deck of cards featuring problem-solving techniques. In lieu of a final exam—the class is pass/fail—students present three radically different five-year plans to their peers. Alumni say they still refer back their “odyssey plans”—a term that Evans coined—and revise them as their lives and careers progress…
The goal of “Designing Your Life,” he says, is to change higher education—not by returning to religion, but by reintroducing methods of “forming you into the person that will go out into the world, effect change, and be a leader.” That message resonates with Stanford students. They are filled with a sense of purpose and determined to solve the world’s problems—but ill-equipped, in our secular society, to make sense of what they value.
Is there a philosophy-based version of a course like this? Should there be?
“Designing Your Life” takes up, in a certain manner, the question, “How should I live?” — and it is not as if that is a question unfamiliar to philosophers. Further, it is not hard to imagine that various elements of logic, decision theory, and ethics, for example, could be combined into a course whose explicit aim is to help students improve their lives in various ways. But how, exactly? And is this a good idea? (And is this a way for philosophy to prove its value to administrators and legislators?)
(image: photo of “Center of Convention” by Ghost of a Dream)
The first step to getting a firm grip on one’s life is of course to begin with first principles. For that you will need a stove-heated room on the Danube. I think the Stanford approach is clearly misguided.Report
Yes, there is — sort of — but it’s rarely taught. Norman Care, who taught at Oberlin College before he passed away, taught a seminar there called “Ethics of Career Choice.” (He also published an article in Ethics by the same name, and it’s the basis for his book _On Sharing Fate_.) Recently I started teaching a version of Norman’s course at Mount Holyoke College. There is some good philosophical scholarship on the topic: one other recent piece that’s quite good is Sarah Buss’ “Needs (Someone Else’s), Projects (My Own), and Reasons.” But there are many ethical works that are quite pertinent to this question, including classic pieces by Williams, Wolf, Frankfurt, and Hampton, plus great historical stuff from Plato and Aristotle, of course.Report
If there is a philosophical “version” of this course, I sincerely hope that it involves more of a discussion of the morality of one’s choices and less of (what sounds like) pop-psychology coddling of ivy league kids who are weighing which investment bank to work for when they enter the scary (not scary) real world.Report
Very interesting, Justin! Thanks for posting this. I’m in the process of converting my Intro to Ethics course into “How to Live”. The course will start with theories of individual happiness and well-being and then move to consider the importance of friends and community, and ultimately, to the relationship between a happy life and a moral life. I wasn’t planning to talk about career choice, per se, but I was planning to assign some reflective writing where students will have a chance to think about their goals and their futures and what they think makes for a good life. I suppose this kind of course is not uncommon in philosophy. Maybe the best thing would be courses that are co-taught with philosophers and people who know something about career counseling?Report
Having read the full Fast Company article I’m still left wondering what this course is actually teaching. I managed to at least glean from the youtube video embedded in the article what a ‘prototype’ was: a work placement. Novel.
The sheer weight of what is effectively business jargon circulating around this course gives one the impression that it is essentially an exercise is boosting the morale of a bunch of kids who have had a pretty special start in life and are in danger of having a major psychic wobble upon facing the twin realities of freedom and the soullessness of their career prospects in a post-industrial/neoliberal America. The only really determinate thing to take from the article is that the course prepares students for the idea that they will have to have multiple careers. The final grade depends on their being able to present multiple life-plans. The educational justification for this is partly that students have the false idea they can only do one thing for the rest of their lives. (How much class time does it take to disabuse someone of that notion, though?) But from an ideological perspective the purpose of the course is simply to psychically prepare a segment of the work-force to accept the fact that they may well be precarious labour for the rest of their lives, no matter how good their college degree was.
If philosophy is to be more than a hand-maiden in the on-going capitulation of higher education to the interests of capital, we should hope there will be no such courses of this type.Report
Shelly Kagan teaches an intro philosophy course entitled “Life” every few years at Yale that is a bit like the philosophy version of this. I had the pleasure of TA-ing it last year. It includes weeks on topics including friendship, love, career choice, deciding whether to have children, altruism, the place of morality in the good life, and the “meaning of life”.Report
Also, while the enrollments are nothing like the Stanford course, Kagan’s class is pretty popular for a Yale philosophy course (nearly 200 students, mostly non-majors, at an institution with about 1300 entering undergraduates per year.Report
In addition to the course mentioned by Valerie above, the philosophy department at the University of Minnesota also teaches a three-week (May term), four-credit residential course called Lives Worth Living – affectionately known as Philosophy Camp. I recently took over as instructor-of-record when John Wallace retired – the course is taught by a team of five instructors (plus a couple of unofficial instructors who just stay with us during all or part of the course). We take the students out to a hobby farm in rural Minnesota for three weeks where they are assigned to small teams that take turns cooking meals, from scratch, for the entire group (cheeseburgers turn out to be less of a go-to food when you have to bake the buns for the thirty people), do (relatively minor) chores around the farm, get up early in the morning for story circles, and participate in various workshops designed to get them to reflect on how they want to, and how they should, build their lives. In addition, they construct a functioning democratic community while they are there (a community that typically lasts long after the class concludes), and much of course ends up being designed and implemented by the students while we are there. The curriculum is based loosely around Danish Folk Schools and the Highlander Research and Education Center. Its pretty freaking amazing, and in the few years I have been involved I have seen students change not only their career ambitions, but the entire direction of their lives, as a result of the experience.Report
First, I love skeptical grad’s take (at #5.) and also fed up grad’s take (#3). I make offerings to Apollo for you both. I think the subject of the article is not a good thing (not your fault, Justin, I know you are trying to generate discussion.) Though most of the article’s claims about the class are too vague to understand (trying to “live intentionally”?)…my major complaint is one of the case-studies is how someone learned to pump more resources back into their self (with smoothies and vegetable juice and yoga). This is a class that justifies people’s narcissism, hence I agree fully with fed up grad student (#3), who said things better than I can.
For that reason any of the philosophy courses mentioned, or even intro to ethics, is far better than this Stanford version of Aldous Huxley’s soma (which will be packaged and we will all drink, apparently)…it seems to me our life is critically about our moral choices, regardless of whether we feel successful, grateful, or even get approval (it is easy to think of cases in which the right thing was not popular). Choosing a course of action because it gives some critical level of gratitude, and accords with our definition of success, and makes us feel we are a “leader”, and etc…is that really going to give the RIGHT CHOICE in a majority (or even a minority) of cases? (maybe it did in the peace core case, but as a general principle it is annoying, and again I express my solidarity with skeptical grad and fed up grad.)
In any case, I wonder aloud…even from the wildly contentious premise that our own feelings are what matters, how much do you really love something when it was The System and its pop psychology buzzwords that made you love it?Report
Oh, here’s the link to the Lives Worth Living (PCamp) website:
Many of these courses seem really cool, and worth greater publicity. I want to go to Philosophy Camp! The distinctive aspects of the Designing Your Life course that seem worth keeping and incorporating into other courses are that it calls for students to practice direct reflection such as on values or character traits (rather than indirect reflection, via considering what others have said on those subjects) and also self-reflection on direct experience and decision-making. I think philosophy courses that do this are better for it.Report