How Philosophy Changed Your Students’ Minds

How Philosophy Changed Your Students’ Minds


Jennifer Baker (College of Charleston) asked the students in her introductory philosophy course to report (anonymously) “ideas of theirs that changed after studying some philosophy.” I think this is a great idea for learning what kinds of topics and readings make an impact on the students’ thinking, which can be of use in both planning and pitching philosophy courses. Have you done this in your courses, and if so, what were some of the responses?

Professor Baker was kind enough to share the changes her students reported:

1. My notion of beauty really changed after this class. I was misusing the term because it is so commonly used in casual conversation.
2. I changed my mind about Camus.
3. Stoicism because that is the way I would like to live my life in the future. I would like to be carefree and not worry about material things.
4. Before this class I tried to be optimistic about things that would happen. After learning about the Stoics, I found it easier to tell myself things could go wrong.
5. I feel like after reading Peter Singer I starting being more aware of animals. I stopped eating meat for now.
6. Studying metaphysics made me realize not to take everything at face value and that there are still things to be discovered.
7. What changed my mind was Aristotle’s view on actions, it changed my mind about addicts.
8. It’s fun to apply Aristotle to everyday life. I think about him when I take an “action.”
9. RACISM! More philosophers need to approach this.
10. I never knew anything about philosophy so it all changed.
11. I learned a lot about ourselves in “the google” era from social epistemology.
12. The Stoics. I should be content with what I have.
13. To not just follow a normal pattern but to think about what I am doing. To not just be a robot.
14. Every day we go to class there is something we talk about that applies to my life and helps me change my views.
15. That we could be in a matrix. I loved that.
16. Before class I believed that nothing was divine. Now, I agree with Plato and Broadie that there has to be some type of divine power in the core elements of the world.
17. Nothing really changed my mind, I am a Christian and all of that stayed intact. I enjoyed it though.
18. Every single philosopher from Yancy on racism (I now fully understand and agree with his angle) to what Plato was doing, to Rawls, to Goldman. They all opened my mind and gave me thoughts I never had.
19. Before this class I feared death because I never experienced it first-hand (no close family member or anything). Now, since I have decided to take on a more stoic mindset, I think I am more prepared for death and how I should handle it.
20. I liked Yancy’s piece because it got me thinking outside my whiteness.
21. I loved the deep discussion over the Matrix. I never changed my mind due to Yancy.
22. I enjoyed thinking about the metaphysics of the afterlife.
23. I realized my upbringing was loosely stoic, never talking about yourself and hard work was continually stressed.
24. I always had trouble thinking like someone else and in this case like Yancy. His argument baffled me until I realized as a white person I may never have felt the same as a black person in my life. How do I know that we all see things the same way?
25. Yancy’s views on racism changed mine.
26. Nothing really changed my mind but the class pushed me towards new ways of thinking. For example thinking about the matrix. That was cool.
27. Simpson’s article on google changed my mind about search engines on the internet, I am actually less skeptical now.
28. Aristotle’s writings have changed the way I look at the decision-making of myself of others. By thinking back to find and understand the reasoning behind the decisions people make and whether they are voluntary, mixed or a choice, I find myself more easily accepting the actions of others.

(image: detail from “Monarch, Double Helix ” by Rafael Araujo)

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grad
grad
5 years ago

Though it’s far from scientific, I use pre- and post-course surveys detailing their agreement or disagreement with a variety of philosophical statements which are relevant to the course. I try my best to word them in a way that is easily understandable, yet doesn’t let on what I’m trying to measure. The results can be quite fun.Report

Eva Dadlez
Eva Dadlez
5 years ago

Reading Peter Singer has put a number of my students off factory farmed meat. Or maybe it was the videos.Report

Jerry Dworkin
Jerry Dworkin
5 years ago

Someone said to Mae West, “I changed my mind.” She replied, “Oh yeah. Does it work any better?”Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

Eva, there’s a very good chance it was the videos. I use Singer, but I don’t use videos because of their emotional impact, and in a philosophy class I don’t want to reinforce the students’ default belief that whatever they *feel* is right or wrong is true. We usually discuss this issue further in relation to the trolley problem and Singer’s affluence article, where emotional impact (or its lack) might lead us to do at least arguably immoral things.

Did Professor Baker share her reading list? I’m curious to know, for example, what specifically they read by Yancy and Broadie, and if the Matrix discussion was based in a reading.

I’m surprised by the responses about the Matrix. I’ve found in recent years, as the film gets older, that usually only one or two students will get excited about that example. (Back in the day, it would instantly engage the entire class.)

Number 17 was a bit depressing: as if philosophy’s main goal is to only to attack and primarily religious convictions. As if critical thinking didn’t apply to all beliefs, and include supporting reasoning.

I have a lot of religious students, so this frustrates me. The irony is that most ethical philosophy draws implicitly, and often explicitly, on the Christian moral tradition. It sometimes feels absurd: trying to get a roomful of resistant devout Christians to at least entertain what are, basically, tenets of Christian morality (Singer’s “Affluence” article often produces this bizarro-world effect.)Report

Jen Baker
Jen Baker
5 years ago

Hi Anon – happy to. We read the Timaeus first and then Sarah Broadie’s “Theological Sidelights from Plato’s Timaeus.” The students are always so grateful to her after grappling with Plato on their own. Her prose is so sophisticated that, in my mind, reading her early signals: we are serious, here. Yet at the same time? Here to help. 🙂 http://philpapers.org/rec/BROTSF

I’ve taught different parts of Yancy before but this year we read “Trayvon Martin, Philosophy, and white spaces.”

With “The Matrix” we start with McGinn’s short essay. Then we do Chris Grau’s “Bad Dreams, Evil Demons, and the Experience Machine,” which introduces all of those cases (and relates them to The Matrix) really nicely. Finally we get to Dave Chalmers’s “The Matrix as Metaphysics,” which they just love (the religious students in particular, I tend to think): http://consc.net/papers/matrix.html. In the past I’ve also used Richard Hanley’s essay “Reflections on the First Matrix,” and I missed it a little this semester.Report

Jen Baker
Jen Baker
5 years ago

Oh, all of it? Just in case, here is the rest… We do Aristotle NE Book III, of course. For the Stoics I just make them read Epictetus’s Handbook. We do Elaine Scarry’s Tanner Lecture “On Beauty and Being Just” (Rawls is in there), Danto’s “Art, Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Art” (which I noticed no student mentioned here), Sandel, “What Can Money Buy?”, Gettier, Goldman “The Social Epistemology of Blogging,” Thomas Simpson’s response to Goldman “Evaluating Google as an Epistemic Tool,” “All Animals are Equal,” and… I think that’s the class. Thanks!Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

Jen, thanks for the full list! What a great selection. Some of these I’ve not encountered, so I look forward to reading them.

Funny that Danto gets no love. I like teaching him, but rarely do because students just don’t seem to connect to it.Report

JAB
JAB
5 years ago

My pleasure. I forgot Camus. Yes, interesting about Danto. I always enjoy the class we spend “analyzing” art thanks to him, but maybe they give themselves credit for that and forget the author? I’ve got another 101 section giving me these tomorrow, I’ll look for him there.
I meant to mention that the Hanley paper includes a set of puzzles about the idea of heaven (that “first matrix”). It has been, for me in the past, a way to get religious students to defend some of their ideas right alongside other students’ defense of that plot point in the film. Their (real) ideas are at least in play, though… I might have a faint memory of non-religious students complaining about not wanting to write on the “heaven” paper.
Once I had, not a religious student, but a fan of Ayn Rand tell me he would take my course but just as a spectator, since he had all of his ideas worked out already, thanks. !Report

M
M
5 years ago

One of my environmental ethics students told me that he decided to become a vegan after thinking about readings from the course while on LSD. That’s probably my big one so far.Report

Alan White
5 years ago

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating in this venue. In ethics I have long taught Kant’s 2nd version of the CI (always respect, never only use people) by, along with other examples, contrasting prostitution to committed relationships in terms of one factor–love and respect–right down to enjoying (regretting) one’s partner’s erotic experiences (and lack thereof) as if they were your own. In two cases, long after the courses were taught, I was told that that lecture ultimately resulted in some deep self-reflection that eventually led to divorce. Now I’m not saying this was a good thing–I don’t know. But damn if that old prude didn’t get into some modern-day minds, and obviously wringed-out some troubled hearts.Report

Travis Timmerman
Travis Timmerman
5 years ago

My students have been influenced by

(1) Peter Singer’s “All Animals are Equal”

but even more so by

(2) Alastair Norcross’s “Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases”

Also, (3) Marilyn Frye’s “Oppression” was quite impactful.Report

Bob Kirkman
5 years ago

There’s an ambiguity in the title of this post and in some of the subsequent discussion regarding what it means to “change students’ minds.”

The focus here seems largely to be on getting students to have a different set of beliefs at the end of a course than they had at the beginning. but that raises the specter of indoctrination: Are we trying to make sure students end up with beliefs of which we approve?

In my own courses, I’ve tried very hard to stay away from anything that smacks of indoctrination, and I don’t give to much weight to particular affirmations students might or might not make at the end of a course. Rather, I aim to “change students’ minds” in a different sense, helping them to develop the particular cognitive skills needed for critical ethical inquiry. In more immediate terms, I’m more interested in finding out if they notice different things, make connections they didn’t make before, respond to things differently than they might have done regardless of whether that results in changing their beliefs about anything.

I tell them that my courses are not about beliefs or opinions, but about considered judgment . . . but because there is a strong tendency in human beings to rush to judgment, I ask them to defer judgment altogether, to focus instead on the process of consideration. Every syllabus I post for my students now contains the following disclaimer:

“The focus of the course is on imagining and grappling with complex problem situations and critical consideration of possible options for responding to such situations. You will not be asked to solve a given problem, nor will you be asked to offer a defense of any one option over any other. For the purposes of this course, your opinion on any matter of practice, of policy or of principle is irrelevant; in all fairness, however, the instructor’s opinion is likewise irrelevant. You may come to your own conclusions on your own time.”

I haven’t been very systematic – yet! – about assessing the effectiveness of my courses, but anecdotes are heartening: Students report seeing practical situations differently, noticing ethical currents they might otherwise have missed, and I certainly see that reflected in the written work many of them submit for evaluation.Report