Getting Undergrads to See the Value of Philosophy: A Survey


Andrew Mills, associate professor of philosophy at Otterbein College, is interested in learning about how philosophers get the non-philosophy-majors who tend to populate their classes to see the value of philosophy. 

He writes:

Many of us who teach philosophy at the university level spend a lot of time teaching students who are taking our classes in order to meet a university graduation requirement. These “gen-ed” students are, for many of us, the vast majority of the students we teach each year. Many of these students come to our classes not just resistant at the thought of having to take another required class, but skeptical of the very enterprise of philosophy. Accordingly, many of us try, in our various ways, to help students see the value of philosophy.

But how do we do that? How do we help our “gen ed” students see that philosophy is a valuable enterprise? That is the question that lies at the center of my current research, and it’s one that I would like to hear your answers to. I would like to hear from you how, if at all, you help your students see the value in philosophy and what particular approaches have been helpful for you over the years.

To collect answers, Professor Mills has created a survey and is asking philosophy teachers to take it. The survey only takes a few minutes to complete and can be found here.

With luck, he will have some interest findings to share with Daily Nous readers.

Survey: https://otterbein.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_1SJ7K6EaJWaRpu5.

Pencil Sculptures by Cindy Chinn

Related: “Teaching As If Our Students Were Not Future Philosophers

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Professor Apricot
Professor Apricot
2 years ago

As a philosopher, have you considered the possibility that your gen. ed. students might be right and you wrong (on the value question, as it applies to the current state of our discipline)?Report

Lance
Lance
Reply to  Professor Apricot
2 years ago

I was about to post the exact same comment. I am glad someone beat me to it.

Given the recent, and I believe, very compelling case made by Bryan Caplan in “The Case Against Education,” as well as my own experiences as both a student and instructor, I am not sure students who have no intrinsic interest should be spending their time on philosophy courses. Time and resources are limited, and for many people, courses that teach practical skills or useful knowledge may be better for them (e.g. computer science or how to manage their finances or something). Even if I’d like to think philosophy instruction has value, wishes don’t make for reality, and I’d want to first see hard data that mandatory philosophy courses show demonstrable improvements along basically any dimension for anyone before I sought to actively encourage more people who would otherwise be uninterested to take them.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Lance
2 years ago

“Even if I’d like to think philosophy instruction has value, wishes don’t make for reality, and I’d want to first see hard data that mandatory philosophy courses show demonstrable improvements along basically any dimension for anyone before I sought to actively encourage more people who would otherwise be uninterested to take them.”

Ask and ye shall receive!

http://quillette.com/2018/01/11/benefits-philosophical-instruction/

There’s plenty of room for growth in at least the American eduation system on this front. And in addition to being of value to students, it would be good for the supply-side of the philosophy job market as well.Report

Phil Tanny
Phil Tanny
Reply to  Preston Stovall
2 years ago

From the article on quillette….

“….these claims are part of the mechanism by which academic philosophers hope to secure university funding for their departments.”

Ok, there’s nothing wrong with attempting to sell one’s services. But as with all sales pitches, buyer beware, it is not your needs which are the primary focus of this transaction, but those of the seller.

And the fact that those schooled in the art of argument still need to make their case, could perhaps suggest that they weren’t schooled very well.

As means of comparison, we might observe that scientists don’t really need to do this kind of selling (to the same degree). That’s because they deliver tangible services whose value is often easily recognized by the public.

However, while science culture is brilliant it is also blind, continuing to relentlessly pursue an outdated “more is better” relationship with knowledge which now increasingly threatens civilization. Examining that all important relationship with knowledge would be very important work for philosophers to do. There could be great value in philosophy, if only philosophers were willing to do the work that needs doing.

PS: Hi Preston!Report

T
T
2 years ago

Stemming from the comment above from Professor Apricot, I think if we want philosophy to be seen as valuable, we need to teach something valuable to them. If we’re saying that most of them are gen ed students, then there’s not much value in testing whether an undergraduate knows the definition of logical positivism or has memorized Plato’s arguments for the immortality of the soul. There seem to be many claims that philosophy is to, at least in some way, enhance critical thinking or improve argumentation. But intro courses rarely do such, at least not overly, because we sometimes hijack the typical undergrad class model of participation+quizzes+tests, where participation/conversation+essays+papers might better reflect the goal — and value — of improving critical thinking and argumentation (and, if we’re lucky, writing proficiency), with the course’s theme displayed prominently.

Don’t get me wrong: I can understand why that model was adopted. It’s difficult enough to hold a discussion in a class of 50 undergrads, and even more difficult to grade, say, 50 people’s 5 essays and 3 papers. That’s 400 assignments to grade.. and that’s for only one course(!), where I’m sure many have a load between 3-5. TAs/GAs can only help so much.

But I think my point here is that if we’re to prove value where students might not expect it, we need to break from the mold that typical intro/undergraduate courses have. Philosophy needs to make it its own, while still respecting the goals of the students (pass the course, hopefully learn and improve something along the way) and the university (fill larger classes).Report

Travis Figg
Travis Figg
2 years ago

Presented for what it’s worth.

On the final for my Introduction to Philosophy course last semester, for bonus questions I asked my students 1) If their opinion of philosophy had changed as a result of taking the course, 2) if they thought philosophy had value either for the individual or society, 3) if they had any interest in continuing to study philosophy in the future, either in school or on their own.

Results may be somewhat biased, but, out of roughly 40 students, all but 3 or so (this is from memory) said they had a positive view of philosophy from taking the course, and that they think it has value. Many said they wished to continue studying it, but on their own as opposed to taking further classes.

I don’t think getting college students excited about philosophy is that difficult. Getting them to major or minor may be, but there are factors there other than interest in the subject matter.Report

Lance
Lance
Reply to  Travis Figg
2 years ago

I applaud you for gathering some data on student perceptions of its value. I am curious how much self-reported value of a class (reported to the person teaching it, which is likely to skew results in a positive direction) long-term payoffs, i.e. actual value. One thing it may be interesting to ask students is what, specifically, they think the value of philosophy is.

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Phil Tanny
Phil Tanny
2 years ago

More applause from here for Professor Apricot’s wise and insightful question. I’ve been spending the last few months on a site by a leading philosophical organization, and it’s a sobering experience.

A key phrase in Apricot’s comment seemed to be ” thecurrent state of our discipline”. I honestly do think the field of philosophy could make essential contributions to society, but um, it ain’t happenin at the moment.

It’s true that young people lack experience, but they do have a gift for seeing through the fantasies their elders have sold themselves.

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Professor Apricot
Professor Apricot
2 years ago

Thank you everyone for your thoughtful responses to my question.
I applaud T’s recommendation that we try to be able to give an account of what value we’re actually providing that is coherent, and true. Possibly in contrast to Lance I believe that we *can* add real value to the education of students who are ‘just passing through’, but we often don’t. It’s a tragic missed opportunity. Just one example, in a state not too far from me, after a corruption scandal police recruits were all required to take an ethics course in their training. What did the Philosophy professors (who gained substantial new funding from this) teach them? Utilitarian theory followed by Kantian moral theory. The poor recruits didn’t know what hit them, or the first thing about how to write an essay about it. The essays were absolutely abysmal (I marked some of them).
In fact, as I understand it, police work raises a number of unique and fascinating ethical issues, but like most real-world ethical dilemmas (unlike the facile scenarios recycled in many ethics classrooms) they are ‘thick’ and require the philosophy teacher to actually learn about policing and do some original thinking to put their conceptual toolkit to use there.
Travis Figg – do I understand rightly that you asked your students whether they found your course valuable as part of an assessment exercise which was graded by you and then determined whether they passed the course?! And you believe that this is data to draw conclusions from-??

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