The Death and Dissection of Philosophy in the Classroom

There is no escaping that the humanities, and philosophy in particular, are facing an academic crisis. Student enrolments have declined to their lowest level in decades, and many departments have been cut completely from universities or merged together with others, such as religious studies. Much of this can be explained by public misconceptions about the nature and practicality of a philosophy degree. But this is not the whole story. We philosophers bear some of the blame. What I mean is this: philosophy classrooms, in large part, are sterile and lifeless. It should not be this way. Philosophy has always been one of the most lively and engaging genre of literature and scholarship. Philosophy engages with those questions which immediately affect people’s lives. Philosophical questions occur to everybody everywhere, and often rouse and capture those who consider them. Many of these questions are idle, yes, but just as many are profound and important, addressing the most human of human concerns. So what is going wrong in our pedagogy? Why are our students so unaware of philosophy’s promise not only as a university major, but as a life-changing experience? In short, it’s academic philosophy that has signed the death warrant of academic philosophy.

Philosophy is a difficult subject to teach in universities. Classes have regimented curricula and learning outcomes. As with much of academia today, the model here is the science classroom. So jealous is philosophy of the notoriety and success of science that it attempts everywhere to imitate it. The science classroom is analytical. Instructors dissect bodies of knowledge to give students a glimpse into its parts. They are not immediately interested in its physiology or its behaviour—that all comes later. The instructor and students are observers. They do not participate. No one within the classroom contributes to or even interferes with that body of knowledge. And they cannot. It is dead. It is static. Students of science do not do science in the classroom. They merely experience it having been done. These students do not even experience the development or evolution of that body of knowledge. They are not made aware of its environmental demands, its developmental constraints, or its selection pressures. And this all makes for good science education: the facts must come first before the theory, and the object must be considered independently from its subject.

But in philosophy, this is inappropriate. It suits science to consider itself dead and sterile in isolation. But philosophy is not like this. There is much more to philosophy than static, atemporal theory. Philosophy is embodied. Philosophy is alive. Philosophy is social and personal and active. It is not a body of knowledge at all, but a practice, a way of living. Its parts cannot be endlessly replaced and recombined into something new. That’s not how philosophy functions. Philosophers are not primarily in the business of explaining.

And yet, in the classroom, philosophers treat philosophy little different than they do science. The great theories of the canon are dissected before the student body, who sit at a distance from the spectacle they are to witness. The instructor carefully teases apart each muscle and tendon revealing bones and ligaments. As a system, a view, a theory is analysed, we take it to be fully understood. And then we proceed back to our offices and engage living systems, seeing no inconsistency with what we just taught. And yet, we miss something important. This is evident most clearly in two of philosophy’s most challenging and common objections: 1) philosophy is useless; and 2) philosophy is mere opinion. I will begin with the first.

Philosophers tire of hearing about their uselessness. It is not difficult, they say, to find testimony to philosophy’s awesome power. But just try to measure this. Just try to count all those who have benefited from philosophy’s presence. There is no ruler for this. There is no scale which shows the absolute weight of being leave one’s body as she is first overcome by philosophy. And as we try, we are faced with this simple fact: most students are not so overcome. Most students never meet philosophy in the flesh. They only meet its bones and sinews as it is sprawled out before them.

This is no worry, say philosophers, for we can measure philosophy’s benefits. Just look! Philosophy students perform better on the GRE, the GMAT, the LSAT, the MBAT, the ACAT, and the ISAT. This is truly impressive and wonderful! But as you are regaled with these successes, as your eyes glaze over in the monotony, just remember that the last three don’t exist and the first three don’t mean much of anything. Of course philosophy prepares students for logic tests. We’re the only people who pretend to teach logic. The other disciplines are too busy teaching students useful facts and skills that erect towers and treat typhus. Philosophy races out of the gate teaching thinking skills; the other disciplines require a great deal more background knowledge before they can even start. And without this handicap, it is not clear that philosophy would ever perform any better. But that it currently performs better highlights something else: philosophy doesn’t require background knowledge, and indeed adds next to nothing to students’ epistemic inventory.  So philosophy quickly develops analytical skills and problem solving but teaches nothing while other disciplines teach quite a lot and more slowly develops analytical skills and problem solving. The preference is obvious and reflected in student choice.

“Now hold on!” someone might say, “Philosophy students learn about Locke’s theory of substance. Doesn’t that matter at all?!” And, well, no. It doesn’t. Locke’s theory is one of many. As it is dissected, its relations to Locke’s other theories and the theories of others are drawn out. The instructor, as observer, does not render judgement. She teases out its muscles for display. Should the student endorse this view? Or shall she endorse this other, or this other, or this other, or this other, or this other, or…? No one can say with certainty. It is up to the student to decide. And with such a diversity of options and no clear, agreed upon criteria of success, how else is the student to decide between dead and sterile theory parts than by opinion? This is not a problem that faces the sciences. When the scientific body of knowledge is dissected, students are presented with a largely coherent set of facts that can be endlessly reused and reassembled into new and better theories.

It is no secret why students flee philosophy (and the humanities more broadly) en masse. It is no secret why they almost completely enrol in STEM programs. But it is also no longer mysterious what philosophy is doing wrong in its pedagogy: philosophers are playing the scientist’s game in the academy, and they are losing badly. Philosophy is not the kind of thing that can be dispassionately dissected for students. Instructors in philosophy classrooms can’t simply stand aside as an observer: she is a participant. Philosophy must be lived. Philosophy must be embodied. Students must be given philosophy in the flesh. Only then can they be captured and entranced by it. Only then can they be improved by it. Philosophy does not speak herself: we must speak for her.

I am not certain how to do this. I have no idea how to bring philosophy to life but by doing it. But some things are clear still: instructors and students are not observers but participants. In the philosophy classroom, philosophy must be done. And in this, of course the history and the diversity of views is relevant. These are options to be presented, to be thought through, and evaluated. And to do this, students must be faced with the kinds of problems philosophers work to solve and their motivations. Only then shall philosophy demonstrate its use. Only then shall we recognise that philosophy is about more than just one’s opinion.

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