Should We Require All Students to Take Philosophy?

In July 2018, I published an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Why We Should Require All Students to Take 2 Philosophy Courses,” in which I contended that all college students should be required to take two courses in philosophy—one during their freshman year, the second during their last year of college. This requirement would yield two dividends:

1) Familiarity with vital issues about which outstanding thinkers have grappled over the centuries; and

2) Practice at the kinds of discussions and arguments that are associated with the field and practice of philosophy.

This essay provoked a fair amount of discussion and controversy, both on the Chronicle‘s website and in private communications from colleagues and friends. In what follows, I address some of the points that were raised.

Requirements: Pros and Cons

First, is it really a good idea to impose requirements? Perhaps that very action yields resistance.

All institutions have requirements—ranging from compulsory writing courses to fees for student activities. At issue is whether these requirements make sense, are central to the mission of the school, and can be adequately defended.  The requirements should be clear at the outset. If students have a principled objection to taking a course in philosophy, then they should not attend a school with that requirement.

A related point: too many college students immediately recreate their peer group from high school, or, worse, feel alienated or suffer from anxiety and depression. One way to counter these trends is to create activities and requirements that involve and affect all students. Of course, the more that these activities and requirements infuse the rest of the college experience—rather than being obligatory “one offs”—the more likely that students will feel that they are akin to their classmates and, thus, that they belong to a community of young scholars.

Why Philosophy?

Why should philosophy be singled out as required, and not statistics or citizenship or global issues?

I defend the prioritization of philosophy in two ways. First, of all the scholarly topics, philosophy is the one most central to the agenda of higher education. It poses the most basic questions, specifies how these questions have been addressed, and provides the rationale for the range of disciplines, from mathematics to political science to current events. See the writings of Plato and Aristotle, or, for that matter, those of Confucius or of the contributors to the Talmud.

Second, philosophical thinking requires, and takes advantages of, cognitive capacities that generally emerge during later adolescence. I have in mind the capacities to master systems of thoughts; compare systems of thought; and  combine, contrast, or critique various disciplinary ways of thinking. 

In contrast, the core and organizing concepts of most other disciplines—ranging from biology to history to psychology—can be understood at earlier points in cognitive development.

Curricular Equivalents

What about common core, or general education requirements?

As several correspondents pointed out, major institutions of higher education, like Columbia College or The University of Chicago, have required courses or sequences of courses that cover “great books,” often those from the Western canon. I should have pointed that out in my original essay, and I am happy to endorse a rigorous set of readings and discussions of important basic texts. What’s important is that the faculty embrace these readings and discuss them in terms of their basic arguments, how they are stated, in which ways they may be flawed, and how the conversation about these topics has evolved over time and across cultures. In other words, the readings (and other media presentations, as appropriate) should trigger the kinds of talk and argument that we associate with serious philosophical discussions.

The risk, which I have seen at Harvard College, is that over time these “gen ed” or “core courses” regress into standard entry courses into the respective disciplines—at which point, the philosophical edge wanes or is lost.

A Gatekeeper to Knowledge

Does philosophy still occupy the role of “gatekeeper” to knowledge that it has traditionally occupied?

Like many other fields, philosophy goes through its own peregrinations—and it can veer from logical analysis of strings of symbols, on the one hand, to post-modern musings on the other. I have no desire to legislate the materials on which graduate students work or the basis on which tenure is granted or denied. But I would rather have my gateway philosophy courses taught by scholars in other disciplines who have knowledge of texts and of how to introduce students to them, than to have minted philosophers who treat incoming students as if they were peer reviewers for an esoteric journal.

Jobs and “Practical Knowledge”

In our large national study of higher education, for which data collection has just been completed, we often run into the line of argument that philosophy is impractical and does not relate to the “real world.” And I certainly understand the reasons for it, especially at a time when job security is uncertain and when many young people worry that they will not do as well as their parents—an especially acute symptom in the United States.

Certainly this concern should be acknowledged, not tossed aside. And perhaps it’s reasonable for colleges to take on some of this responsibility for life after college. But it’s neither what colleges have been designed to do, nor what they are good at—unless, we revolutionize training, selection of faculty, and course offerings.

And so I have two responses:

1) Practical: Pose the question, “And what happens if the job for which you have been prepared disappears?” Very few students—or parents—have even considered this possibility.

2) Philosophical (pun intended): Higher education is arguably the last time in your life where you have the luxury of pondering the big questions of life. What are we here for? What is the good life? What would you be willing to die for? What do you hope for the generations after you die? One can pose those questions alone, or just discuss with friends, or one can touch on them when tossing a Frisbee across the yard, but it’s much better to join into a guided conversation that has taken place over the centuries—and philosophy is the best way that humans have devised for such an entry. And, as a bonus, if you learn to think and converse well about such critical issues, you will be able to use that intellectual capital in any job to which you aspire, and perhaps advance more readily to a higher position.

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2 Comments on “Should We Require All Students to Take Philosophy?”

  1. E is for Elsie August 3, 2018 at 5:33 pm #

    Philosophy is such an important discipline. Thank you for sharing your essay and insights–I totally agree with them. 🙂

  2. Aasia imran Azeemi August 4, 2018 at 12:29 pm #

    Am happy to read this.

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