Can We Teach Philosophy to Undergraduates?

This might sound like a silly question, but I’ve recently come across an old article by Deirdre McCloskey, who, asking the same question about economics, answers “No” (Pointer from Tyler Cowen, some brief discussion). McCloskey’s argument, liberally reconstructed, is the following:

  1. There is a difference between teaching about economics, and teaching students how to do economics. The first, while not trivial, can be done; the second, she claims, is almost impossible to do.
  2. No matter how she modifies her teaching, very few of her students genuinely learn How To Think Like Economists—even if they learn how to regurgitate various facts about economics.
  3. Even from her own experience, she has fully learned the economic way of thinking only many years after finishing school. Only a few “naturals” get economics outright.
  4. She tentatively suggests an explanation: most students have protected, care-free middle-class upbringings, which makes it hard for them to fully understand the scarcity- and choice-based discipline of economics.
  5. On this basis, McCloskey tentatively suggests, perhaps the emphasis in teaching should be shifted towards teaching about economics. This would make economics more akin to the literary sciences (which teach you about literature, but not how to write it yourself).

It’s not hard to think of an analogous argument for why it’s impossible to teach philosophy to undergraduates. Indeed, McCloskey mentions philosophy in an off-hand remark (“economics, like philosophy, cannot be taught to nineteen-year olds”), so she seems to think the case applies here, too. (Given the age of the piece, McCloskey of course might no longer be committed to the claims contained within it.)

To quickly go over the same points again:

  1. The distinction between learning “about” and “doing” philosophy would, roughly, be the distinction between getting to know the arguments and disagreements of other philosophers, and constructing and defending a philosophical view of one’s own.
  2. It’s not too hard to be disappointed with the quality of one’s undergraduate essays. I do not mean on a formal level (though that, too), but on a substantive level: to be disappointed with the way that most undergraduate writing dabbles in the mundane, fails to grasp the philosophical issues, and generally remains shallow and confused. We can assume arguendo that few students turn into genuine philosophers.
  3. I’m less sure about the idea of philosophical “naturals” (as I think, in general, that we should be suspicious of the idea of “genius”). But certainly in my own case, I’ve made the greatest strides in becoming a better philosopher quite late, certainly not during undergraduate.
  4. One might also think of some general explanations why few students “get” philosophy. First, it is rarely taught in schools, or at least, doing philosophy is rarely taught. Second, (analytic) philosophy focusses on conceptual analysis and abstract, non-empirical thinking, which finds no place in our wider culture, even within the humanities.
  5. Similarly, one might conclude, the aim of an undergraduate philosophy education should be moderate. It should focus on teaching about philosophy, and acknowledge that very few undergraduates will genuinely do philosophy. For example, we should have low expectations on how original and independent students’ writing should be. Testing students on whether they understand historical thinkers is a much more realistic aim.

To emphasise this outright, I don’t believe in this argument, but it’s useful as a critical foil. Let me note some scepticism with the economics case first. Few undergraduates might genuinely learn How To Think Like An Economist. If by this we merely mean economics as an empirical-mathematical discipline, that’s understandable. This simply means that economics requires you to learn certain formal methods which are hard: they require substantive amounts of effort, time and intelligence to learn. If McCloskey’s point was simply that economics is intellectually challenging, it would be a much less interesting point.

But McCloskey seems to be aiming for a more specific point—she wants to argue that there is some particular economic sensitivity, some economistic way of seeing the world that few of her students “get”. However, the failure of undergraduates to learn this sensitivity might just be because the economistic way of seeing the world is not that obvious at all—e.g., it is often based on an implausible account of human psychology, an impoverished account of values, and requires you to believe in highly abstract (i.e., empirically false) models with little predictive power.

To be fair to McCloskey, she herself has been at the forefront of fighting many impoverished ways of thinking of economics. Still, her complaint can just look like the complaint that most undergraduates fail to let themselves be indoctrinated into a specific ideological way of thinking. (From personal experience, I think that this underestimates economics’ indoctrinating power—when debating moral or political issues, I’ve found that you can pick out economics students very quickly.)

Putting these specific points aside, I think the above arguments don’t carry much weight. Here are five reasons why:

1. While there is some distinction between talking about philosophy and doing it, the distinction is not all that clear. Imagine that I teach to students the idea that social contract theory is wrong, as none of us have consented, either explicitly or implicitly, to the governments we are subject to. This is a comparatively easy idea which almost all of my undergraduate students manage to understand when taught. On this basis, many conclude that consent-based explanations of state legitimacy fail. Have these undergraduates merely learned about philosophy? Or have they rather, in following the steps of the argument and incorporating it into their views, not also done philosophy? I am inclined to say the latter. Just as when you imitate someone else’s dancing steps, you dance, so tracing someone else’s philosophical argument, you do philosophy.

Admittedly, the strength of this point varies with the specifics of teaching method. Teaching which simply presents students with philosophical results, which merely juxtaposes the positions of different philosophers rather than showing the philosophical arguments between them, does fall prey to this critique. But only the most uninspired of teaching falls into this category.

2. A second worry is that teachers who complain about the measly quality of their undergraduates suffer from selection (or survivorship) bias. After all, they’re the 1% of undergraduates who found the stuff exciting, and were judged by the rest of the discipline to be good at it, and continued to a professional job teaching it. It’s not surprising that you find 99% of undergraduate performance disappointing if you yourself belonged to the 1%.

3. It’s certainly true that fully understanding the advantages, methods and force of philosophy takes time. At the same time, it’s my experience that philosophy teaches undergraduates a type of mentality—which we can vaguely and unsatisfyingly call “critical thinking”—that most of them get quite quickly. I’ve regularly found, for example, that bullshit detection skills in undergraduate students greatly increase after only a few philosophy courses.

4. I actually do think that there are social factors which make it harder for the average undergraduate to learn philosophy. The absence of good, critical, honest abstract thinking in general culture is amongst those. In method, analytic philosophy comes closest to mathematics, which also deals with purely a priori thinking. High school students learn various facts about mathematics, but they rarely learn how to do mathematics—i.e., how to construct a proof, rather than just applying a mathematical technique. Similarly, I suspect, philosophy in university tends to be the first time that most students first encounter genuinely abstract philosophical argument.

5. Lastly, consider this Simpsons clip,

If our continued efforts to teach philosophy (or economics) to undergraduates fail, then, perhaps, the fault is not with them, but with us. Sure, our undergraduates do not have the same experience, knowledge or skills that we, the teachers, have. But they are the most keen to acquire a new set of knowledge, the most malleable, the most likely to submit to, and not question, our epistemic authority, and on statistical average, smarter than the general population. If we cannot teach doing philosophy to this most favourable of audiences, then, well, it might be us who are doing something wrong.

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