Teaching
October 21, 2017
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.)

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