Constructing a degree

I have the fantastic opportunity/overwhelming responsibility of designing a BA in Philosophy and Ethics. There are a couple of parameters: 1) I have to use existing modules (so that I’m not proposing a whole range of new courses and the degree can grow organically within the department); 2) being in a Department of Theology and Religious Studies, there needs to be a substantial focus on the philosophy of religion. Apart from that, I have a good deal of freedom to propose modules.

I have a few goals. First, and most importantly, I want to offer students opportunities to study perspectives that challenge the accepted canon of Western philosophy. I think it’s important to study Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Hegel (of course), etc. It’s also important, however, to help students recognise the contingent nature of this canon. Moreover, if we really think that philosophy is important, that ideas matter, then students need to grasp the way that this contingent canon has been intellectually exclusive and contributed to the social and political marginalisation of a variety of perspectives. Second, I don’t want students to approach the study of philosophy as the study of philosophers – I want them to study philosophical questions with the aid of the history of philosophy. I often think of this in terms of cooking. I love duck confit. When I look up a recipe, I’m not primarily interested in learning about the recipe – I want to eat duck confit. Too much of undergraduate education is thinking about recipes rather than eating.

In the past my teaching has fallen into the familiar pattern of studying a series of figures, occasionally puling back to discuss wider themes. So in a class entitle ‘Theology and Modernity’ we read Descartes, Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx and then considered feminist and post-Holocaust critiques of modernity. All too often class discussion focused on what Descartes said rather than understanding what Descartes said in order to think about the relationship between modern philosophy and theology. In my experience, the especially eager students are excited to be reading Hume or Nietzsche but a significant portion of the class winds up selecting an essay question, getting a handle on the basic concepts of a particular philosopher and then regurgitating this information in their essay. At the end of the term, they might know a bit more about Marx, but they haven’t critically engaged with the material. Trying to correct this lack of engagement requires changing the way the students engage with the material, which means rethinking the way I structure my classes.

If, as Adam Kotsko suggested in an episode of My Name is My Name with APS (an excellent podcast that you should check out), the purpose of higher education is to enable students to live better lives, rather than just memorising information, then that needs to be reflected in the way we teach.

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