Overcoming Resistance from both Students and Instructors

Ultimately, all teaching is about overcoming resistance; but resistance is specific problem for intro philosophy.  Although they typically know nothing at all about our discipline, students sometimes have a resistance to studying philosophy at all. Conversely, many instructors resist the idea of teaching Introduction to Philosophy. In this section (which is more theoretical than most of what you will find on TΦ101) we explore both sides of this resistance.

 

Student Resistance to Philosophy

In a world that is increasingly focused on the practical and instrumental, many people see the idea of studying philosophy as at least a waste of time and, at the extreme, a form of economic suicide. This is not precisely a new idea, since Callicles said much the same to Socrates, but the historical pedigree of this resistance does not make it any less of a problem. Our students usually don’t know what philosophy is or why they should study it, and can be especially resentful if they are required to study it. This is not like other disciplines. A math teacher may have to convince the students that the subject is useful to them, but will not typically have to defend the existence of the subject. Philosophy, by contrast, is often on trial for its life in the minds of students (and colleagues in other disciplines).

 

What this means is that we not only have to teach our students about philosophy, but persuade them of its very value. We have to help them understand the conclusion of Bertrand Russell’s summation in The Problems of Philosophy:

 

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good (Russell, Ch. XV).

 

Instructor Resistance

The fact that we sometimes feel that we have to sell our students on philosophy creates another obstacle to teaching intro philosophy, which is the resistance of instructors themselves to teaching this subject. Realistically, some of us are not interested in teaching introductory courses either because we think the basic concepts that must be discussed are just not that intellectually stimulating or because we don’t relish the idea of teaching students who are uninterested in philosophy (or seemingly anything else) and who are often in our courses only because they are required to be there. Furthermore, some of us feel that our institutions have caved into our consumerist culture and demand that every subject has to be justified by its appeal to the market. In short, we got into this field because we loved it, not because we wanted to spend our days selling it to students who would rather be elsewhere. If we are interested in this course at all, it is to reach the one or two students who might actually become majors.

 

At the same time, economic realities force us not only to teach students for whom philosophy is not a priority, but to make them enjoy taking our classes. If they hate our classes and give us poor student evaluations, we may suffer the consequences and, at the worst extreme, find ourselves having to leave the profession and the field that we spent so many years preparing for. Sometimes it feels as though we must so popularize our course that we ourselves would never have entered the field if this was our first exposure.  

 

All of this points to a cruel dilemma. Just as many of the students in an introduction to philosophy would rather be elsewhere, many instructors would say – in an honest moment – that this is not their first priority either.

 

Closing the Gap

There is a way to bridge this gap.  The first step is ours.  We need to find ways to meet our students where they are and engage them in the excitement of our discipline.  We hope that TΦ101 provides some suggestions for how to do this.  Once the students are more engaged, we will enjoy teaching them, and we will find, what Augustine described as the joy of watching "the old things become new" in their eyes. 

 

Sources:

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, January 14, 2008. Russell's concluding chapter on the "The Value of Philosophy" is itself a wonderful essay to include in an intro course. The copyright on this material has expired, so it is also in the public domain. 

 

 

Authors: John Immerwahr and Katherine Eltringham
Update: 15 Dec. 2015 (E. Tarver)