Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Does the Introductory Philosophy Course Cover Too Much?

Typical philosophy course chalkboard from the University of Chicago
In his blogpost Does the Introductory Physics Course Cover Too Much?, Rhett Allain writes:
The point is that even with the very first concept in introductory physics, there are many things that students must not only understand but master in order to progress. Learning physics isn’t like building a pyramid with introductory concepts at the bottom. No. Learning physics is like an upside down pyramid that gets bigger at the top. All of this mass at the top of the pyramid is being supported by these initial ideas. A small crack in these supporting ideas will bring down the whole thing.
As Allain explains, though he organizes his Intro course around three basic principles (momentum, work energy, and angular momentum), students can only learn these principles if they have already learned what these principles presuppose (vectors, rates of change, how to graph). In other words, the "basics" are not as basic as we professors tend to take for granted, and by taking the "basics" for granted we risk leaving students behind.

Allain therefore suggests that Intro to Physics be reorganized from the bottom up (rather than from the top down, such as by the demands of the other departments whose students are required to take Intro to Physics). This bottom-up approach begins by asking the seemingly most basic question—"why are students taking this course?"—and ends with the sober conclusion:
Alas, if this was a 3 credit hour course you probably wouldn’t get to torque. I think torque is cool, but it’s a stretch to do all the cool things in such a short time.
After reading Allain's blogpost, and after having recently reviewed my student evaluations from last semester, I'm now led to wonder about the three parallel concerns surrounding teaching Intro to Philosophy:
  1. What are the "basics" of Intro to Philosophy?
  2. What are the basics behind these "basics"?
  3. What is the "torque" or "cool thing" we should be willing to drop from Intro?

I would be fascinated (and greatly helped as a philosophy professor) to see how other philosophy professors answer these questions (and in particular how different the responses might be say from analytic and continental philosophy professors). 

Of course for philosophy, unlike physics, these questions are internal rather than external to philosophy (in other words, the question of how to teach philosophy is itself philosophy), for which reason our "upside down pyramid" might look a little different from that of physics.
Physics aims in one direction. Philosophy however is more "Ouroborical"...
Were I to attempt to answer these three questions, it might go something like this:
  1. Epistemology; Ethics; Aesthetics.
  2. Logic; Critical thinking; Writing.
  3. Non-traditional/canonical/Western philosophy.

Such answers of course, Ouroborically, raise new questions:
  1. Can one learn logic, critical thinking, and even writing without first learning epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics?
  2. What is the value of learning epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics if we are not also learning non-traditional/canonical/Western philosophy?
  3. If we were to learn non-traditional/canonical/Western philosophy, what impact would that have on both epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics on the one hand, and on logic, critical thinking, and writing on the other?

As you can see, I am now down the rabbit hole of philosophy, a rabbit hole I have been down many times before, for which reason I would greatly appreciate feedback from any other philosophy professors out there.

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