Monday, July 16, 2018

Why We Should Require All Students to Take Two Philosophy Courses

(Image: iStock)
by Howard Gardner, The Chronicle of Higher Education:

If I were the czar of higher education that is not explicitly vocational, I would require every undergraduate to study philosophy. And if I were both czar and czarina, I would require all students to take two philosophy courses — one in their first year and another just before graduation.

At first blush, that requirement may seem bizarre, especially coming from me. I am a psychologist and, more broadly, a social scientist — not a philosopher or a humanist. Even more deplorably, I have never taken a philosophy course myself.

But I’ve been thinking about philosophy in recent months because of two developments. A year ago, Mills College eliminated its philosophy major and merged the department into an interdisciplinary unit — just one example of a growing number of institutions that have eliminated majors in certain humanities fields. On a more positive note, in January, the Johns Hopkins University won a $75-million donation to bolster its philosophy department. It occurred to me that a good use of that money would be to design new required courses in philosophy for the benefit of both philosophy departments and undergraduates in general.

Instead, I would call the requirement something like "Big Questions of Life." Every student in their first year of college would choose one course from a list with titles like:The kinds of courses I would require probably wouldn’t even have "philosophy" in the name, although they would all be taught by academics trained in that field. Indeed, except in certain explicitly liberal-arts contexts, I might well avoid the word entirely, since it would frighten some students (and, even more, their parents) and confuse others ("Is this about my personal philosophy?").

  • "Questions of Identity" (Who am I? Who are we?).
  • "Questions of Purpose" (Why are we here? What’s it all for?).
  • "Questions of Virtues and Vices" (What is truth? What is beauty? What is morality?).
  • "Questions of Existence" (What does it mean to be alive, to die, indeed, to be? Or not to be?).
Those are the questions!
Moreover, I would start with the students’ own individual and collective answers to the Big Questions of Life. But — and here is the crucial move — I would not end there.
Instead, I would help students understand that reflective human beings have been asking and answering such questions for millennia, across many cultures and many epochs. Some of the answers those people came up with to the perennial riddles of life have been profound, as indeed have some of the subsequent critiques of their answers.
I want students to appreciate that this conversation over time and across cultures is important and — crucially — that they can and should join in. But they should do so with some humility and respect, building on what has been thought and said before.
There are two powerful reasons for requiring students to start (and end) their education with philosophical questions and thinking. First, scholarly disciplines, however they may have evolved in recent times, began because of human beings’ interest in understanding diverse aspects of their world — ranging from the movement of the stars to the strivings of the soul. A compelling way to understand the spectrum of knowledge is to encounter some of the intriguing ways in which our predecessors thought about those same issues. Second, for most of us, it’s only in late adolescence that we become able to reflect on bodies of knowledge and their relation to one another.
Philosophical ways of reading, thinking, and arguing would constitute good training for four years of college — whether or not the "ph" word is ever uttered.
In Years 2 and 3 of a student’s education, faculty members across the disciplines and at several degrees of sophistication could build on the initial exposure to philosophical thought, contouring it in ways appropriate to their particular courses. Whether you are teaching poetry, psychology, or physics, you should be able to talk about the ideas that originally motivated the practices in your discipline, the ways in which those ideas have remained constant or changed, and how they relate to ideas in other fields, both neighboring and more remote.
To do that, faculty members need not be masters of philosophy, just as a philosopher need not be a master of the other fields. But all professors should be able to — indeed, should want to — provide a context for their field of study. Imagine how inspiring and motivating those conversations could be from course to course, and discipline to discipline.
During an undergraduate’s senior year, philosophical topics and concerns would return as a required course, once again taught by philosophers or philosophically trained scholars. But this time, students would approach the discipline more directly through the use of philosophical texts that deal with timeless as well as contemporary issues — for example, seminal texts on just and unjust wars, human and artificial intelligence, bioethics, the nature of consciousness.
The goal: to equip graduates with a philosophical armamentarium they could draw from — and contribute to — for the rest of their lives.
At Mills College, the loss of the philosophy department and major will decrease the likelihood that students will master the critical ways of thinking that have been the hallmark of philosophical thinking since classical times. It will be far more difficult for students there to understand the origin and development of different lines of scholarship and how they relate to one another. At Johns Hopkins, a generous donation should mean that more graduating students will be armed with powerful cognitive tools that should serve them well in whatever work and leisure pursuits they elect.
It would be disappointing — even tragic — if less-wealthy institutions elected to banish philosophical thinking from their campuses. Leaders of such campuses should, instead, be ingenious in drawing on philosophically trained instructors to inform foundational first-year courses and provide culminating courses of synthesis.
Indeed, in the 19th century, it was customary for the president of a college to provide an overview course at the end of the students’ education. Think of the powerful message that a president would send by advocating required philosophy courses for all incoming and graduating students. Why, that kind of initiative might even attract a multimillion-dollar donation.
Howard Gardner is a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The PhD Process: But What About Creativity?

Today’s guest blogger is Steven Thurlow, who is undertaking a doctorate at The University of Melbourne. As part of his studies, he has written about the perceptions of creativity held by PhD candidates in the Arts (see Thurlow, Morton & Choi in The Journal of Second Language Writing). He is currently investigating how Arts academics understand the notion of creativity in doctoral writing, both what it is and where it is found.
It was the last class of our 6-week “creative” writing circle for Arts doctoral writers at the Australian research-intensive university where I work. We had spent each 2-hour class looking at one aspect of creativity – both practical examinations of creativity at the textual/product level and more esoteric discussions about how creativity might be present in doctoral writing processes and practices. The mood was buoyant as the students began taking their leave and heading back to their various disciplinary nooks and crannies.
As she was heading for the door, one of the more enthusiastic participants turned to me. “Gee, Steven, that was a really interesting course and I learned so much.” Then came the body blow: “But I still really have no idea what creativity actually is, and how I can use it in my work.”
Looking at creativity can be disconcerting like that. Spectre-like, it rarely reveals its full shape and form in the academy. But despite a distinctly frosty welcome and even hostility in some quarters, it lingers and lurks in the shadows; in the cracks and crevices of academic discourse; a quixotic beast; a reminder of risk and a beacon of what could be.
Creativity is a term that resists neat definitions, a buzzword that bleeds across academic, professional and self-help contexts. As an explorer of creativity in doctoral writing contexts, I too have struggled with nomenclature. In investigating what it is and why it could be important for doctoral writers, I have tried to stake out some boundaries. In no particular order, the notion of creativity in doctoral writing:
  • tends to have a more practical application in universities and is often used synonymously with terms such as innovation and novelty;
  • is commonly associated with the expenditure of imaginative effort which results in creative content and/or to the idea of creative expression/form (Tardy, 2016);
  • is always subject to expert judgment in the guise of expert readers/examiners of doctoral work.
From the position of creativity researchers such as Csikszentmihalyi (1996) and Tin (2016), creativity springs from a potent mixture of personal/innate characteristics, a product outcome, the process or practice of the creator and a cocktail of other environmental factors. All these forces come together to face an institutional gatekeeper who judges the final thesis document.
So, why is it important for doctoral writers to acknowledge and use creativity in their thesis-writing efforts? One reason connects very explicitly to one crucial ingredient for every successful thesis: originality. Indeed, creativity is often spoken about interchangeably with originality, but they can be very different beasts. From my perspective, to reach the thesis nirvana of true originality, doctoral writers need the spark and inspirational passion that characterise creativity. Despite its cosily symbiotic relationship with originality, creativity is all too often sidelined in the academy. Working with doctoral writers, I have often observed seemingly competent and highly creative students who:
  • inform me they are unable to use specific creative words, structures or approaches in their work, as they are “forbidden”;
  • rarely consider (or have explained to them) the specific processes and practices are needed to complete the complex task of preparing the thesis “book”;
  • often show little interest in delving closely into their writerly “selves”/identities;
  • never explicitly discuss creativity with their supervisors and/or peers.
Many supervisors, too, would appear to view creativity as more of a constraint than an enabler and appear to rarely engage with the concept. However, from my work as both a doctoral writer and doctoral writing teacher, I have found myself more drawn to the idea of practical creativity – specifically, how it could be used to both engage and get our essential message across to readers.
Unfortunately, it appears from my investigations into creativity to date, that any mention of creativity in doctoral writing – apart from those undertaking a creative exegesis – is usually accompanied by a degree of tension. For while I did find some evidence that doctoral writers (especially those in the Arts) considered creativity while writing their theses, the amount and degree of it was adversely affected by feelings of confidence or vulnerability towards their work. Interestingly, it also seems that although most doctoral writers recognised the potential usefulness of learning specific techniques to activate their creativity, several also commented on the need to unlearn previous “blocking” information about creativity in academic writing that had been previously taught to them.
All in all, it seems we have some way to go before creativity is enthusiastically accepted as a liberating and powerful force for thesis writers and, indeed, for doctoral education.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.
Tardy, C. (2016). Beyond convention: Genre innovation in academic writing. Ann Arbor, Michigan): University of Michigan Press.
Tin, T.B. (2016). Creativity in second-language learning. In Jones, R. (Ed.) (2016) The Routledge handbook of language and creativity. (pp. 433-448). London; New York: Routledge.