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September 04, 2009


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If there are local high schools that send a lot of students to your university, it might be worth setting up an "outreach program" (like they have at UNC Chapel Hill) where enthusiastic majors and grad students can go out and hook younger students on philosophy before they even start university.

This might have some long-term benefits for your department -- and of course it's intrinsically worthwhile too.

Richard---Thanks for the suggestion. I'm not immediately sure how to implement that in VA, where K-12 teaching is so heavily geared toward preparing students for standardized exams (the Standards of Learning---yes, the SOLs) that I think there would be considerable resistance to giving up time to a subject on which students won't be examined. But maybe there is something we could do on those lines. I actually played last year with setting something up for HS debate and forensics students, which is where I first encountered philosophy, but that turned out to be complicated.

Hi Dale,

Interesting question. Here are some thoughts:

(1) Try sexier course names. Instead of "intro to philosophy", you could try "the philosophy of life and death", or "a history of skeptical thought".

(2) Have you tried to find a role for philosophy in your college's new gen ed program? We offer "critical thinking about moral problems" and "thinking about thinking" as part of the gen ed program. It's a decent conduit into the major, I think.

(3) Have the most popular and charismatic teachers teach the largest intro classes.

That's all I've got for now. I should note that I have no empirical evidence that any of these techniques actually work!

Thanks for the input. We still have a role in the new gen ed system, but it is diminished. Currently, students must take one of three courses from us: generic intro (not the real title, although the real one is no sexier!), a sort of critical thinking course, or World Religions (we are a philosophy and religious studies department, at least technically). The new system replaces the philosophy requirement with a "philosophy and ethics" requirement. We will add a fourth introductory course, an ethics course, which is a good thing. However, if another department wants to teach its own ethics course (accounting ethics, whatever) and require its students to take it, then those students don't have to take a class from this at all. I've been sending a lot of emails this week trying to get a handle on how many departments will do this. Needless to say that we aren't entirely thrilled with this change, but something even worse for us had been mooted and so we're still somewhat relieved.

"Drawing students into a philosophy department will always be challenging, since philosophy may be the only university subject to which students will not have received even an introductory exposure in their K-12 education."

What about anthropology, economics, linguistics, political science, psychology, and sociology, not to mention non-liberal arts majors like business and engineering?

I think that nearly every high school offers business courses and courses that might be viewed as introductions to engineering ("shop," drafting, etc.). Every high school offers introductory political science, i.e., government. My not especially large or well-funded public high school offered economics, sociology, and psychology (I took the first two). Perhaps you're right about linguistics and anthropology, although I wonder whether at least the latter of these wasn't covered in an introductory way in various social studies courses K-12. But I don't see any utility in debating this point further.

I have an opinion that I want to share. At Harvard, our intro philosophy course is taught by one of the best lecturers in the department, but has a fairly typical structure for an intro course: Are we all in a matrix? Can we know anything? Is there anything out there? Does God exist? Is there an objective good? Is there free will? Those sorts of questions, with maybe a lecture or two on each one. And I think that the course is pretty successful. But I want to suggest a different way that these intro courses could be taught. I think that our department doesn't do a very good job of courting people who would otherwise major in the sciences. Part of that problem is that philosophy doesn't come across to students as being relevant or necessary for the practice of science. So I would suggest an intro course aimed at science majors, one that asks hard questions about scientific practice and method. Maybe do some phil of math and wonder whether numbers exist (and, more importantly, why metaphysical questions like that one matter!). But the idea would be to catalyze a change in the way that philosophy is perceived. That is, instead of being perceived as just the province of daydreamers and people who sit around what the meaning of life is (and, gloriously, philosophy is that too!) but also as those who are serious students of science and careful observers of human intellectual practice.

I agree with Michael.

We spend a lot of time courting students with hot topics, and I think we should continue to do that. But even if we don't go as far as Michael suggests and develop an entire intro course geared at science majors, I do think we need to combat the general impression that I think a lot of science students might have that philosophical methodology is kind of like tea-leaf reading.

I spend some time emphasizing that there is nothing mysterious about the sort of methodology we have, and that (while this is a substantive philosophical claim) the sciences are forced to rely on these methods when it comes to grounding the epistemic principles that their discipline presupposes.

I know there is a professor in another humanities department at the university where I teach. He openly rips on philosophy as something akin to tea leaf reading in his classes. I had heard this from a couple of philosophy majors who were double majoring in his subject, and I heard him speak with disdain about philosophy to one of those students in the hall.

It was the perfect example of someone making substantive philosophical claims about the nature of philosophy that can only be supported BY DOING philosophy.

Other thoughts
I have a collection of materials that I call "The Parent Packet"

I have this ready to go whenever a student comes to me and is (a) interested in philosophy and (b) is worried about what their parents will think.

I posted them a while back so that philosophers could use them to give to students or print out for their major information day fairs.

Here's the link...


The professor of my first-ever philosophy course wore a T-shirt. The front read, "I'm in philosophy ..." The back read, "for the money." Though the T-shirt was a joke, Andrew Cullison's link has some good references showing the practical value of philosophy in the business world. I recently ran across this additional link to information on salaries of individuals with only undergraduate degrees in philosophy on the APA website: Very interesting (and favorable) statistics on the earnings of philosophy majors in comparison, say, to accounting, marketing, and business management.

We all wish that our students were there for the intrinsic value associated with studying philosophy, but clearly we have to show some practical value to them, and especially to their parents.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, I'm actually happy to report that several of my friends in math and physics are actually interested in several philosophy courses that are being taught in the coming semester, namely (Logic and Philosophy) and The Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein. I know The Philosophy of QM also draws interest from other concentrations.

For anecdotal reasons, I agree with Michael - your best bet is to teach philosophy of science in ways that will attract and retain mathematicians and scientists.

My sense (as a recent graduate) is that most of those who stick with philosophy, and all who do so and get something out of it, have an affinity for the analytic approach. And most who have an affinity for the analytic approach are mathematically or scientifically minded.

The problem (if my experience is typical) is that it is harder to attract mathy types to philosophy than it is to attract those interested in the softer disciplines. Ethics, death, skepticism, the history of philosophy - all these tend to hook those who are thoroughly nonjudgmental (to the point that they find rigorous argument distasteful) or are metaphysical "in the pejorative sense" (e.g. who react to the Cogito by writing in tongues).

Mathy types, on the other hand, are generally uninterested in these topics. Based on my observations, this because, even as freshmen, they have (i) a positivist disdain for questions that don't need to be answered in order to do science (including historical questions) and (ii) a Moorean suspicion of global skepticism (or anything else that might call into question the warrant of chunks of our scientific knowledge).

To avoid triggering (i) and (ii), you need to offer courses that, you can persuade mathy types, both consider problems that are (obviously) relevant to scientific investigation and (by and large) explore arguments that are compatible with our having most of the empirical knowledge we already have.

But a difficulty remains. Often, mathy types don't want to study much that isn't math or science. Either they think any distraction from their, quite time-consuming, course of study will interfere with their long-term plans or (and my sense is this is equally important) they don't like writing essays (that aren't the descriptive brain-dumps that undergraduate lab reports amount to). So even if you offer courses that don't trigger their positivist and Moorean prejudices, you still have to persuade them that the philosophy will help them be better scientists and that the class itself won't be a massacre.

Three suggestions. First, try to figure out a way to convince e.g. that a facility with philosophy of QM will give physicists a greater feel for how to use QM. Second, get departments in the hard sciences to give credit for (or require!) some philosophy. Third, allow students in the class alternatives to the traditional essay. One exercise I think a number of my mathy friends would have gotten a kick out of is to read a piece of philosophy, reformulate its central argument as a deductive proof and then either offer their own numbered-step argument that entails the denial of one of the reformulated argument's premises or identify a fallacy in the reformulated argument. Of course, you also need to ask for some explanation why the reformulation is good and why the premises in their objection are true (although you could even do that in class discussion), but if the focus is on the logic of it I think that would work to mathy-types' strengths.

Do you have a philosophy club? When I was an undergrad the meetings of our philosophy club were important recruiting tools. We sent people to the "majors fair" and the "clubs fair" organized by the university, sponsored talks, had parties, etc. (Hume's birthday, where we'd stay up all night to see if the sun rose or not, was the big annual event, but we had many others during the year.) We sponsored debates on creationism and the like that attracted fairly large audiences, and in general helped increase the visibility of philosophy. Flyers advertising classes in the appropriate area (phil sci in the science building, logic in math or computer science, aesthetics in art, etc.) can also be useful, in my experience.

Not sure if anyone above suggested this, but I think students interested in Law are a great source of philosophy majors.

There are lots of statistics to convince these students that a philosophy major will help them instrumentally (with the LSAT and success in Law School), and they tend to like the focus on argument analysis. I suggest considering a law and philosophy minor. I also suggest putting in extra effort "marketing" philosophy of Law if you have it; is there a pre-law society or a pre-law adviser? You could also consider a "logic and law" course.

And once you get them to bite, you can convert them from the dark side.

There are some good suggestions here, folks, for which I'm appreciative. I think that we already do a fair job of marketing ourselves to pre-law students; we have a special "political-legal studies" track in the major for that purpose. (I agree with Brad that any department not already pursuing this population should start.) I like the idea of an intro class aimed at math and science students; that is something we don't really do enough of. (We already teach the right course, I think, but only for honors students and only once every couple of years.)

I should mention one thing that we are doing with some success, which is selling the idea of philosophy as a second major to people who are too worried about job prospects (not having seen the data posted above!) to major in it alone. There is one specific good idea (or so I think, but then it was my idea) that we have implemented that should be about to bear fruit. Our dean created a policy whereby double majors can double count a certain number of courses that are part of both majors. This was done with departments in mind whose majors are interdisciplinary, like women's studies. But we worked out a deal with political science whereby we will count a couple of their classes toward our major, for students who double major, and they will do the same. Now students can double major only taking a few more courses than they need for a major + minor. Quite a few students had been majoring in PS department and minoring with us, so we hope that we will get more double majors this way. We're also planning to increase the number of hours in the major by 3 next year, but we want to find ways to let double majors count one of the courses in their major toward their philosophy degree, whatever the other major is. Maybe with some majors we won't be able to do this with a clear conscience, but many offer a "foundations" course that deals with issues of some philosophical interest.

Do you offer a 'science-fiction and philosophy' course?

I think that being a sci-fi enthusiast was one of the main things that led to my getting into philosophy. There is a new volume (a sort of hybrid textbook/reader) for this sort of course, published by Wiley-Blackwell, edited by Susan Schneider. It includes some actual philosophy journal papers and excerpts, some short stories, and some more popular-level pieces on the subject. It also has recommendations for more sci-fi novels and movies that tie in to the themes. This would probably be a good way to hook students who are already predisposed to be interested in philosophy, but might not know what it is.

Personally, I would like to see a longer anthology of 'philosophical' sci-fi stories published. Perhaps I will start compiling a list...

To the many excellent suggestions already made, let me add a few more:

(1) Promote the idea of philosophy as a good general-purpose major that can lead to many successful career paths. Compile lists of famous/successful philosophy majors. (With a little googling, you'll find plenty of such lists.) Also, compile a list of your own successful graduates, to show that they pursue many career paths other than college teaching. You can use these as hand-outs in your department, on your department web site, at recruiting fairs, etc.

(2) Make it easy to double-major with philosophy and something else. Keep your major requirements flexible and at the lower end of units for majors.

(3) To recruit more pre-law students, add a simple internship at local agencies for academic credit. Students know that a volunteer internship can help their long-term employment prospects. Add an upper-division critical thinking course which explicitly includes elements of LSAT prep. The law schools do not prefer any particular major, so make sure nobody on your campus is claiming otherwise (poli sci, e.g.).

(4) Look for partnerships with other departments. E.g., your nursing department might like a medical ethics course. Your arts program might like philosophy of art. Business needs people to teach business ethics. Some of those students required to take such courses will like philosophy so much they'll add a double major, or at least a minor.

Let me add an idea in a different direction. A while ago, the NTY published an article on a thriving philosophy department in an unlikely place. (I've forgotten the specifics, unfortunately.) They interviewed the professors. Their strategy? Be helpful, supportive and available for the students. If you take time to get to know the catalogue, explain it to confused students, and make calls for them when things go wrong, it helps. Ask your student-athletes if they won when they miss class rather than merely setting a make-up time. Take part in orientation, first-year advising, or intramural sports. If you were in a fraternity or sorority, you can be the advisor for your greek organization. Maybe the school play is a better option for you. I expect the opportunities are different at difference schools, and they're certainly different for different people, but I'm sure there's something along these lines that you and the department can do.

While none of this has much to do with philosophy, it speaks to the concerns that first-year students have. If they have a good experience with a philosophy professor and feel that you are an ally, they'll seriously consider majoring or, at least, taking a course.

Same goes for the students, btw. Nominate your best students for positions. I wouldn't push them into anything they don't want to do; however, a prominent and well-liked philosophy major gets the word out better than anything the department might do.

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