Between Julie’s post and this week’s challenge of composing the syllabus for the Introduction to Philosophy course I am teaching this fall, I am haunted by the question:
Is knowledge good in itself?
I have set myself up to be an educator, but many of the criticisms of public education we delivered in response to Julie’s post seem disturbingly relevant to most college education as well; do you agree?
And even if knowledge is good in itself, how far should knowledge for its own sake be the goal of a philosophy course required of every student at a given University? (That would be Notre Dame)
In your experience, do college students in general hunger to learn? if so, when and how? if not, how do we explain those few freaks who do crave knowledge?
I was an utterly freakish student in college. I was not very interested in grades, and I would skip class regularly if it was boring, but I was insatiably interested to know and understand physics, philosophy, languages, whatever and would rather do extra homework than do boring homework. Lo and behold, here I am doing a PhD in philosophy. Most students are not like me.
The more I’ve studied philosophy, though, the more intrigued I am with practical knowledge. The world is such a complex place, who needs abstractions? I TAed a philosophy of law course where we just read supreme court opinions on key cases (race, free speech, free exercise of religion) and talked about the logic of the adversarial system, and thought about how all this stuff works to preserve some level of order and trust in our society. No theoretical philosophy, and I didn’t miss it. I think about what it takes to run a corporation, to get all those people doing all the different things they need to do to deliver the goods, and the unmanageable amount of information that bears on doing it well (market, technology, economy, employee needs . . .). Fascinating. And if you want knowledge for its own sake, how can you beat botany, or ecology, or astrophysics?
You would think that kids who show up at an uppity school like Notre Dame would love to learn, if anyone does. But from what I hear, fully one third of undergraduates here major in business.
But Notre Dame requires every student to take two courses in philosophy. This has something to do with being Catholic, and some of the students are Catholic in a way that involves being interested in philosophy. But in my mind the relationship between philosophy and Catholicism does not always bring out the best of either party. Philosophical proofs for the existence of God, for example, I find inconclusive. And indeterminist notions of free will, which I think draw their origin and most of their longevity from the classical Christian need to make humans responsible for sin without making their creator responsible for it, I think are philosophically incoherent. And Platonic notions of knowledge, which have done an interesting dance with classical notions of God, I think are of little use outside of mathematics. I have had to think through all these questions myself, to stay sane. But on the inconclusive stuff, why bring it up with someone who isn’t already in the thick of the problem?
Plus my students have probably done nearly nothing practical their entire lives! Maybe they had to take out the trash or mow the lawn at home. Otherwise they were probably either in school, doing homework, or goofing off nearly every minute of their lives so far. Let’s get them out of school and let them do something practical.
My experiences so far leave me with the impression that most Notre Dame students, like most people, don’t mind learning a little bit, here and there, for the novelty, but 97 percent of the time they would rather just get what they want, whether it’s the grade, the job, the money, the girlfriend or boyfriend, and do what they want, whether it’s watching a movie, going to the bar, or playing golf. And what’s wrong with that, if they’re basically honest and considerate in the way they go about it? Am I just in a pessimistic mood?
What’s the use of a liberal education?