The best philosophy course I taught in 2016

I want to write a little about my favourite of the courses that I tutored and taught last semester. This course challenged those attempting it more than most, but luckily it played host to some of my best students. I’m confident that it made a bigger difference to their philosophical development than any other course we offer at my university.

This was a gruelling and wide-ranging syllabus. We covered epistemology, critical reasoning, metaphysics, and ethics. These conversations were fun (for me at least). But more than that, once students were less self-conscious, they gave a great insight into how quickly they were progressing.

Thinking about how we know things was a tough way to start – not least because we don’t often consider this in everyday life. But it was a picnic compared to propositional and predicate logic I inflicted on them. Pretty soon though, the students started getting the point: seeing something doesn’t always make it true, though this did ‘ruin the Matrix’ for one student. They started seeing that not everything that resembles sound reasoning actually works, and would come to class with a list of faulty arguments & justifications peddled by politicians and advertisers. I was especially happy when a student pointed out to me a version of the slippery slope argument that I’d never really considered. She’d seen a real-estate ad, where buying the ‘right’ house inevitably led to a child being a huge success – all though a series of steps (each more implausible than the last), and informed me that slippery slopes can go ‘uphill’ too.

The relief that they felt at completing the logic module was short-lived as they began to grapple with metaphysics. Identity and personhood were tricky concepts at first. But thanks to our discussion of the Ship of Theseus, most of my ex-students will never invest in a teleportation scheme. Despite my best efforts, including a robust discussion of what Mary knew (Jackson’s Knowledge argument), most of them retain their belief that everything is physical, and that’s that. But they also know that personal identity over time is a potentially complicated topic.

Ethics was the final hurdle. We argued about whose interests to take into account in utilitarian calculus – including speculating about whether a utilitarian AI would actually be a good thing. Divine command theory challenged them to consider if it actually made sense to say that something was good purely because God decrees it. Finally, we took a hammer to cultural relativism and subjectivism. There were no simple or easy answers, but that was OK as by this stage the students were comfortable with that.

All of this was peppered with assessments ranging from a stressful written logic exam to a diabolical ethics essay: ‘Can it ever be right to deliberately take a human life?’

So, who were these students? Was this an advanced class? Did they come into university with great marks from high school? The answer is no, and no. The course was Open Foundation Philosophy. The students were undertaking one or other of UoN’s enabling programs (Open Foundation or Newstep) – designed for students who’ve experienced educational disadvantage and who would otherwise be unable to get into a degree. These were students with lower HSC results, or who had never finished high school. Some were tradies, or worked in retail. Others were out of work. The last time some of them set foot in a classroom, I hadn’t even been born yet. (And as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m very proud of all of them).

I can’t sugar-coat the rate at which participants dropped out. Despite our best efforts, some students find it too much of a shock to the system. Others discover that they’d rather do something else than go to uni. But of those who did make it through, they join a long list of students who tend to very well in their further studies. I heard one very high-ranked administrator once say that completing one of these programs was the best predictor of success we had. I could dig out some figures, but since it’s outside of semester, I’ll stick to anecdotes and point out that I got into university via Open Foundation Philosophy some years ago. I hope my PhD means I turned out OK.

Whatever these students go on to study, and it isn’t always more philosophy, I’m confident they will do well. Research indicates that children exposed to philosophy are higher achievers in other areas, and I suspect the same is true of adults. Figures also suggest that philosophy grads tend to have good earnings, despite working across a broad range of careers. Perhaps this is because philosophy, through specific skills like formal logic, and a general ability to grasp abstract and complicated ideas, is the ultimate transferable skill-set. It’s what some people might call ‘powerful knowledge’.

Importantly, philosophy is for everyone, not just ‘ivory tower’ types and other so-called ‘elites’. Students don’t need to have gotten top marks in high-school (or have even finished it). They just need opportunity, support and perseverance. Philosophers talk a lot about the value of their high-powered cutting edge research – and that’s worthwhile. But perhaps this course is the sort of thing we should really be concentrating on.