When I was an undergraduate, I remember my first day in my introduction to philosophy class at Washington & Jefferson College, which was team-taught by David Schrader and Lloyd Mitchell (guest starring Andrew Rembert, on occasion). The course was subtitled “Beginning the Conversation,” and the two professors introduced the material on the first day by characterizing philosophy as an ongoing conversation about what is important to know, to do, and to believe in a human life and for humanity in general. (This, of course, is what I recall from ten years ago – and my memory of their lecture that day surely has been affected by the passage of time and my experiences in the classroom since.) The emphasis of that day’s discussion was that many brilliant thinkers have contributed to an ongoing conversation on these topics, and that, as students, we could participate in the conversation.
A big part of why I pursued philosophy seriously in the time since that first day in Philosophy 101 was that I have always liked the idea that I could participate in the grand tradition that traces its roots over two millennia back. I try to communicate this opportunity to my own students as well. Some students jump at the chance to participate in a conversation about difficult questions, while others don’t immediately think they have much to say. Part of the job of a philosophy instructor is to help this latter group of students discover for themselves what they think about the world in which they live. Many 18-year-old college freshmen are accustomed to life in a world that does not ask them what they think and which never requires them to consider common views critically. The philosophy instructor’s goal, in my mind, should be to demand that they think critically so that they can apply that skill to other areas of their lives. If the group of students that comes into my classroom believing that they don’t have anything important to say leaves at the end of the term at least with the knowledge that they can generate new ideas by thinking critically – and thereby come to have something to say – then I consider a large part of my task to be successfully completed.
Anyone who teaches intro classes knows what a challenge it is to describe the world’s oldest and broadest discipline in fifty minutes or less/fewer. In my intro classroom back in 2003, Mitchell and Schrader described what philosophy is supposed to do and what it is all about. There’s no way to do justice for the discipline, though, even for the most gifted thinkers and orators. This is due in part to the fact that the audience varies in its composition and most introductory students just aren’t mentally prepared to consider that so much about our existence remains unsettled. (Mitchell and Schrader did as good a job as I’ve seen, to be sure.)
Whether the “real purpose of philosophy” is to solve the toughest problems or simply to acknowledge them for what they are – perhaps re-characterizing old questions in new dress – a key component to any introductory course must be to encourage students to participate in the conversation that is the discipline of philosophy.