On teaching mediocre books

It’s been a few years now since I realized an obvious truth. The great majority of my students, and even the majority of the philosophy majors I teach, are not going to graduate school in philosophy. This is as it should be. There are already far too many PhDs than there are teaching jobs, and it is certainly true that it’s not the sort of life for everyone, and so on. Furthermore, the world needs philosophically reflective managers, accountants, professionals, parents, and neighbors more desperately than it needs more philosophy grad students.

So, it would seem, our classes should reflect this fact, and they should prepare our students to be philosophically-reflective citizens and professionals. By this I mean people who will go on to non-philosophical careers, but will carry with them a flexibility of mind, a capacity to see larger scales and deeper questions, and an abiding epistemic humility (knowing that, when it comes to absolutes, they really know nothing). There are multiple ways of bringing this about, of course, but one thing is clear: students probably shouldn’t be restricted to a diet of works by contemporary, professional philosophers. Perhaps they need to be engaging with some of this, as well as with some philosophical classics; but they also should be reading in their philosophy classes works of both nonfiction and fiction that are not themselves typically regarded as works of philosophy. For it is through this that they can learn how to apply their philosophical abilities to the stuff they will be encountering with and working on after graduating.

So, for example, I’m teaching “Epistemology” this term. I think a typical class in the subject would base itself on an anthology of selections and articles from Moore, Gettier, Harmon, Chisholm, Goldman, Alston, and so on. (If these names ring no bells, don’t worry; it’s not obvious that anyone apart from philosophy grad students and professors really should know these names.) A better class might include some of these items, along with works by authors whose names really should be known: Plato, Aristotle, Sextus Empiricus, Descartes, Locke, Hume, etc. In my class, we will be reading some fundamental works by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, as I think these works are effective in raising the biggest questions about knowledge. But then we’ll be turning to works by a couple of contemporary non-philosophers: the skeptic Michael Shermer (The Believing Brain) and the biologist Edward Wilson (Consilience).

It’s not that I think these books are all that great. They’re not. They’re both too reductionistic and dismissive. But they are the sorts of books you can expect to be coming up on best-sellers lists and talked about in newspapers and magazines, and this is precisely why students should be reading them. If students are trained only to work with the sorts of problems and distinctions that bedevil professional philosophers, they will have very little to read and talk about in the nonacademic world. But if they have learned some classic stuff, and have also spent time learning how to connect that stuff in insightful ways to popular but mediocre books, they will be prepared for a lifetime of reading, thinking, and responding; for we are always surrounded by mediocre books. They will be the sort of people who perhaps inspire others to think a bit more deeply about what they are reading and thinking, and are able to turn a mediocre book into an interesting discussion. They will be set to live the examined life outside of the academy.

That’s my goal, anyway, and I’m surely only partly successful at best. I’m clumsy at leading discussion, and I need to be more creative in including more fictional works. But I think that the basic observation that begins this post – an awareness of what lives our students will be living – is an extremely fruitful observation for reorienting one’s teaching and one’s course materials.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Books, Items of the academy / learning. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On teaching mediocre books

  1. Aaron Preston says:

    Well said. I couldn’t agree more. I also frequently include “mediocre books,” especially in classes deigned for non-majors. Not only does this make students better readers of the kinds of books they might actually choose to read after their college years, but it can also give them an appreciation for the discipline of philosophy, for it shows how the hard-won intellectual skills and knowledge gained from wresting with “the sorts of problems and distinctions that bedevil professional philosophers” can indeed be valuable and relevant to the world beyond the academy.


  2. Neil says:


    As a recovering philosopher (I went into literature instead), I appreciate and admire yr central idea here. I wish more academic philosophers took it to heart than are likely to do so, alas. Thanks for the post.



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