How to Survive Compulsory College Philosophy Courses - dummies

How to Survive Compulsory College Philosophy Courses

By Martin Cohen

Nowadays, when you turn up at college or university having ever-so-carefully chosen a course that sounds really relevant to you, like ‘Criminology’ or ‘Astrophysics’, you may find that whatever you thought you were going to study – the reality is a brief introduction to philosophy!

The unexpected requirement is more because most studies deep down contain a bit of philosophy, and less because there are a lot of otherwise unemployable philosophy lecturers, as some might suspect. The end result is that many college degrees contain a COMPULSORY ‘module’.

In the United States, the college requirement is the dreaded ‘Philosophy 101’, which sounds like something out of 1984, George Orwell’s horrifying vision of totalitarian society. (Room 101 was where terrified citizens were confronted with the things they most feared . . . spiders, or rats or logic courses.)

But you shouldn’t be too terrified, as more people have survived philosophy classes than you might think. Take, for example, political figures like Martin Luther King and Bill Clinton, or Hollywood stars like Woody Allen and Bruce Lee!

But don’t struggle alone to find the good bits of ideas and information that will stick with you. Buy, beg, or borrow some ‘simple’ texts to explain the complicated ones.

These ‘survival tips’ apply everywhere in education, particularly when you first enter ‘uncharted territory’, so to speak, because even the best books have boring (or maybe just not relevant) bits.

  • Change the book, not your brain. Just because a textbook, let alone a philosophical classic, promises to explain things clearly, it may not. If you can’t follow the argument, it’s likely not been put very well.

  • When you do read the original stuff, skim it. Don’t look at every miserable word and phrase and go mad. Just read the key bits carefully.

  • Still don’t get it? Check out the issue from the other end. If you’re really supposed to be thinking about (say) medical ethics, or maybe professional ethics – see what the medical or management books are saying are philosophical issues.

Some resistance to compulsory philosophy is normal, particularly as philosophy books can be very, very dull.

The ‘great works’ of philosophy are written in very funny language, maybe archaic, and certainly at interminable length. Unlike almost all other subjects, philosophy never seems to move forward and the key texts are thousands of years old.

So, students who expected to be steadying Quantum Physics find themselves directed towards Kant’s Critique of Metaphysics while others who expect to be learning how to become a chef or maybe an architect find themselves reading Plato’s Republic. Even so, there is method in this madness: because Kant actually produced some quite influential theories about the fundamental nature of the cosmos, and Plato was well-into city-planning and vegetarianism!

If you’re training in law, you can’t do worse than read Thomas Hobbes’ miserable version of citizen’s rights, and even if you’re only interested in making money, time spent on Adam Smith is worth its weight in gold. In fact, buried amongst all the zillions of boring books and words in philosophy are some fascinating ideas, ‘gleaming like diamonds in the coal dust’.