I have sometimes wondered just why it is that introductory philosophy courses rarely focus on students’ own philosophical views in the sense of asking them to come up with their own answers to the “big questions” without having read the “classics” beforehand. Or, in the sense of having a capstone assignment where they are to synthesize what they have studied and their own views into a philosophy of their own. Sometimes I do the former, but only in the form of short questions during the first or second class, to get people thinking, and then we drop this pretty much entirely when it comes time to start reading the major philosophical works on the reading list.
It’s almost as if the idea of soliciting student’s views is just to get them interested in the topics before we get down to the business of “real” philosophy, which consists of reading works by those who have been given the title of “philosophers” by persons in academic institutions. Certainly, reading the canon is important for numerous reasons, not least of which is that it is necessary to really grasp well arguments by later philosophers that are based on earlier texts, arguments, and terms of questions and disputes. But if part of the point of teaching philosophy is to encourage students to think more critically and carefully and reflectively about their own lives and the world in which they live, why do we not spend more time focused on what they actually think and believe?
Of course, we do do so in the sense that we ask them to comment on the philosophical texts and arguments we read, and on those of their fellow students and of instructors. But why is it that we often *start* with the works of those who have earned the title of “philosopher,” rather than with the students’ own views? I think one reason, for myself, has been because doing so may allow students to see examples of good (and some bad) arguments to help guide them when it comes to their own thinking. And because it may get them further along the path by letting them see in what areas arguments have already been made that do or do not work. Add to these reasons, of course, the inertia of simply teaching the same way I have been taught in the past, and thinking this must somehow be a good thing since that’s what others have done. That, of course, is not a good enough reason, though.
It’s just something I want to keep thinking about. I am certainly not contemplating jettisoning the reading of classic philosophical texts, nor modern ones by “philosophers,” for the sake of just focusing on students’ ideas. Rather, I’m wondering why I don’t do more of the latter to supplement the former. Might there not be some value in doing so that I and my students are missing out on?
I imagine there are more people out there doing this than I am aware of, and my own lack in this area may not reflect at all a general trend…but my own limited experience indicates that more often than not, students are not encouraged to focus on their own philosophies and instead spend most of their time reading and commenting on those of the canon.