How to get a philosophical education for free

A regularly updated version of this guide can be found here.

DIY UI teach at the third-most expensive school in the country, where I regularly persuade students that they should major or minor in philosophy. For many students, this is a value question, and as I like to put it, there’s a difference here between the value of a philosophy education and its price. Specifically, it’s not clear to me that it ought to cost $200,000 to get a bachelor’s degree in philosophy… but I do think it’s worth it.

As a result of this tension, the current crisis in the humanities has very personal implications for me. In the UK, whole departments are being cut, while the US continues to squeeze the humanities even when they are massively popular and profitable. As I’ve been trying to argue, this was always entailed by the growing rent-seeking class of administrators who we have apparently hired so that we can be saved the labor needed to fire us. Frankly, I suspect we’ve had this coming for a couple of millennia now: didn’t Socrates make his name undermining the paid-teaching models of the Sophists?

Iain Pears writes critically of this trend but the upshot is actually somewhat conservative:

The combination of artificially-induced market forces and government disdain for the humanities as economically non-productive will shrink arts subjects into a ghetto where they will become increasingly studied by those who can afford to pay, at institutions which can afford to charge

I call that conservative because the humanities will again be relegated to their role in signaling status, as only richer Britons or Americans will be able to afford the tuition fees at top schools where the humanities are still taught.

Caught in the middle of this, I think we have two options: we can criticize and decry this course of events in hopes of changing it, or we can begin preparing for a time when humanities instruction is less accessible than it has been over the past half-century. In fact, we should do both, but today I want to focus on preparation.

So, here’s what I have in mind: a free syllabus in philosophy for all those students who can’t afford to attend one of the elite schools that still teaches philosophy in a decade.

Here’s how it works: combine the free online offerings of MIT’s Open Courseware, Academic Earth, Itunes U, and Youtube with other free web resources that would suffice to supply what could once only be gained by taking out student loans.

Check it out!

  • Introduction to Philosophy

Start with Oxford’s Peter Millican at Itunes U.

  • Introduction to Ethics and Political Philosophy

Michael Sandel’s Justice course has drawn tens of thousands of Harvard students and focuses on themes and problems in the good life and the good society. Steven B. Smith offers a historical approach at Yale on Academic Earth. Explore special topics the BBC’s Ethics Bites or spend a semester with Berkley’s Michael Nagler considering the case for Nonviolence.

  • Epistemology and Metaphysics

I haven’t been able to find an introductory course just on metaphysics, but how about John Searle’s lectures on the Philosophy of Mind? Alternatively, take a look at this course on the ethics and metaphysics of Death by Yale’s Shelly Kagan.

  • Aesthetics

Kent State’s Jeffrey Wattles offers an Introduction.

What’s missing?

Now, self-regard prevents me from really believing that the education available online is better than the one you can get in my classroom, but I’m not so arrogant to think that I’m a better lecturer than Michael Sandel. Notable is what’s lost when all you have are these kinds of courses: you lose feedback and the interrogative experience of a seminar room, you lose the cohort of fellow students who will stay up late hashing out a passage from Aristotle, you lose the synchronicity of associations between very different courses taken simultaneously, and you lose the assessment and professionalization that a professor’s comments and counseling supply. What makes my classroom work is the seminar-style I learned as an undergraduate at Bard College, and which I try to foster at George Washington. That’s the practice of philosophy as a liberal art, a technique for free citizens to inquire together into matters of fundamental concern. You can’t learn the habitus of philosophy from an online video.

  • Special Topics

So far, the courses available online might supply the first two years of a philosophy degree. A disciplined person pursing this syllabus would have a good sense of the overall discipline, but could not be said to have “majored” in philosophy, because the free university offerings become a bit sparser at the advanced level. Courses at this level become specialized, focusing on epochs, figures, problems, and themes. Plus, this is the stage when we start really pushing students to see which ones have potential to become professional scholars, if not in philosophy than in a proximate academic discipline or as lawyers. That means it’s a much more interactive and much more textual education, and it may be less easily-suppled online.

However, it’s always possible glean specific insights and avenues for research from Philosophy Bites or the Guardian’s How to Believe series. You can dig deeper into any topic using the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Herbert Dreyfus takes students through Heidegger’s Being and Time (continued here), which you can supplement with Simon Critchley’s series in the Guardian. Also at the Guardian, Mark Vernon blogs The Platonic Dialogues, and in the same vein, Chris Long offers a series of interviews on Socratic Political themes. (More from the Guardian: KierkegaardNietzscheHume,Wittgenstein, and Hobbes.)

For a while Susan Stuart’s lectures on Kant’s epistemology offered a pretty thorough guide to The Critique of Pure Reason, but they’ve been removed. Perhaps they’ll be back. I wouldn’t ask DIY-ers to brave the first Critique without a guide, but this is the point when a good library or bookstore might supply the missing manual.

  • Interaction and Feedback

The quickest way to get feedback on an idea or argument is to start blogging about it. A really ambitious DIY student could recruit a cohort of fellow DIY-ers to work with her. Start a WordPress or Blogger blog and join a community like Big Big QuestionEphilosopherMetafilter, or Less Wrong. Start writing, reading, responding, and linking, and the commentary will come. Some of it will be critical, some helpful, some mean, but you’ll learn and make connections, develop insights and obsessions, just like a traditional student.

The hardest part is finding someone to grade your work, but Virtual-TA has you covered there.

  • Professionalization

If all the instruction is happening online, and all the grading is is Bangalore, who would want to be a “professional” philosopher? With the UK cutting budgets and whole departments, and humanities instruction increasingly done by adjuncts and graduate students rather than tenure/tenure-track faculty, it appears that there may soon be fewer opportunities for philosophy instruction that there were previously.

So maybe we could forgo professionalization… except that it seems to me that an amateur philosophy student has only learned enough to be dangerous, not enough to be useful. So in that sense, my free syllabus is a failure: you can get a philosophical education for free, online, but it takes bit more than that to garner the benefits of studying philosophy. (But hopefully not $200,000 more….) If this page whets your whistle, though… well, remind me to tell you about Socrates’ art of matchmaking and midwifery when you sign up for my course. 🙂

If we love our discipline as much as the paycheck and status it promises, we have to work to combat the exclusivity of an examined life available only to those who can pay. If the internet is not yet able to take over our duties… I guess we’re going to have to fight.

The Politics of the Undead

So, my last post was based on the premise that heroes in zombie movies make the bare act of survival extraordinary, displaying the virtue of subsistence. I associated the need for such heroes with recession. I had in mind the claim that economic growth is associated with ‘surging’ and economic recession with ‘dwelling,’ a distinction I stole from Grant McCracken, though Benjamin and Heidegger both wrote about it, and it also plays a big role in Michael Sandel’s work on democracy. My thought was that zombie movies help us savor our existence and the simple joys of non-economic relationships, rather than pursuing unending betterment and consumer novelty, because we see ordinary people lionized. Put another way, the zombie movie hero is a working-class hero.

However, I’ve recently discovered a chart that suggests that zombie movies have been in vogue in recent years, apparently correlating with the war in Iraq!

So apparently economic contraction is not the driver for zombie movies. It’s a little more complicated, you see. Zombie movies are associated with Republicans!

Penn State’s Dendle noted that the political-horror nexus has been strong since 1968. “Night of the Living Dead” opened a month before Republican Richard Nixon’s election, inspiring a zombie film boomlet that persisted until the mid-1970s.

Better yet, vampire movies correlate with Democrats. Of course, this kind of correlative work is like trying to predict the stock market based on skirt length, but it’s fun, anyway. And it raises a real question: in demanding art that elevates the mundane, am I looking to cope with the recession or seeking to perpetuate it? Apparently what we crave in hard times are smoldering beauties and hardbodies with dark, deadly desires and androgynous appeal. You know, to kickstart the economic ‘surge.’

Quashing nasty rumours

There’s a rumour going around, perpetuated by bumper stickers and politicians, that “God is pro-life.” It’s an interesting claim, and since everyone seems to want God (i.e. the heavy guns) on their side, I thought I’d examine it.

Michael Sandel, (yes, that Sandel) while working on the presidential Council on Bioethics, wrung this statement from expert witness John M. Opitz, MD:

Sandel: “…[W]hat percent of fertilized eggs fail to implant or are otherwise lost?”
Opitz: “Estimates range all the way from 60 percent to 80 percent of the very earliest stages, cleavage stages, for example, that are lost.

Hmmm…. so, in 2003, there were about 4 million babies born in the United States. Given the most conservative estimate of 60% lost before parturition, that means that 6 million embryos were destroyed by natural causes. This is convenient, as it is the most popular estimate for Jewish deaths during the Shoah (Holocaust). Since I’ve previously railed against the equation of abortion with genocide, this seems apropos.

If I can find some global population statistics that chart total human population throughout history, I’m thinking of putting up a running total: Abortions: God v. Man. This would be especially interesting given plague and disaster death rates, plus historical v. current infant mortality rates. Sadly, I’m not a statistician, I’m a philosopher, so I’ll continue to depend on the experts. The CDC recorded 857,000 abortions in 2000, so, to keep the numbers round, let’s say 1 million.

For 2003:
Humans: 1 million
God: 6 million

I would argue that any God worthy of invocation (i.e., an intelligent designer, deist or participatory) would not design a system with such a lousy success rate if this deity were concerned primarily with the survival of all embryos. Thus, God is objectively not pro-life. If you believe in predestination or election, then all conceivable omnipotent and omniscient creator-Gods must be understood as pro-choice (not ours, though) and pro-death.