I recognised his voice and could sense his urgent tone. I hadn’t seen him in about six months, and what he was saying was unbelievable. Ryan asked our departmental secretary if I was in: “I’m having a philosophy emergency, and I need to talk to Dave or Juli.”
More curious than concerned, I was on my feet to invite Ryan into my office. “Emergency? What is a philosophy emergency?” I ask. Ryan had just come from a teacher education course, where they had been discussing … something, I don’t really remember. He realised while offering a feminist analysis of a phenomenon that, “Everyone in the class was looking at me as if I had two heads.” I asked him what he said. Aside from a few predictable undergraduate level fumbles with certain bits of nuance, he had faithfully explained a social critique found in one of the texts from his Feminist Ethics and Epistemology class. His emergency: a critical need for reassurance that he was not nutty. I reassured him, of course. But part of that reassurance involved an explanation of how undergoing a transformative undergraduate philosophy education can make it hard to fit in where one used to effortlessly glide.
If we think carefully about Ryan’s experience, we should be able to gain insights about the impact of an education in philosophy, particularly because his experience seems fairly common. Let’s think about the difference between evaluative learning and non-evaluative learning. Within evaluative learning, let’s think about the difference between confirmative and transformative learning, and what it would mean if transformative learning takes one away from accepted norms.
Juli Thorson and I argue in a paper called “Enabling Change” that to learn is to add to, subtract from, or alter one’s total set of beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world. Perhaps “unlearning” is a better term for subtractions and some alterations, but unlearning is itself a mode of change that I am here calling learning.
The beginning of evaluative learning is a new experience that generates a conscious, though sometimes vague, recognition that one’s pre-existing beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world might need to be changed. If one’s understanding of physics is roughly Newtonian and one studies quantum physics for the first time, one will recognise that she needs to rethink whether her Newtonian beliefs are apt. In such a case, one is learning evaluatively; a new experience has made one aware that she needs to make decisions about whether to retain unaltered or change some members of the set of beliefs she had prior to the new experience. Put another way, evaluative learning is that learning that results from the resolution of a felt tension between one’s pre-existing understandings and new experiences. It always involves conscious choice making. When one learns evaluatively, new experiences cause one to question the propriety of at least one previously held belief, value, or way of being in the world because at least one pre-existing belief, value, or way of being in the world is apparently incompatible with a new experience.
In contrast, non-evaluative learning does not follow from an experience where one is given pause about one’s pre-existing beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world. For example, if I have a basic understanding of multiplication, the discovery that 1234 x 5678 equals 7,006,652 does not give me pause. The pre-existing belief that Bentham created a utility calculus is not called into question as one learns that the calculus includes a propinquity criterion.
In many instances one will simultaneously learn evaluatively and non-evaluatively. The pre-existing belief that Kant is a deontologist is not problematised by newly learning the kingdom of ends formulation of the categorical imperative. But first exposure to the kingdom of ends formulation may conflict with any number of pre-existing beliefs of a committed consequentialist. Despite the possibility of concurrency, we can distinguish evaluative from non-evaluative learning as types. Evaluative learning involves choice making born of conscious recognition of apparent incongruity. Non-evaluative learning does not.
Within evaluative learning we may distinguish two key types: confirmative and transformative. When one recognises that a new experience draws into question the propriety of some aspect of one’s pre-existing beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world, one might upon due consideration choose to retain her pre-existing beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world; one might confirm her pre-existing beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world by rejecting the information gathered from a new experience as false or unworthy of assimilation for some other reason. Upon earnest, charitable consideration of the arguments of those who believe that no anthropogenic forces have contributed to the increase in global temperatures, I ultimately reject the arguments as unsound and confirm my belief that a significant amount of warming is anthropogenic. My pre-existing understandings of evidence, argumentation, and causation make it impossible for me to insert the belief that there is no anthropocentric warming into my current belief set. My resolution of a recognised tension between my pre-existing beliefs and the new experiences I have in talking to a climate change denier is ultimately confirmative learning.
Other times the result of evaluative learning is transformation. Sometimes one must abandon a pre-existing belief upon due consideration of new experiences. Data regarding racial inequities can crumble an innocent’s view that our social and political worlds are fundamentally fair. If one has been raised a certain way in certain contexts, she might enter college believing that the social and political landscape of her nation is fair, even as she recognises that there are a small number of people with personal ill-will toward certain groups of others. Yet, framing racism as being exclusively about personal feelings is to ignore systemic and institutional racisms and the role that stereotype threat and microaggressions play in generating differential access to opportunity. When, as a result of exposure to new information, such a student chooses to abandon her belief that her social and political context is equitable, she has learned transformatively. (It is worth noting that some transformations of one’s pre-existing understandings are not the product of evaluative learning. The initial acquisition of beliefs, values, and ways of being in the world of children and the transformations of those who unreflectively follow charismatic leaders appear to be examples. But our focus here is transformative-cum-evaluative learning.) In short, some learning is non-evaluative, while other learning is evaluative, and the choice-making that follows from conscious recognition of an apparent incongruence between new experiences and pre-existing beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world may result in confirmation of pre-existing beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world, while other times it produces transformation of pre-existing beliefs, values or ways of being in the world.
Learning in philosophy is frequently evaluative. As such, it is unsurprising that learning in philosophy is often transformative. Of course, philosophy holds no monopoly on transformative learning. Any particular professor in any non-philosophy field could engender more transformative learning than any particular philosophy professor. Compare the physics professor introducing quantum mechanics mentioned above to a philosophy professor who gives exams entirely composed of multiple choice and matching questions that test only students’ ability to accurately connect terms to concepts. Yet, I would wager that learning in philosophy is more transformative than learning in many non-humanities and non-fine arts disciplines. More strongly, I suspect that the transformative learning that most philosophy courses promote is qualitatively or quantitatively more intense than the transformative learning of many non-philosophy courses.
Quantitatively, sometimes a person needs to revise or abandon only a small number of pre-existing beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world to (re)achieve a comfortable level of felt coherence among her beliefs, values or ways of being in the world. Other times she will need to revise a large number of, say, beliefs. Qualitatively, sometimes the pre-existing beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world one might need to abandon or revise are relatively unimportant to their possessor. Other times the pre-existing understandings one must revise or abandon are central to one’s conception of self. When many understandings that are central to one’s self-conception are brought into question by new experiences, we have an instance of evaluative learning that is both quantitatively and qualitatively intense. If the learner chooses to move toward felt coherence in her set of beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world by abandoning or (significantly) altering many of her central or self-defining beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world, then her transformative learning is intense.
When transformative-cum-evaluative learning is intense, the seeds have been sewn for a philosophy emergency. When one changes or abandons many of his deeply held beliefs, values, or ways of being in the world in a relative short period of time without a concomitant and equally intense social transformation, one can come to have a cognitive and normative existence that is out of step with his social existence. Ryan was accustomed to speaking his heart in class, and this usually served him well; by and large he shared the dominant understandings of his community and he was well thought of by his teachers and peers for his eloquence and erudition. As he became more and more feminist, he discovered that speaking his heart in class was no longer generating positive social responses from most of his peers. A consequence of Ryan’s intense transformative learning was that he had become socially transgressive.
To transgress is to flout a valued (though not necessarily objectively valuable) norm in such a way as to threaten the viability of the norm. Whether an experience, act, practice, institution, piece of course content, or person is transgressive is, thus, context dependent. As with transformative learning, some transgressions are qualitatively or quantitatively intense, while others are of lessor significance to either the culture that wants to retain a norm or to the person who is transgressing. If the evaluative learning that is frequently demanded in philosophy courses leads a student to choose to intensely transform, the student remains in the cultures of her previous self, and her new self flouts the norms of those cultures, then a philosophy emergency – a moment when one’s beliefs, values, or way of being in the world mean that one does not (any longer) comfortably fit where one is – is highly likely. And, of course, there is a range of philosophy emergencies. Some philosophy emergencies are part of a radical change in one’s life path while others are, in the end, transitory or trivial, even if they were initially experienced as intense.
Another way to describe the intensely transgressive, transformative learning that can result from taking philosophy courses is to think of “philosophy emergencies” as moments where one recognises that one has made oneself socially other. Sometimes the transformative learning that can be central to learning philosophy is tantamount to students choosing to become outsiders. Ryan’s othering of himself was not particularly serious. He managed to succeed in his education course and eventually made himself intelligible to his classmates, which is to say that his transformational learning in feminist ethics and epistemology was not as intense or transgressive as it might have initially seemed.
Yet, as my students so often show me, significant othering of self is a predictable, though not universal, outcome of the evaluative learning that is central to many educations in philosophy. At the end of each academic year I talk with the philosophy majors at my university about what they have learned. This isn’t a pop quiz. I’m not asking for a recitation of content. Rather, I’m asking them: what does philosophy have to do with how you are now different from how you were when you entered college? Over the years discernible trends have emerged in their responses.
My students talk about how they are more tolerant, curious, self-confident, outspoken, and ambitious, which they often attribute to learning philosophical skills (e.g. how to formulate and present cogent arguments). They report that they are more comfortable speaking up in a broader range of settings, and better at listening patiently and charitably. As more courageous interlocutors, they have come to systematically live as on-going evaluative learners. This may lead to philosophical emergencies now and then, but more typically it means that some social adjustment is needed as the selves they’ve made, and continue to remake, evolve away from social pasts they experienced as unchosen.
My students also regularly describe how useful their philosophy training is. They recognise that they have acquired or enhanced a group of all-purpose skills such as the ability to (i) charitably and accurately understand and reproduce complex thoughts, (ii) write with precision, (iii) argue persuasively with public reasons, (iv) work collaboratively with diverse others, and (v) listen carefully. Evidence of the accuracy of my students’ assessment of their education is well known by philosophers. As a recent Association of American Colleges and Universities poll shows, skills (i) – (v) are precisely the skills that employers want from recent college graduates. Wall Street Journal survey data reveal that no other undergraduate majors advance through their careers to well-paid positions more rapidly than philosophy majors. And, Education Testing Service data show that philosophy majors have extremely high graduate and law school entrance exam scores.
It shouldn’t be surprising to most of us who have studied philosophy that it is actually a pragmatic discipline, even if it is surprising to many outside of philosophy because of the prevalence of inaccurate, and sometimes hostile, characterisations of philosophy from people who have not studied it with any earnest. But, valuable as it is, the practical value of a philosophy education is not what is most important to most of my students. Most of my students were drawn to philosophy because they vaguely sensed that it would feed a hunger for which they have no name. They were aching for tools and an intellectual community that would foster productive questioning. Where once they had only imprecise wonder, in philosophy courses they find more exacting questions and improve both the range and quality of the skill set they have to address them. With sympathetic, risk-taking others who support transgressive questioning, the range of academic and social information and structures they interrogate grows. Eventually critical engagement becomes second nature.
Phrases such as “critical thinking,” “life-long learner,” and “civically engaged” have become so ubiquitous as to almost lose meaning altogether. But there is something that they often appear to be attempting to point out that should never be dismissed by those who are cynical about “education speak.” My students tell me that the outcome of studying philosophy that is truly important is the dispositional growth it enabled them to create for themselves. By repeatedly considering objections to their beliefs, values, and ways of being in the world, my students report that they take themselves less seriously, they have become both more humble and more self-confident. By often taking the time to work through complex thoughts, they become more persistent and comfortable with ambiguity. The ability to appreciate multiple perspectives on an issue also instils patience. They come to want more from their interlocutors; they wish their friends and family were more free of the propensity to unreflectively cling to dogmas. And a notion of respect that is new to most of them emerges; to respect others is to challenge them to be the best them they can be.
When a philosophy curriculum requires a large amount of evaluative learning, the student experience of that curriculum is that of standing before a powerful mirror and being asked to assess what one sees. Especially when supported by caring faculty and fellow students who help keep one looking when one might want to turn away from the mirror, this reflection on oneself allows students to change what they believe, value, and are. The product of a transformative-cum-evaluative philosophical education is, as my students say, more about dispositional and existential change, than it is about content mastery. But that is not quite the right way to put it. In philosophy, working toward content mastery can be seen as the means by which one develops the skills needed to effectively learn evaluatively. By learning content students increase their facility with philosophical skills, and once skilful they can learn in a deeply evaluative way, which frequently results in transformative learning that is sometimes transgressive.
For me, the experience of frequent and often intense evaluative learning is what constitutes a central value of an education in the humanities because evaluative learning is freeing. Choosing to retain, abandon, or transform the self that one was given by family, friends, earlier selves, and (often problematic) cultures is both deeply human and discouraged in many contexts. Learning how to do it is good for you, even if it is constituted by and generates discomfort. This is why I often describe my job as being about helping people become the people they want to be. Yes, philosophy is the beloved tool I use, but I never have as my end that people master philosophical content even though I insist on accurate content mastery as a means.
On the other hand, I’m not trying to create philosophy emergencies either. Central to the philosophy learning I hope to inspire is student agency. I am a careful, persistent, and kind mirror holder. I design experiences for students that cause them to evaluate themselves. The outcome of their self-evaluation is their own. For some students the result of their evaluative learning is more often confirmation than transformation. For many students, few of the transformations they choose are transgressive and none of them are intense; in many cases no philosophy emergencies occur. And that is fine by me. What is important is the dispositional growth that commonly follows from learning evaluatively.