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April 8th, 2020 3:50:47 pm

Teaching Philosophy to Non-Majors as a Form of Public Philosophy

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This is a reflection on my experience teaching ethics as an introductory-level general education requirement for non-majors and how I understand this as a form of public philosophy. I discuss the unique benefits that can come from teaching students who aren’t self-motivated in the field, and the mindset I have adopted in order to maximize and appreciate these benefits. I discuss the teaching practices and principles I have adopted that have worked for me, and give my thoughts on why we should view these courses as exciting opportunities, and not as burdens. Teaching non-philosophy majors can itself be a way of doing public philosophy, if one keeps an open mind and allows one’s teaching and research to respond directly to students’ needs and feedback. [This is a revision of a previous submission located here:

1. Why Teaching Non-Majors is a Form of Public Philosophy

Although most of us in the humanities think that general education is important, we also often bemoan teaching intro-level general education courses. Most of the students in introductory philosophy courses are not philosophy majors; they are required to take the course, and they’re not too excited about academic philosophy. Teaching these courses can become discouraging, because the students just don’t seem to care. They’re not self-motivated in academic philosophy, and it’s obviously their lowest priority. I’ve seen this lead to resentment from faculty towards students, and a pessimistic belief that college students are undisciplined and don’t understand the value of the humanities. I have certainly felt this way before, and I’ve heard colleagues echo this sentiment. This pessimism, however, might indicate a bias in faculty attitudes rather than a fault in the students. If we enter the classroom attached to traditional values and practices of our discipline, we may well be disappointed in the lack of enthusiasm from our students. However, as I suggest here, if we adapt our values and practices to respond to our students’ needs, we will likely have a more positive and productive teaching experience.

Based on this shift in mindset, I no longer see students’ lack of enthusiasm for traditional academic philosophy as a problem for teaching. Instead, I see this as an opportunity to engage in philosophical discussion with a general audience, and in this way, push for a revolution in our discipline through my teaching practice. I now understand my work in such courses as a form of public philosophy.

In order to succeed with these students, who have no particular interest in academic philosophy, I have to think about how my course can help them do whatever it is they care about most. Rather than sparking an interest in philosophy for its own sake, or teaching the foundations of philosophy, my job is to give them a course that helps them progress on their own educational path.

A standard introductory philosophy course is not necessarily helpful for most students who are not pursuing the humanities because they will not need to be familiar with the “philosophical classics,” namely those works which academic philosophy deems to be part of the canon. Although it certainly could be helpful to anyone, most students will not have the desire or the ability to dive into new and challenging philosophical material for its own sake. This is not the fault of students but of the academic discipline of philosophy, which has shunned engaging with members of the public including those present as non-major students in our introductory courses. In my experience, students need a personally-relevant reason to get engaged, and I see it as my job to give them that reason. Thus, in all of my general education courses, I am not just teaching philosophy, I am presenting philosophy as a tool that my students can use to achieve their own educational goals and enrich their lives. Presenting philosophical thinking as a tool means that I want my students to get plenty of practice using that tool during the semester. Thus, maximizing student engagement through personal relevance is my highest priority.

As mentioned previously, there are certain prevalent values and practices in academic philosophy that I suggest we replace with more collaborative and publicly engaging ones. In an earlier PPJ article, Christopher Long describes academic philosophy as “litigating” and “coercive,” and indeed I think it has been.(1) It is common in our discipline to look for arguments that “defeat” others, or run claims “through the ringer” to see what is left standing. Maintaining this kind of mindset while trying to teach gen-ed students and engage with the public, can be intimidating and off-putting, leading to a lack of engagement from these audiences. Long refers to a speech by Richard Bernstein, in which Bernstein recommends a paradigm-shift: he describes a new way of practicing philosophy, as “engaged fallibilistic pluralism” in which we put our prejudments on the line, learn from others, and are responsive to others.(2) This paradigm shift in the discipline itself is foundational for the paradigm shift I am suggesting for teaching. The traditional model of litigation and logical coercion is neither public- nor student-friendly. It encourages instructors to use the skills of argumentation, criticism, and analysis over the skills of creativity, collaboration, and reflection. As instructors, the first set of skills is important, but their adversarial nature shuts down the engagement of interlocutors, rather than inviting it. When our interlocutors are our students, this is especially counter-productive. Doing philosophy in the classroom by arguing and criticizing, significantly increases the cost of engagement for students in their first philosophy class. The worry that their questions or comments are easily defeated makes the thought of engagement pretty unpalatable.

Teaching methods emphasizing student empowerment and instructor-student and peer collaboration can be more effective than traditional hierarchical models. For example, student-led discussions can promote deeper understanding of concepts than traditional lecturing.(3) Student-led discussions have also been shown to promote the learning of higher order skills that would be unavailable in traditional lecture-based models. Skills such as interpretation of data, application of principles in new situations, and synthesis of various materials to form a cohesive picture have all been found to improve with the use of student-led discussions.(4) This research supports the effectiveness of increased student leadership for learning as students practice skills in peer-led situations that they do not readily exercise in instructor-led discussions. A shift in mindset from an adversarial model to the “engaged falliblistic pluralism” that Bernstein suggests can help instructors build their courses to promote student engagement. In college courses, our students are young adults, and yet course construction is still largely based on pedagogical power relationships, in which the instructor is in charge and the students are not. Dean and Fornaciari suggest a shift in course construction leaving child-centered pedagogy behind, and embracing androgogy, or adult-centered learning. Androgogical principles seek collaboration between instructors and students, creating a learning community based on mutual understanding.(5) Learning communities in which students are empowered allows for the development of a sense of belonging that can foster intellectual reflection and exploration that is otherwise inaccessible.(6) This sense of belonging and community can be created through a variety of student-oriented teaching methods, including variations of Socratic dialogues, the use of “critical friends,” or peer group models. I do not intend to support any particular method over another, and I suspect that the choice of method should depend on the particulars of the students, instructor, and course content. My goal is simply to show that shifting our mindset as philosophy instructors from doing philosophy as argumentation, to doing philosophy as collaboration can be immensely fruitful for both student and instructor. If we want students to engage, we need to invite them to do so by acknowledging the value of their experience and skills, and being genuinely interested in engaging with them as conversation partners.

Below, I offer my own explanation of why this collaborative approach is effective, based on personal classroom experience. My goal as an instructor is twofold; first I aim to help my students develop their philosophical skills, so that they can use these skills in other areas of life. Second, I want to develop my own abilities to deliver philosophical material in ways that engage a diverse group of people, so that I can make my own scholarship more publicly-oriented.

2. Benefits for Students

My approach is similar to other discussion-based approaches, but my execution is unique. Like Kremer and McGuinness, I have found that student-led discussions more effectively teach skills and concepts, but I am also invested in student-led discussions for meta-philosophical reasons. I conceive of philosophy as a human enterprise, not an academic enterprise. For me, this commitment requires me to view readers of philosophical texts, regardless of academic training, as having a degree of authority. Human beings grapple with philosophical problems, and one does not need academic training to respond to philosophical texts with insightful and reflective thought.

To stand by this commitment, I have to recognize the intellectual authority of my students in the classroom, and this takes the form of putting them at the center of the discussion. Since we all have some intellectual authority, my position is not to deliver knowledge, but to help facilitate knowledge-seeking among equals. Since I have read the texts before and spent more time honing my skills I have the unique place of prompting, guiding, and clarifying ideas as needed, but this is not a position of intellectual authority over the students, but with them.

I always keep student engagement in mind when I design a course, because this is what makes or breaks the class. I include engaging readings throughout each section of the course, such as articles on current events from the New York Times, mixed in with the more difficult academic or theoretical articles. I’ve learned that no matter how excited I might be about a topic, telling the students why virtue theory (for example) is unique and interesting doesn’t go terribly far. Instead, a small group activity in which the students apply the theory goes much further.

I once taught Buddhist ethics in an ethics course, and I expected this to go over really well, mainly because I love Buddhist ethics, and I thought my excitement would be contagious. They hated it. They didn’t have much to say, but what they did say was that society couldn’t possibly work based on Buddhist ethics, because our economy would collapse, the contemplative life isn’t ideal for many people, and social progress would grind to a halt. So, I had them split up into groups, and choose one criticism of Buddhist ethics, and give reasoning to support the criticism. Then, I asked them to put themselves in the place of a well-informed, reasonable Buddhist, and respond to their criticism. At the end of the exercise, I asked each group to determine which was the better argument and why, and most of the groups felt that their pro-Buddhist argument was better. This was much more effective than my prepared lesson, and I wouldn’t have thought to do this if I wasn’t primarily concerned about engagement. My students walked away from this class session with a better understanding of Buddhist ethics than they would have had if I had delivered a fantastic lecture. They were able to explore the material for themselves, and may have found ways to use this material in their own lives as a result of their exploration.

3. Benefits for Me as a Public Philosopher

This student-centered approach makes the course more rewarding for both myself and my students. I will pause here to emphasize however, that designing courses for the benefit of my students equally means designing the courses for my own benefit. By asking myself what I want to gain from this course and from my students, I create a classroom environment of mutual learning, in which instructor and students exchange knowledge and help each other develop new insights. I find that asking about my own learning goals in addition to those of the students does not force me back into traditional academic philosophy teaching but into an approach of mutual learning among intellectual peers. Rather than delivering information and “training” my students, I create a reciprocal relationship in which I present material and questions about which I appreciate their unique insights.

This approach strengthens my skills in developing philosophical material for an uncharitable and disinterested audience. These students think academic philosophy is boring, and I have to learn to speak their language in order to get them engaged. To be clear, my goal is not to recruit majors and convince them to like traditional philosophical material. Rather, I think philosophical thinking can help them in their lives, and their engagement helps me develop my own thinking and research. Thus, in the classroom I cannot assume that traditional problems of philosophy are inherently interesting. Instead, I have to think about how these problems bear on the things my students find important, such as technological development, healthcare, interpersonal relationships, and athletics.(7) Relating philosophical material to subjects that are personally relevant to students falls in line with androgogical practices. In his principles of androgogy, Malcolm Knowles observes that adult learners draw on their own reservoir of life experiences to help them learn. Thus, as educators of adults, he claims that we should tailor our learning objectives to our students’ particular interests. Because adults are motivated by internal and self-driven curiosity, it is important and effective to tap into their unique interests to illustrate philosophical concepts.(8)

When it comes to writing articles for public engagement, having practice in the classroom is invaluable. If you can convince a room of college students that ethics of care (for example) is worth their time, chances are you have succeeded in presenting your research interests as valuable to the general public. To illustrate, in one of my courses I assigned an article explaining the ethics of care, in which moral obligations are grounded in caring relationships as opposed to duties or consequences. The article was quite theoretical, and the students had little to say about it. It appeared that they did not understand how this theory was different from any other theory we had covered. Seeing this, I decided to change the subject briefly, and I asked them to think about a future in which we have developed artificially intelligent robots that can function much like human beings. I asked my students, “What features would these robots have to have in order to deserve human rights?” A few different answers were offered, such as “respect for humans,” and “the ability to make moral decisions.” Then one student said, “Under the ethics of care, they would have to be able to care about us and recognize if we cared about them.” In one comment, this student illustrated the central feature of the theory to the whole class so that everyone could understand. Students were then able to evaluate whether caring relationships are a good method of grounding moral obligations. Having shared in this conversation, I now have a better idea of how to write a publicly-engaged article about care ethics.

This approach also gives me a lot of information about what people outside of academic philosophy think about standard philosophical arguments. I didn’t realize how valuable this was until I saw that I was consistently surprised by my students’ intuitions. After being wrong a few times, I started to experiment with creative and unusual reading material, and I looked forward to hearing how it would go over with them. These benefits rely on genuine engagement on the students’ part, and this is a real challenge when you’re working with students who don’t have an interest in philosophy. I have experimented with several methods to increase engagement, and later on I will discuss what I found to work best for my courses.

4. New Practices for a New Mindset

There are some major mindset changes I have had to make in order to get better results. In the past, I have designed courses according to my own values and ideas about what a course should include. Then, when it didn’t click with the students, I faced the choice of removing unpopular readings and topics to meet what they want, or sticking with what I believe is important for an introductory course. After making these choices several times, I’ve found that what I really think is important for an introductory course is that the students actively engage with the readings and get exposure to new ideas. It doesn’t matter as much which new ideas, or what material they are actively engaging with. Below, I discuss specific principles I apply consistently in my courses that have succeeded.  

4.1. Opening up traditional conceptions of “what counts” as philosophy

On day one, I tell my students that philosophy is nothing new. They’ve been doing it for most of their lives. I find that the more I can relate philosophy to familiar scenarios, like ethical decisions at work or with family, the more comfortable my students feel making similar connections in class. It’s a lot easier to manage disorganized input than it is to pull input from students who are intimidated and think they have nothing valuable to contribute.

To illustrate that philosophy has been present in their lives outside of academia, I include high-quality popular articles, interviews, and documentaries on the syllabus. These are kinds of materials with which they are familiar, and the classroom gives them the opportunity to look at these kinds of materials in a different light. I have included articles from the New York Times, The Atlantic, Aeon Magazine, and other sources for applied issues in ethics.(9) For instance, in my ethics unit on privacy, I include video interviews with Edward Snowden.(10) I’ve found that students enjoy these more and are more likely to read the full article/watch the full video, and have things to say in class. An added benefit of this is that sometimes the arguments given in popular media rely on appeals to emotion or other fallacies, and students often catch these fallacies and that becomes an interesting part of the discussion.

 I cut material that doesn’t work, no matter how much I personally enjoy it. There is a lot of philosophically interesting material that just doesn’t prompt a classroom discussion. It can be tempting to keep this material because it suits my particular values or offers an argument that is interesting to me, but the argument won’t offer anything in the classroom if the students don’t engage with it. More than teaching certain material, or presenting a certain picture of philosophy, I want my students to be engaged. No matter how philosophically interesting the readings are, if the students don’t get engaged, they’re not getting much out of them. That means I would rather include readings that get them talking than readings that are well-respected in academic philosophy, or even readings that are most interesting to me as a philosopher. This introduces a real change in standards for what material is “important” for an introductory philosophy class. In my view, engagement is the primary standard, and other standards that may apply in more cloistered academic settings, like strength of argument or acceptance in the field, fall to the wayside. In the single semester we have with our students, who will likely never take another philosophy class, I am comfortable leaving out some renowned classics in exchange for giving my students more time to exercise their own philosophical thinking, investigate their own judgments, and improve their ability to communicate complex ideas. Just because a piece is part of the philosophical “canon” that does not mean it can help students do these things. I am not suggesting we abandon academic standards altogether, but it is worth recognizing that academic standards have shortcomings and in some contexts, like the introductory classroom, are simply counterproductive.

My approach requires a pretty radical shift in perspective on what counts as “good” philosophy, and what counts as philosophical education.(11) For example, in teaching the ethics of drug legalization, I included two popular articles, one in favor and one against.(12) Both articles are written for a popular audience, not an academic one, and it was clear that the students were able to engage directly with the content and arguments themselves, and had no comprehension issues. One of these articles presented poorly thought-out arguments, and was altogether unconvincing. But this actually contributed to our discussion. The students had the opportunity to pick apart bad reasoning, see how bad reasoning arises in every-day arguments, and determine what facts and moral principles were necessary to improve the argument. If I were only concerned about arguments that I think are philosophically well-constructed, I would never have chosen this article, and my students wouldn’t have had the chance to pick apart a bad argument in class with their peers. The article was valuable because it prompted the students to apply philosophical thought, not because it presented a good argument.

4.2. Engagement-centered approach

Since I want my students to take hold of the material and engage with it, I need to explain challenging new concepts simply and in familiar terms. I “translate” academic language into commonplace language so that students can use these new concepts in ways that feel natural. I give them the difficult terms and put these on the board, and I define and explain these terms in language that I know is comfortable for them. My goal here is to bridge the gap between technical terms and familiar ones, so that they really understand the technical terms and get comfortable with them. For example, when I explain positive and negative duties, I define them as “things you have to do” and “things you better not do.”

With their newfound comfort with technical terms and concepts, I let the students take the reins in discussion, even if it’s a little cumbersome. I’ve found that if I lead the discussion too much, the students don’t feel any responsibility for making it productive. They tend to give mediocre comments just to earn participation points. However, if I step back and let them manage the discussion (where they’re talking to each other rather than raising their hands and giving me comments and questions), I notice that they take more responsibility over the discussion, and they talk about is important to them, not what they think I want them to talk about. When questions are posed to me, I’m quick to turn them to the rest of the class. After doing this for a while, students start to naturally raise their hands to answer each others’ questions. This gives me a good idea of how well they understand the material, and it also increases their sense of responsibility for understanding it. Sometimes using this technique means allowing long silences or confusing exchanges, but I find that letting them go through this gives them the opportunity and the motive to improve their discussion skills.

I encourage them to connect the material to their own personal backgrounds and majors. I tell them that it’s valuable to have people of different backgrounds and areas of expertise discussing philosophy together, and so we should use our unique backgrounds to enrich our conversations. When I started actively encouraging my students to use their own backgrounds, I found that they applied the ideas in interesting ways that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. For example, in one course, I had a student with cerebral palsy. In discussing the ethics of self-driving cars and whether we would be comfortable with moving towards non-human drivers, he pointed out the enormous potential of self-driving cars to increase independence and mobility for people with disabilities.

5. Challenges        

The biggest challenge I face with this style is that the students have so much freedom that discussion can sometimes become unproductive. Sometimes students move a bit too far in the personal opinion direction, or they misunderstand an idea and the discussion gets confusing.

This is actually pretty easy to remedy. When the discussion gets too off-track, I ask everyone to pause, and I put the bullet points of the discussion on the board. I’ll list the major positions that have been said, and then the reasons given for each one. This helps everyone get on the same page and it keeps students from just reiterating each other’s points. Then I’ll look at one position and evaluate a few reasons, to set an example of a more philosophical approach to the discussion. I’ll then ask some guided questions as we go through the positions, like, “What concerns might we have about this position?” or “does this reason get defeated by any of the reasons on the other side?”

I have found this method to be much more effective than trying to lay out arguments myself, or reclaim control over the discussion. This way, the students still feel ownership over the conversation, so they are invested in getting answers. What’s more, they learn how to take a mess of points and opinions and transform it into clear reasons that can be evaluated meaningfully. The messiness of the original conversation ends up being a benefit because they can see the process of going from ill-formed opinions to well-reasoned positions. Some students in the class will learn to ask the class these kinds of questions, and then the peer-led discussion improves greatly over the semester.

A similar approach can be taken when there is an obvious misunderstanding of a concept throughout the discussion. In a discussion about virtue theory, I noticed several students misusing the term “virtue” and applying it to good actions as opposed to good character traits. In order to fix this, I asked the class to pause so that we could all get clear on what exactly we mean by the term “virtue.” I asked if anyone could find the passage in the reading in which Aristotle defines virtue, and one student volunteered to read this passage, explaining that virtue is a stable trait in one’s character, developed through practice over time. I then asked if someone could offer an example of a virtue, based on that definition. A few students offered good examples, such as honesty and kindness, and one student offered an example of an action, giving to those in need. I wrote all of these examples on the board, and asked if each was in fact a virtue, and why. Through this questioning, students were able to explain that honesty and kindness are virtues, but giving to those in need is an action that someone with the virtue of generosity would perform. The misunderstanding was then obvious, and the student who had offered the incorrect example could see that she was close, but was missing a key element of the concept.

6. Conclusion

These are particular methods that I’ve developed to suit my own teaching style and while they are based on/consistent with teaching & learning research, these methods may not work for everyone. At the heart of all of these techniques is my central goal to bridge the gap between my students and academic philosophy, giving them a way in. Doing this has been well worth the effort. Every semester, I’m given the opportunity to discuss philosophy with a very diverse group of young people, and fostering engagement makes this into an invaluable resource. Based directly on student discussions in my ethics and technology course, I have started a new project investigating the relationship between the prevalence of parental surveillance, and public attitudes towards governmental surveillance. This project would never have occurred to me had I not adopted this reciprocal teaching model. The special challenges that come with teaching non-majors have made me a better public philosopher and I think we ought to see these courses as the valuable resource that they are.


Altorf, H. M. (2019). Dialogue and discussion: Reflections on a Socratic method. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 18(1), 60–75.

Bernstein, Richard J. “Pragmatism, Pluralism, and the Healing of Wounds.” American Philosophical Association Centennial Series, 2013, 601–15.

Collier, K.G. (1980) Peer-group learning in higher education: The development of higher order skills, Studies in Higher Education, 5:1, 55-62.

Dotson, Kristie. “How Is This Paper Philosophy?” Comparative Philosophy: An International Journal of Constructive Engagement of Distinct Approaches toward World Philosophy 3, no. 1 (2012).

Fornaciari, C. J., & Dean, K. L. (2013). The 21st-Century Syllabus: From Pedagogy to

Kremer, J., & McGuinness, C. (1998). Cutting the cord: Student-led discussion groups in higher education. Education & Training, 40(2), 44-49.

Long, Christopher. “Practicing Public Scholarship.” Public Philosophy Journal Spring, no. 2018 (2018).


  1.  Long, Christopher. “Practicing Public Scholarship.” Public Philosophy Journal Spring, no. 2018 (2018).
  2.  Bernstein, Richard J. “Pragmatism, Pluralism, and the Healing of Wounds.” American Philosophical Association Centennial Series, 2013, 601–15.
  3.  Kremer, J., & McGuinness, C. (1998). Cutting the cord: Student-led discussion groups in higher education. Education & Training, 40(2), 44-49.
  4.  K.G. Collier (1980) Peer-group learning in higher education: The development of higher order skills, Studies in Higher Education, 5:1, 55-62.
  5.  Fornaciari, C. J., & Dean, K. L. (2013). The 21st-Century Syllabus: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. Journal of Management Education, 38(5), 701–723.
  6.  Altorf, Hannah Marije. “Dialogue and Discussion: Reflections on a Socratic Method.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 18, no. 1 (2016): 60–75.
  7.  I have used each of these interests in the classroom to illustrate philosophical problems on multiple occasions. Technological development is very popular, so I designed an introductory ethics course entirely around this topic. I have used athletic performance to illustrate the concept of non-action in Daoism, various doctor-patient scenarios to explore utilitarian and Kantian ethics, and interpersonal relationships to explore ethics of care.
  8.  Knowles, Malcolm. “Adult Learning Processes: Pedagogy And Andragogy.” Religious Education 72, no. 2 (1977): 202–11.
  9.  Aeon, “Life in the Fishbowl”
  10.  VICE: State of Surveillance with Edward Snowden
  11.  My concern for “what counts” as philosophical education shows the effect of the prevalence of the “culture of justification” that Kristie Dotson points out in her piece, “Why is this Paper Philosophy?” While I take myself to hold an inclusive, interdisciplinary, and non-traditional view of philosophical education, I am aware of the potential criticism that could come from a more traditionally-minded observer. The need to defend a given work as “counting as” philosophy is something I hope to undo through my teaching practice.
  12.  In favor: Gawker “Legalize Drugs”





Kristin Culbertson 2020

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