Why does our society place more value on the degree than the actual learning? With Ivy league and esteemed colleges publishing their courses online, it is plausible to think that one could learn as much or more than a graduate, yet that knowledge would not be valued in the workforce or in the field of knowledge. This can also be seen in high school. Less knowledgeable students who earn the diploma are far greater valued than others who may have superior knowledge but did not complete.

I'm always a little worried about broad generalizations about society. That said, I'm willing to grant that there is a real bias of the kind you describe. And I would also agree that many very worthy people get overlooked on that account. As for why it happens, that's an empirical question and as a philosopher I have no special insight into the answer. But I can offer a hypothesis: it's a time-saver. No doubt there are many people with no degrees who are smarter and more knowledgeable than people with Ivy-League credentials. But if I'm an employer, I don't have the time or the means to figure out who among all the applicants is really the most capable. So I will use things like educational achievement as a proxy. If someone got a degree, there's a good chance that they have at least a certain basic level of intellectual ability and stick-to-itiveness. And if their degree is from a prestigious school, that inference may be a little more solid. At least, I'd guess that this is what many employers...

Do professors/teachers have any ethical obligations to their students? Take, for example, the case in "21" the movie, in which a professor of mathematics at MIT is recruiting his brightest students into an illegal blackjack ring that he is heading. The action might be immoral, but my question is whether there is anything about the teacher-student relationship that makes it especially (or specially) immoral. Thx

One obvious problem here is that teachers have a sort of power over students. They can give them bad grades, refuse to write letters of recommendation... If the students "consent" to the arrangement, it will be that much less clear that the "consent" was strictly voluntary. So in addition to the inherent wrongness of the scheme, the extra problem is that the teacher is quite likely taking unfair advantage of the students.

Having grown tired of reading secondary material in my study of philosophy, I have decided to read primary texts in a chronological, rather than thematic, order. I have started with Plato and have read most of the works I can find online or at my library. Before I move on to Aristotle, I would like your advice. Do you think a chronological approach is a good idea for someone untrained in philosophy? Do you think I should read every work by a given philosopher, or are there 'key' works that serve as their primary contribution to the field? If the latter, are there any lists that you are aware of that state what those key works are?

Consider an analogy. Suppose I wanted to learn physics, and I decided to read great works of physics in chronological order. Whatever value that project might have, it would be a poor way to become a physicist. So no: I wouldn't recommend reading historical works in chronological order. I wouldn't even recommend putting a lot of emphasis on reading historical works, period. One reason: philosophy is essentially something you do . Working philosophers aren't intellectual historians. They're trying to sort their way through problems. Work by older philosophers can be suggestive and relevant, but most working philosophers spend very little of their time reading the classics. I'm guessing that by "secondary sources" you mean commentaries on historical works or introductory material on various problems. My suggestion: move next to edited collections of contemporary papers on problems that you're interested in. For example: if you're interested in the free will problem, you might consider getting...

Is it morally wrong to go to high school if you know for a fact that you are not being taught any relevant information for living morally and responsibly, you know that the assignments are absolutely pointless, and you have the opportunity to benefit the world through becoming a Buddhist monk and through the extensive studying of relevant fields of religion, philosophy and science? Would it be wrong to drop out and join a monastery if you have this opportunity? Please help me.

This answer may not be quite what you want to hear, but if someone is convinced "for a fact" that nothing they're learning in high school is relevant to anything that matters, then one of two things is likely: (a) this is a very unusual high school, or (b) the person making the judgment isn't really in a very good position to judge. My guess is that most people on this panel thought at some point in their high school careers that everything they were doing was a waste of time. My guess is that most of them also woudl agree that on reflection, this wasn't really so, even if the benefits weren't immediate or obvious. The agenda proposed here sounds awfully ambitious: become a Buddhist monk and study religion, philosophy and science extensively. I'm hard pressed to think of many people who've managed all that. Perhaps someone like Matthieu Ricard would count, but he had the benefit of a PhD before he became a monk -- something he probably wouldn't have gotten if he hadn't finished high school....

The average American doubtless knows more about subjects like math, history and science than did an average American 200 years ago. Does philosophy also enjoy this kind of broad progress? Is the average person more philosophically able now than in the past? Or are advances in philosophy typically enjoyed only by specialists?

Answering this question isn't altogether easy, for two reasons. The first is that we need to get some sort of a clear fix on what philosophical ability amounts to. And supposing we were able to sort that out, the next problem is that the question is an empirical one -- a matter of what the facts are -- and here philosophers have no special expertise. Compare: suppose we wanted to know whether the average person is more mathematically able than people were say, 50 years ago. There might well be data around that could give us a fix on this; perhaps someone even has some sort of reasonable answer. But while mathematicians will have something to say about what counts as mathematical ability, they aren't likely to have any special insight into the distribution of mathematical ability in the population. Still, in the mathematical case we might expect to get some sort of broad agreement about what counts as mathematical ability. The ability to come up with solutions to certain sorts of problems would be a...

This question pertains to philosophical education or philosophical pedagogy: Even though I do not hold any degrees in philosophy (I hold undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science), I believe that philosophy should constitute one of the foundations of higher education. It is impossible, I believe, to be truly educated without a sound background in philosophy and logic. To this end, I have always believed that with the wonderful emergence of new technologies it should be incumbent upon every capable institution of higher learning to seek to disseminate such core foundations. This can be done, with remarkable ease these days, through distance learning. However, with the exception of a very small number of philosophy departments associated with certain universities, most departments of philosophy look upon distance learning, seemingly, with great loathing. Furthermore, the thought of actually establishing distance degree programs in philosophy (whether at the undergraduate or graduate...

I have actually taught philosophy online. (I may be the only panelist who has.) In my case, it was a contemporary moral problems course, and I will be teaching an intro to philosophy course online as well. My own view is that there's no good reason why this can't work. A former colleague of mine had a view of philosophy that I've come to think is correct. Although philosophical conversation is good, philosophy ultimately gets done by writing. I don't know how many times I've had the experience of trying to write up an idea that I'd thought about or discussed and discovering that it needs considerable tweaking if it's going to work. The advantage of the online course is that it's all in writing from the outset. One popular format that worked well for me: I would pose a question in response to the readings or to earlier discussion. The question would be of a sort that couldn't be answered in a line or two. Students would have to post a reply on a discussion board, and they would also be required to...

Do you believe in the socratic method in the teaching of children?

It partly depends on what the method is supposed to be. In reading some of the Socratic dialogues, one gets the strong impression that it was a technique for walking the person being questioned into a pre-determined and sometimes peculiar answer. (Do we really think that Meno's slave boy had learned about triangles in his life before birth?) But the goals people claim to have in mind when they use the Socratic method are good ones: to encourage critical thinking, to get students to take ownership of their ideas, and to see that easy answers are often not forthcoming. Starting with a question -- especially a provocative one -- seems like a plausible way to get people thinking. But we all know that things with the grammatical form of questions can sometimes serve the same purpose as simply making a claim; sometimes it's not hard for students to pick up on the answer they're supposed to go for. Perhaps the real question is what methods work best for getting people to be critical thinkers. That's a...

As a teacher I am concerned about the aftermath of the killings at Virginia Tech. Many have said that we teachers should be responsible for monitoring the content of our students' writing assignments, and that we should notify the authorities if we identify any particular student as repeatedly making statements that are disturbing, violent, or indicating mental illness. How would a philosopher approach this topic? What are the ethical issues involved in monitoring students' thoughts via their personal writing, which is handed in for course credit?

This is a hard thing to have to think about, and since all of us on this panel are teachers, we all have to come to terms with the issues. Let me just offer some thoughts on how I think I would handle things if this sort of case arose. There are some obvious conflicting values here. The privacy of the student is one, and public safety is another. If I got a piece of writing or witnessed behavior that I found disturbing, the first thing I would do is seek advice from someone better qualified than me. In the past, on a few occasions, I have called staff in the counseling office and described what I was concerned about without telling the counselor anything that would identify the student. I should add that none of these have been cases where public safety was an issue, but I think the advice still goes. A trained counselor is likely to be better than me at judging the level of threat and advising me on how I might approach the student. Also, if I was worried that the student might harm him/herself or...

I am a philosophy student and I have noticed that there are some days (rarely) in which I simply can not absorb. A lot of times I will work extra hard to concentrate but find that it is simply useless and a waste of times. Is it necessary to take breaks from intellectual work? I always just assumed the mind could handle whatever you could feed it, is this false? Are there things in which I can do to improve my concentration and productivity in situations like this? Or do I just need to slow down? Thanks, Josh

Brains, like the rest of us, need rest; I wouldn't be bothered by the occasional hazy day. Simple tips include getting enough sleep, getting some exercise, drinking tea or coffee in moderation -- all the obvious stuff. A little less obvious: some sort of meditation practice. Take a look at http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1865567 or http://www.news.wisc.edu/13762 for some information on a recent study that might be to the point. You asked: is it necessary to take breaks from intellectual work? The answer I'd suggest is that, necessary or not, it's good. Intellectual activity is valuable, but so are many other things, and a well-rounded life would include a few of them. Listen to some music; socialize with friends; learn to play squash; volunteer at a soup kitchen; cook a tasty meal -- you get the idea. Things like that are valuable for their own sake, and who knows? Time away from thinking may bring you back refreshed and full of ideas. I bet none of this comes...

I am a starting my second year as an eleventh and twelfth grade global history teacher in the South Bronx this fall. In the spring I suggested that our school offer a philosophy course to some of our strong seniors and was told it would not fit into our curriculum. Much to my delight I was informed yesterday that I will be teaching the course. The only problem is that I am overwhelmed with the task of creating a curriculum. My class is set to meet for about an hour a day for a year. In addition to deep and thoughtful philosophical conversations I would also like them to read several original works of philosophy although not in their entirety. I need to be able to take my students to reading and uncovering meaning from the texts, to read and figure out Sartre for themselves. Finding resources to teach with has been very problematic. So often I find philosophy books explain philosophers well but fail to suggest reading Plato. While my students' literacy levels are not at the same level as most...

Best of luck to you in this worthy undertaking! I hope my colleagues will provide suggestions of their own; there are many possibilities. But I'd like to offer a general thought or two, as well as a couple of specific suggestions. Although I have great respect for the scholarly attempt to wrestle with texts by Plato, Locke, Kant and so on, there's a caution to keep in mind. Philosophy is primarilya problem- and question-oriented, and doing it well has more to do with a certain kind of careful thinking than with knowledge of texts by classic authors. A look at a typical philosophy journal bears this out. The articles may refer to the recent literature (though "recent" in philosophy doesn't just mean "last year"), but they often don't mention classic literature at all. I just glanced through the bibliographies of the articles in the Spring 2007 issue of a major philosophy journal. At most 5% of the references were to texts or articles before 1960. The old texts can be valuable, but they...

Pages