Philosophy has no industry. Outside of the university, and a small number of independent authors, there is no job titled ‘philosopher’. It’s an observation students make a lot to me, and is probably one encountered the world over (with – maybe – an exception in France; I’d love to know…). And yet philosophy is also popular. Could philosophy as a leisure activity, philosophy as a ‘way of life’ provide a new and interesting audience for philosophy?
The situation is not unique. Sociologists, anthropologists, historians (although the latter has a few more exceptions) and others share the same problem. Their disciplines are overwhelmingly pursued in the context of an educational institution, and so are not vocational subjects in the main. The skills and knowledge that one learns in these disciplines are considered valuable without respect to the employment that a student of these disciplines ends up pursuing. So not being a vocational discipline is not really a problem because whatever one ends up doing, skills in communication, collaboration and critical thinking, all specially emphasised in philosophy, are usually called upon.
But that puts philosophy (and other similar disciplines – but is there ‘sociology as a way of life’?) in a particular position with regard to the university. They can be found as core units, in first year seminars, and are thought to consist in some basic skills requisite for all study – and I think that’s right. But note the consequences: Philosophy as a profession cannot survive simply in order to replenish its own workers. We have to teach more students than those who wish to go on and teach philosophy, because those students are very few, less even than the small number of philosophy majors. Therefore, we have an indirect social value for philosophy to use as our appeal to prospective students.
That might be obvious to some. Especially where there’s a strong tradition in the liberal arts, as there is in the USA. But in Australia, it’s easily possible to complete degrees without ever having to do units from the arts.
Enter online study.
Over the last several years I’ve taught, and supervised units for Open Universities Australia – an online platform for University study. While I don’t have access to statistics about the number of their students to hand, they certainly do not compete with a large University like Macquarie. And yet the philosophy majors and number of philosophy students do. My conclusion is that something about the flexibility of online study, and the voluntary nature, results in a proportionately higher interest in philosophy. There’s something about online study that – under the present conditions at least – suits philosophy.
This fact – if it is a fact – runs into problems however. Because online study, although economically and practically increasingly popular among students and administers, does not enjoy the confidence of academics. Especially philosophy academics it seems. There is a distrust of online study that is easy to witness. Online programs have a lower a status. The insinuation is that the students are ‘lower capacity’, or that the teaching somehow less effective… all of which I think are false assumptions.
How would an online, more voluntarily pursued kind of philosophy, change the nature of philosophy teaching? What dangers would there be? What advantages? How would one investigate this?