Philosophy Learning Goals
Mount Holyoke College’s learning goals emphasize skills that promote good citizenship and lifelong learning. At its heart, philosophy is the practice of critical thinking about foundational questions, including moral and political questions about what is a good life and how to be a good citizen. Philosophy is, thus, crucial to realizing Mount Holyoke’s educational mission. This is especially clear with respect to Mount Holyoke’s first learning goal, which says that students should learn to “think analytically and critically by questioning assumptions, evaluating evidence, and articulating well-reasoned arguments.” This is precisely what we learn to do when we learn to do philosophy. The ability to carefully and fairly evaluate arguments is a skill that has value in any situation. As global citizens, over a lifetime of different careers and paths, philosophy equips students with the ability to see the difference between arguments that work and ones that mislead, between sense and nonsense.
All of the courses in our department, whatever the ostensible topic – Kant’s transcendental deduction, modal logics, the ethics of euthanasia, or the hard problem of consciousness – use a distinctly philosophical way of analyzing arguments. This is most explicit in logic, where the structure of arguments is itself the object of study, but it is equally important in other areas of philosophy. In the history of philosophy, for example, the study of texts focuses closely on understanding and evaluating the reasons offered by the author. We also put a high priority in teaching the analysis of arguments in clear prose writing. By engaging in this sort of close study of arguments, students become better thinkers, better writers, and better able to handle whatever personal and professional challenges may come their way.
We provide the students with a focus on argument, both as it ought to be done, and as it is in fact done, using formal and informal methods. Our learning goals, therefore, are fourfold. We expect students to be able to:
- analyze arguments using the tools of formal logic;
- write clear prose that explicitly sets out and evaluates arguments in English;
- set out and analyze the arguments they discover in texts; and
- develop their own arguments in clear, concise, and convincing prose.
One way to sum up our learning goals is this: everything we do in philosophy is centered around the analysis of arguments. In some cases this is done formally (in our logic courses); in others, argument analysis is done in clear prose and careful discussion.
These learning goals are embodied in our major requirements, which include:
- a course in logic;
- courses in both value theory and theoretical philosophy; and
- two courses in the history of philosophy.
They are also embodied in the graded work in our courses, which are of mainly three kinds:
- essay assignments in which one must reconstruct and critically evaluate others’ arguments;
- essay assignments in which students construct their own arguments; and
- proofs, formal or informal, of validity.
We also teach these skills in seminars, theses, and independent work.
To sum up: clearheaded critical thinking is an invaluable skill in any context. The philosophy department has a precise understanding of what such critical thinking amounts to, and the value it has for our students, as scholars as well as citizens.