About 10 years ago, I was an admissions officer at a university in London, where (typical of the British system of admitting major by major) I read essays from those who wanted to study philosophy. To be honest, the essays were largely indistinguishable from one another, presumably because the applicants were all given identical advice about what they should say.
But my interest peaked when the applicants mentioned what drew them to philosophy in the first place. Often, they cited a work of “popular” philosophy, perhaps Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, or something by A.C. Grayling or Alain de Botton. The students would not be reading such works once they arrived to do their degree. Rather they would read the philosophical classics – Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant – and cutting edge philosophical papers from the more recent past. They had been pulled in by popular philosophy, but at university they would experience professionalized philosophy, learning its special jargon, conceptual tools, and history.
There has long been a gulf between the public experience of philosophy and philosophy as it is pursued among the experts. Like other academics, philosophers focus on sharing research with colleagues, and draw on it when they teach the students who have shown enough aptitude (and paid or borrowed enough money) to get into their classrooms. Only a minority of academics try to speak to a broader audience, and when they do, the link to what they do in their professional life is presumed to be rather indirect. Knowledge trickles down from the ivory tower to the public sphere, but what comes out has typically been just that: a trickle.
This is beginning to change. The reason can be summed up in an unlovely, two-word phrase: “new media.” With tools like blogs and podcasts, platforms like iTunesU and “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), academics now have the opportunity to reach an enormous audience of people who need only an Internet connection and a modicum of curiosity. There are online interviews with leading philosophers (Radio 4’s “In Our Time,” “Philosophy Bites,” “Philosopher’s Zone,” “Elucidations”) and themed series like my History of Philosophy podcast. You can also find free philosophy instruction on YouTube and on iTunesU (traditional university lectures recorded and put online), while many conferences and professional lectures are also appearing on the internet (for instance from the Aristotelian Society, or the Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Munich).
It’s an unprecedented opportunity. So why don’t more academics take advantage of it? Many of the podcasters who host series on topics in history, for instance, are not university lecturers but independent scholars. I know, because I met them on Facebook (of course).
Of course there are plenty of practical explanations for this reluctance. New media projects require a certain degree of fearlessness when it comes to technology, and can be very time-consuming. With the heavy demands of teaching, research and administration, it’s no surprise that launching such a project may not rise to the top of an academic’s “to do” list. In theory, there could be rewards to balance the costs in time and energy. We are frequently asked to demonstrate the wider social “impact” of our work these days, on grant applications or in the Britain’s Research Excellence Framework survey. But “impact” is a rather ill-defined notion. When I first launched my own podcast, I was warned that it would not necessarily make a good impact case study in the REF: how exactly does one document the “impact” of a podcast? In any case, hosting a podcast is unlikely to help your career as much as writing a good journal article or two, which could easily take less time.
Beyond the practical issues, I suspect most academics still assume that media projects are inevitably “popular,” in the pejorative sense of being strictly introductory. A podcast or blog isn’t the place to do real philosophy or history – this view holds -- that happens in the classroom, or in the pages of peer-reviewed journals and monographs. But such worries miss the promise of new media. With no time limits and no editorial constraints, academics can make any ideas they choose freely available on the Internet. If that content isn’t for everyone, so what?
My own podcast covers the history of philosophy “without any gaps,” moving chronologically at a slow (some might say excruciatingly slow) rate. (Obviously this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. But my listeners are not just fellow academics and undergraduates. They are commuters, truck drivers, homemakers, retirees, high school students – as I say, anyone with an Internet connection and curiosity about the subject. We should not underestimate how widespread that curiosity might be, even when it comes to rather recondite topics.
Furthermore, just as students in a university setting helping their teachers to see things in a new way, the audience for a new media project will respond with corrections, comments, and other sorts of feedback. So there is a chance here for a democratic and open conversation in which knowledge is shared among many more people, not just those among the academic community. I believe that more and more academics will seize that chance, even if the use of new media raises questions about the role of universities and academic experts.
Why, for instance, should students pay high tuition to learn the same things they could be downloading for free? Yet this worry too, I think, is misplaced.
If anything, following a blog, taking a MOOC, or subscribing to a podcast will bring potential students to fields of study they would not otherwise have considered. I don’t read admissions essays anymore, but I like to imagine that some of the applicants say they’ve been inspired to pursue philosophy because of something they found online.
Peter Adamson is professor of late ancient and Arabic philosophy at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, in Munich, and the author of Classical Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, (Oxford University Press) a series of books based on his podcast series.
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