By Tim Linn, Assistant Director of University Relations, Rockhurst University
Philosophy has a reputation for concerning itself with the abstract: focusing on heady topics such as existence itself, our place in the world, the meaning of everything, and big questions on life and ethics. The eagerness with which philosophy grapples with these topics is one of the subject’s strengths, but also one of the reasons it fills some students with a sense of not-so-existential dread.
But this doesn’t have to be so — in fact, as the Rockhurst University Department of Philosophy demonstrates, the pursuit of truth and knowledge complements any other degree and provides an avenue toward understanding the greater world: one of the goals of a Jesuit education.
Brendan Sweetman, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department, said that that is by design. With faculty who bring a wide range of expertise, a collective mindset toward foregrounding contemporary issues, and a focus on interdisciplinary work, the Rockhurst philosophy department is making sure that their courses remain relevant to students of Generation Z and beyond.
Today’s college students were infants or toddlers on September 11, 2001. For those in higher education, the tragic attacks of that day, and events afterward, were too big to ignore. From that point forward, Rockhurst’s philosophy faculty made it a point to engage students on ethical issues, such as just war and the morality of the fight against terrorism, as a way to bring them into the lesson.
“Life and culture continually give rise to new questions,” says Sweetman. “I think the role of us as faculty is to allow students the opportunity to wrestle with those questions and to think them through carefully.”
As technology has continued to transform the world, students have discussed artificial intelligence and other topics related to the ethics of humankind’s relationships to machines. Trends in health care, science and politics are also among topics that faculty draw on for discussions. Sweetman observes that they don’t shy away from those subjects because they have implications in each student’s own life, no matter where they go after college.
This approach is rooted in the Jesuit idea of wisdom, meaning the pursuit of knowledge as an avenue to make the world a better place. But it’s also rooted in a very human desire to understand the world better. “I think philosophy awakens something in these students,” Sweetman says. “There’s a philosopher asleep in everybody — we’re philosophical beings by nature.”
That sentimentality has created some interdisciplinary opportunities, another area of focus for the department. In 2008, Turner White, Executive Assistant Professor of Management, sat in on Sweetman’s ethical theory course and connected with Sweetman’s idea, later developed into a book, of worldviews — the perspective on the world informed by one’s values. It inspired him to work with Sweetman on a new course for Rockhurst’s Executive MBA program, which asks business leaders to discuss the ethical complexities of their careers — asking them not just what their worldview is, but to explain why it is so.
“My hope is that students leave the course with the habit of thinking deeply about how their worldviews and values influence the actions that they take at work and in life,” White says. “Among the students who have taken the course that Brendan and I developed collaboratively, all have said that this is the first time that they have been asked to explore the questions posed by developing and articulating their worldviews.”
That course has become a challenging, but appreciated, staple of the Executive MBA curriculum. And White notes that it’s no abstract exercise: These are current future executives and leaders who will have to make tough decisions, and their conversations are based in real-world examples. Encouraging students to investigate what motivates their decision-making could have wide-ranging implications for the world. In other words, if the course can get them thinking on a regular basis about their worldviews and how they live out their values through them, then, White explains, “We have made a transformative difference in their lives and equipped them with tools to navigate difficult decision-making.”
Similarly, Rockhurst’s philosophy department has sought to design degrees geared toward the types of careers that students are looking for. This past year, the department launched two new degree tracks: bioethics and social justice. As the number of students seeking degrees in health care-related fields or nonprofit leadership continues to grow at Rockhurst, these pathways are designed to make the subjects more relatable.
Those offerings have drawn interest from students who were not otherwise looking at philosophy. Austin Messmer, a senior, came to Rockhurst for a biomedical physics degree; philosophy was not on his radar as a future health care professional. But he took an introductory course and found himself drawn to the subject. “I was instantly hooked,” he says. “The logical nature of philosophy made a lot of sense to me, and I appreciated how it could be used effectively throughout life.”
For Messmer, studying philosophy has practical implications for his career path as well. He says, “It helped me out incredibly for the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section of the MCAT, as I could approach any problem with a critical, inductive reasoning to reach a solution.”
It’s not the first time that Sweetman has heard comments like that. The number of philosophy majors at Rockhurst remains healthy, he notes, in part because of interdisciplinary opportunities, the department’s contemporary outlook, and new programs. But at its heart, philosophy’s strength is teaching students to ask questions. Sweetman says, “When you’re coming to [the subject] for the first time, you can’t beat that. When I talk to philosophy majors, I tell them not to waste the opportunity. You’ll never get the opportunity to read and think about important ideas all day again.”