In this post, I'd like to raise the issue of using popular culture as a vehicle for teaching philosophy.
There is a current trend in philosophy publishing of connecting philosophy with some aspect of popular culture. There are three different publishers with a series of this type (Open Court, Blackwell, and the University Press of Kentucky), as the books have been relatively popular.The Matrix and Philosophy was a (rare for philosophy) bestseller.
As a graduate student, I used a book from Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy Series—The Simpsons and Philosophy—as a supplementary text for an introductory course in ethics. I have never had more student enthusiasm at the beginning of a course than I did for this one. Almost to a person, students were excited because the class connected with something they knew about and enjoyed (I met with many students in the class one-on-one at the start of the semester). At the end of the semester, many students were still positive, though some thought that there was too much focus on the Simpsons, and that sometimes the connections between the Simpsons and philosophy were a bit tenuous. This fall, I’m teaching a course dealing with existentialism and postmodernism, and among the 5-6 books required for the course is U2 and Philosophy. Several of the chapters deal with both of the topics of the course. At the end of the semester, I’ll report how it went.
As you likely know, some philosophers are opposed in principle to the X and Philosophy books, where X stands for some element of popular culture. From a brief survey of stuff on the Internet, the reasons seem to be as follows: it waters down philosophy, those who do such books are merely seeking to make some “easy money,” and junior philosophers are using these books as a way to pad their cv’s. Another argument against these books is the following:
1. PC (some piece of pop culture) is very popular.
2. What is very popular must appeal to the masses.
3. The masses have no real aesthetic sense.
4. PC can't be that good.
For a presentation and evaluation of this argument, click here.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve contributed to Lost and Philosophy and edited Running and Philosophy (both with Blackwell) and am currently editing a volume on football and philosophy (with the University Press of Kentucky). My view is that using these types of books in an appropriate way can be conducive to learning, because it shows the relevance of philosophy as well as its often unrecognized presence in the everyday lives of students. It is also much more interesting to use Homer and Bart Simpson in an illustration vs. philosophical characters such as Smith and Brown. Of course, not all of the books that have come out are worth using, nor is every chapter of every book worthwhile. However, the same can be said of more traditional philosophy textbooks, as well as scholarly work in philosophy.
Has anyone else used these books, or chapters from them? What are some of the possible pros and cons of using popular culture to teach philosophy? Do you have arguments for or against such use?