David Janssens

What can philosophers contribute to society?

Knowledge, skills, and character: the Bachelor’s program in Philosophy embodies these three pillars of the Tilburg Educational Profile (TEP). Not for nothing does every Bachelor’s program at Tilburg University include a course in philosophy, tailored to the theme of the program. How does the Bachelor’s program in Philosophy itself exemplify TEP? Lecturer David Janssens explains.

By Melinde Bussemaker

“Our aim is to train good philosophers,” Janssens says. “That implies taking TEP seriously and purposefully making the development of knowledge, skills, and character a part of education. We believe the Mentorship module does just that. It’s an integrated part of our curriculum, so it’s not optional. We also hope that the module helps to make the transition from secondary to academic education a little easier. In the first two years of the Bachelor’s program students take three Mentorship courses, earning them two credits (ECs) in all. On one view, these credits are the reward for their effort, but the real reward is students’ personal development.”

Mentorship course

How is the Mentorship module set up? Janssens: “In the first course, students discuss the nature of philosophy. How does it relate to society? In a fairly informal setting, the 20 to 25 students get to know each other, and they learn how to reason using arguments. The second course, the one I teach, is less reflection-oriented; we discuss bottlenecks in their studies. These range from the practical, like overlapping classes, to the experiential, such as a lack of rapport with a lecturer. I listen and try to let students resolve the issues they raise themselves. They are also given information about minors, studying abroad, and job prospects.”

Organzing an event

“Another essential component of the second course is organizing an event,” he continues. “Many people only have a hazy notion of what philosophy entails. To enlighten families and friends, students organize a kind of orientation day in small groups. They come up with original ideas, like dressing up as a philosopher and answering questions in character, organizing a debate between lecturers, or making an online Buzzfeed Quiz. It is often a fun event, and an educational one as well. Students have to collaborate, make organizational arrangements, and plan, as well as deliberate how they can best get philosophy across. I’m convinced that as a lecturer I learn from teaching, and that’s how I think this event works for my students, too; people often understand things better when they need to explain them to others.”

Reflecting together

The third course is offered in the second year of the program and revisits the first course. Janssens: “We reflect once again on what philosophy is. What can philosophers contribute to society? As students have by now reached a more advanced level, we explore the issue to greater depth.” Is it relevant to discuss personal and course-related problems in an educational context? Janssens believes it is. “The beauty of it is that there is instant mutual recognition among students, which prompts them to help each other. For example, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic I see increased performance anxiety and feelings of uncertainty; students are anxious to get it right in one. That is a topic we also talk about together.”

Science is a social activity

The group gradually evolves into a close-knit community. “Forming a community is not an aim on its own, but we ought to realize that we may and should rely on one another. That, to me, is what TEP is about, too. People are social creatures, not isolated individuals. There’s this idea that being an academic means working solo in a tiny office. That is not so. Quite the reverse, in fact: it is a social activity.”

“You compare notes, test ideas, and help each other climb that mountain. True philosophical action happens in dialog.”

Skills and character

TEP revolves around knowledge, skills, and character. Which skills does the Mentorship module help develop? “Working together, finding and playing a role in a group, planning, having discussions, allocating tasks, internal and external communication,” Janssens sums up. “Students also learn to reflect on themselves, to give presentations, and to think about their future. How do they see themselves?”

A way of life

The Philosophy program also tackles character. “TEP doesn’t define character as instilling certain norms and values in students, but rather as teaching students to face life critically: to be open to the arguments of others and to question their own biases and opinions. That is character building. Engaging each other in discussion and debate in an open and respectful manner – and learning it by doing it. That’s how philosophy is a way of life.”

Teaching against idiocy

Some people are sceptical about developing character. What does Janssens make of that? “I can see why they would be, because character development is normative. It reminds me of the motto ‘Teaching against Idiocy’. Idiocy here refers to the Greek word ἴδιος, which means ‘one’s own’. So originally an idiot is someone who is preoccupied with themselves. I think we should seek to abandon entrenched positions and try to connect with others. We are living in an era of filters and bubbles, and online we are constantly hearing the echoes of our own frame of reference. It is harder than ever before to see all perspectives clearly.”

The Cobbenhagen philosophy

All Bachelor’s students at Tilburg University must take two courses in philosophy. Why is that? “Generalizing from the specific Bachelor’s programs, I’d say that the shared purpose of the two Philosophy courses is to encourage students to think about the theoretical and practical assumptions, the preconceptions, of their chose field of study. What really matters is that students learn to call into question their own roles as, for example, lawyers or economists,” Janssens explains. “Philosophy proper is thinking out of the box: everything is up for discussion and paradigms are not constraints.”

“I believe that professionals grow when they take a flexible approach to their own opinions and are aware of their own outlook and that of others.”

“What sets our university apart is its societal profile. Consider, for example, how economic differences generate inequality in terms of educational opportunities and development potential. At every turn, there is an ethical dimension that fits the Cobbenhagen philosophy.”