The end of philosophy

“Is a university without philosophy really a university?” asked the Inside Higher Ed in 2007. Obviously Chosun University thinks it is.

Chosun University, the largest university in Gwangju, and one of the most prestigious in Gwangju as well,  is closing its philosophy department.

This is not a new trend. Tracing back several years there have been closings of several philosophy departments.  Indiana State University, Howard University, Middlesex University to name a few. This year, however, philosophy supporters are raising strong concerns about this trend.

Number Crunchers crushing out Departments of Thought

Statements such as the following two are highly disturbing.

‘Schmid said that the reduction is a response to criticism from the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the university’s regional accreditor. “When they last did our accrediting review, they said that we have too many programs for a university of our size and too many programs with low enrollment,” she said. In fact, the university has found that about 8,800 students are enrolled in 107 programs, and another 1,800 major in the remaining 107.’ – Inside Higher Ed


‘The (Middlesex) university says the number of BA philosophy students it attracts is “unsustainably low”, at 12 a year for the past three years and with six firm acceptances so far for next year.’ – The Observer

Numbers may inform decisions but people make decisions based on their values. Unfortunately it seems that the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools values quantity over quality and it is imposing its value system on the colleges and schools it accredits. Shocking that a “watchdog” of the education industry has such a financially motivated goal!

Even profit-focused companies subsidize some divisions of their business that are losing money because they add value by providing goodwill to the community, an expert reputation, or actually cross fertilize other product/service divisions that are cash cows.

In fact new business models for social networks like LimeWire or WordPress require them to provide free services and only charge for extended services. Just because there are fewer graduates of a program, doesn’t mean it doesn’t add value to the university, the other departments or to the experience and knowledge gained by the students themselves to think critically about the world around them.

Science and Technology over Arts and Humanities

Now more than ever the world needs to engage and empower people to be successful in a complex world. What are these skills that will enable people to be successful? Henry Jenkins with the Media Literacy Project listed 11 skills that youth will need to be successful in the emerging technologically enhanced world. Jenkins’ list includes skills such as judgment, negotiation, and collective intelligence; skills that require reflection, critical thinking and ethical choices.

These skills are foundations for the humanities: art, literature, history, philosophy and languages. In the mad dash to catch up with the technology driven “real” world, universities are dumping departments that don’t add value to their bottom line, like philosophy departments. Science and technology classes may cover issues such as judgment, negotiation and collective intelligence, but they don’t offer a chance to focus on them exclusively or at a higher level of abstraction. Philosophy departments do.

Vocational schools are important to create specialists. However, a technological specialist still needs to make decisions that are ethical as well as logical. As a philosophy major I feel more confident and emboldened to challenge my world instead of merely pushing a button to do my job and make my coffee. If I only had my computer technology degree I would not be as critical or confident about interacting in today’s information-overloaded world.

International Concern

The Observer this year has provided some heightened awareness of this slow, debilitating path that some universities have embarked upon.

Noam Chomsky himself  shared his opinion about the Middlesex proposal to close the philosophy department: he hopes that the “unfortunate decision will be reversed, for the sake of the university, the intellectual life of the UK, and not least the future of this ancient and indispensable discipline worldwide”. (The Observer)

The Point of Philosophy

Crooked Timber blog challenges whether the objective of a philosophy department is to graduate philosophy majors.

“the requirement in Pennsylvania that any university department within the PASSHE system that graduates fewer than 30 majors over five years justify its existence. . . . But is producing Philosophy majors the point of having a Philosophy department?”  Crooked Timber

Harry at Crooked Timber shares a well-thought out response to this movement of closing philosophy departments. He emphasizes that he provides a service to non-philosophy majors; sometimes being the only philosophy course a business major make take. And alarmingly he states that his class may be the only class that a business major may write a paper in their last years of university. His emphasizes that philosophy classes don’t require rote memorization of terms but rather emphasize a higher order cognition which is important as life has many grey areas to navigate, including being successful in technological careers with tasks requiring creative, reflective solutions.

Philosophy classes such as ethics are the one place where students can think about ethical questions without being told what their answer should be. This process lets them develop values which will help them in the problems they will face at work as professionals and in their community as citizens as well as in their own personal life.

Crooked Timber also points out that symbolic and practical logic classes teach students to identify fallacious reasoning and improve critical thinking processes. Philosophy departments teach aesthetics, medical and environmental ethics, and philosophy of religion, which provide opportunities for deep reflection and encourage students to think at a higher level of abstraction than required in their regular courses.

What I found most moving and resonated for me most as an educator are the following lines from Crooked Timber:

“I like having students who are thrilled about doing Philosophy, and the handful that I have helped on their way to graduate school have been among the students I have valued teaching most. But so have students who became, or are becoming, social workers, nurses, teachers, and who took one of my classes simply to fulfill a requirement or on a whim or because some counselor strongly suggested it.. When I think about justifying the existence of my department and what we should be doing, it is those students, and the value we can produce for them, that I think of first.” Crooked Timber

University should be a time to play – not just party-and-drink play, but play with ideas. Bounce things around, discover your world on your terms, try on perspectives that are different from the family and culture you were born into. Philosophy classes offer that opportunity to work with an expert on ideas while in a community of safety with peers about things that may be invisible to the learner previously or too taboo to talk about elsewhere. Chodae does a disservice to its student body by closing its philosophy department. A loss to the Gwangju community that should be mourned.

References, Influencers and Inspiration page 4

4 Responses to “The end of philosophy”
  1. Good article. Of all the courses I’ve studied my philosophy BA was the best thing I ever did, and if I chose to do a doctorate it would probably be in philosophy (with medieval/ancient literature running a close second).

    I disagreed with most of my teachers, and they often disagreed with me… but there’s nothing like attempting to construct arguments re a set of precepts that keeps the brain fairly well exercised. The university level students today wouldn’t know how to do these things if their lives depended on it (my generation was shifting toward robot-dom, the coming generations ARE robots in 98% of their lives, and the economic system that controls them knows it).

    I don’t often bother socializing in groups of more than three or four since the communal urge toward mediocrity in conversation is so high. We must change this. NOW. We must make it so that the more of us there are together the cleverer we communally get. It is simply an act of faith, and of WILL.

    As I say, this is only to be expected of institutions which are highly dependant on 1/private banks/corporations 2/government funding (which itself depends on private banks/corporations). This trend WILL NOT CHANGE. WHY? Because the banks want everything you own, and they want it yesterday.

    I recently read about a large protest in Britain regarding the fact that students are expected to pay another massive top-up on their fees. When will these kids, and their parents, get the message? Nothing better asserts the power of those funding your institutions than a big ol’ yelp at the fact that you can’t afford to study. I bet these bankers are laughing in their champagne-filled swimming pools!

    If any students, from wherever, are reading this, read this message, and read it WELL;

    You can change society once you can change your world and stop putting faith in the old channels. Until you recognise that there ARE those around you in society who can teach you better than someone with certificates festooning their walls (and that, being human, unlike institutions, they might even teach you for free, or for a discount!). Until you understand that you are systematically being moulded to be ignorant and subserviant to a state that wants your mind and your soul for their own pet evil experiment.

    Opting OUT is revolution. But for this it takes a lot more strength in those around you than having two sturdy feet to protest on. You will need to have faith in your fellow man. You will have to think that someone without a degree is just as well-off as someone with a degree. You will have to ackowledge that a great percentage of universities actually WANT you to be ignorant. They do not, and have not had, the goal of your being able to think for yourselves and investigate for yourselves as their priority… many of the teachers themselves are ignorant and unable to be curious about the world around them. You only need survey the lack of ‘journalism’ in journalism to know that something has gone drastically array in Clever Land.

    Also know that if this state of affairs exists without some communal attitudinal shift then you will be passing on this inheritance (the communal urge toward un-think) to your children.

    You will have to choose your teachers from a much larger section of society than simply those few with doctorates. People have whined about not having cash for centuries… and will do for centuries more if we do not evolve, spiritually. Create your own institutions! Create your own certificates, if you want! Just don’t come whining to me when you need four doctorates in McScience to clean the floor in, where!? yeah… that’s right, MacDonald’s itself.

    Does this mean that all institutions and the teachers who teach in them are satan? Of course not, no! But think for yourselves. And SAY something, and DO something about a state of affairs if you believe it to to be wrong! Stop being robots! Think for YOURSELF, and don’t depend on your parents generation (another generation which was ignorant enough to believe that the university system would benefit you) and ACT on your mental choices. This is worth an infinitude of marches on parliament because it will BENEFIT all of you.

    Stop relying on an economic system, which your institutions are largely bound up in, to systematically rape you intellectually and spiritually. Start thinking and doing things for YOURSELF, and stop blaming others when things go wrong. The greater test is in moving forward together intellectually, not on the same level of economic dependance as in the past. And that means faiths must be lost, within this system. Good teachers will have to set up for themselves, or change professions, good students must create their own educational systems and stop kowtowing to the teacher that wants the least out of them. If this begins with people meeting on a hill in the December cold to read Shakespeare, or discuss the theories of Einstein then SO BE IT. Anything but THE PRESENT THOUGHTLESSNESS would be a proper start.

    You can’t say you haven’t been warned.

    Andrew O’Donnell

  2. Patrick Wendel says:

    This is a curious position for the university to have regarding philosophical discourse and involvement. In respect of Andrew O’Donnell’s aforementioned comment, I will forgo repeating what has already been said in concerns to economical dissolution of community.

    ” ‘ . . is producing Philosophy majors the point of having a Philosophy department?’ ” While somewhat comical of a question, it probably has more impact on outlying disciplines than those within the discipline itself. What I mean to say is that for a Philosophy department to function as a department of Philosophy, it must do two things. Report the history of thought and evolution between philosophical paradigms, and inspire the individuals within the department to use their own minds as a tool of logical progression, discourse and reason.

    The history of philosophy is easy enough to lecture to an auditorium of blurry-eyed, drooling students from one professor’s payroll to hundreds of jingling pockets. The ability to reason, evaluate and rebut ideas, however, is an intimate lesson that cannot be learned through expensive text books and state of the art libraries. It is also something that every area of study must adopt in order to survive as a study, be it a hard science, soft science or even liberal art.

    For centuries philosophy has served humanity as a cultural backbone, an investigator when in doubt and a source of strength when faced with indecision. It has trained the leaders of empires, discoveries, nations, warriors and laymen.

    My point, perhaps, is were one to disregard philosophy for philosophy’s sake, I would accept it. This one, however, would be in error to disregard philosophy for the sake of attainment towards one’s goals. I am drawn to Marcus Aurelius’ writings on the matter when he said,

    “Here’s a thought that should flatten any false pride: it is no longer possible to live your entire life, not even your adult life, as a philosopher. How far short of philosophy you fall is plain to others, as it is to yourself. Your life is flawed, your reputation tainted, and it is no longer possible to win the glory of being a philosopher.”

    and again,

    “Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great — What are they compared to Diogenes, Heraclitus, and Socrates? The latter saw into the nature of things, their causes, and their constituent parts, and what is more, the reason that guided them was their own; whereas in the case of the former, how great the things for which they were responsible and how petty the things to which they were enslaved!”

    While no philosopher himself, Marcus Aurelius lived by the pensive teachings of other philosophers to become the great leader of his people in all aspects of his life.

    I say this, being among the 4 people who graduated in my class of 2008 in the department of philosophy. While it is a passion of mine, it should be of basic necessity to everybody else.

    Patrick Wendel

  3. dougstuber says:

    The University of North Carolina, ranked #26 in the U.S. by US New and World Report, may chop its philsophy department as well.

    Worse news: it accepted a one-time $30 millino dollar lump of cash in trade for handing over the curriculum of Political Science, History and Geography to an ultra conservative gorup which has been ousting professors and picking the books and even lesson plans ever since. This is a once-respecred PUBLIC school for God’s sake.


  4. I fleshed my comment out to article length at FB, Doug… by all means check it out. News on December Poetry event a-comin.

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