Making Philosophy Matter- or Else
Philosophy matters- at least that is what the philosophers say. Why then is the discipline under the threat of fading into oblivion? Universities around the US look at closing their Philosophy Departments as an easy cost cutting measure.
As enrollment in the humanities programs declines a strong philosophy program can indeed make for better engineers, scientists and fledgling high tech business gurus. We just have to look at the discipline differently and teach it differently.
Those who teach philosophy need to change the way they see themselves, their discipline and the way they see and understand their students.
In March administrators at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas announced that, because of budget cuts, the entire department of philosophy would be eliminated. Philosophers rallied, the administration flinched, and within a month the crisis was averted. So all is well, right?
Not so fast. Unless systemic changes are made within the profession of philosophy over the next several years, we can expect that within a few decades, the entire discipline may be threatened.
In November 2010, The Boston Globe reported that student interest in humanities courses has cratered in recent years. And long-term trends are troubling, too. When adjusted for total enrollment, numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics show a 20-percent drop in philosophy and religion majors from 1970 through 2009. Of course, none of that is news to anyone who has worked recently in an American philosophy department. There is anecdotal evidence aplenty that our students are disappearing.
And how have we responded? Do we design better courses? Try to attract more student interest? Some members of our profession do, but by and large our response has been pitiful. We collapse tenured positions as soon as their inhabitants retire. We hire more adjuncts. Instead of trying to figure out how to reach more people with philosophy, we cut back. But in doing so, we eat our seed corn. (Note that in saving philosophy at UNLV, the department agreed to slate all its junior faculty members for termination.)
To those who are tenured, the threat may still seem distant. The barbarians are not quite at the gates. But if we do not intervene, soon the threats will be not just to our enrollments or course offerings (or junior faculty), but also to the ranks of tenured faculty—and whole departments. (If you don’t think that can happen, take a stroll over to the classics department at your local university sometime—if it’s still there—or to the library to check out a copy of Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath’s bracing polemic, the 2001 Who Killed Homer?)
Something should be done about the growing crisis in philosophy, but no one seems to be doing anything. Who is to blame?
We are. Philosophers. We did this to ourselves.