Philosophy – No or Yes?

The following two stories came to me on the same day.

The first begins:

I was in the middle of teaching the difference between knowledge and belief when my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. It was a call from the dean of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas College of Liberal Arts. The dean informed me that he was very sorry but, barring an unlikely immediate solution to the state’s financial crisis, the university had decided to eliminate the Philosophy Department, which I chair. In July, I would be given a one-year terminal contract. After that, the university would fire me, along with all of my departmental colleagues, after twenty years of service.

The author, Todd Edwin Jones, continues:

Puzzlement over why people study philosophy has only grown since Socrates’ era. It is not surprising that in hard economic times, when young people are figuring out how best to prepare themselves for the world, many state college administrators and the taxpayers they serve believe that offering classes in philosophy is a luxury they can’t afford.

Suprising? Maybe not. Unwise? Definitely. The reason, of course, is the subject of my previous post.

The second article, by Stanley Aronowitz, begins with this observation:

The reasons why public education is suddenly an issue despite years of neglect by politicians and the media are straightforward. In this depressed economy credentials seem to have lost their advantage. Many parents and politicians claim schools have failed to deliver what students need.

Notice both the similarity and significant difference from the first article. The first article shows that some people (including, preposterously, college and university administrators) think that in difficult economic times, people don’t have the time or money for “luxuries” like philosophy. The second articles takes note that in difficult economic times, people start to notice that “credentials” may not be worth the money – again, see Matthew Stewart’s essay in the Atlantic called “Management Myth.”

Aronowitz claims our obsession has been with the credentials and not with the appropriate education (and all that means), and we’re finding that some of our academic “emperors” are wearing no clothes.

At the core of our trouble is that we “don’t know much philosophy.” He writes:

In France, high schools have required the study of philosophy, though less so in recent years. High school graduates had knowledge of the main traditions of European philosophy in its classical form: the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, medieval thinkers, Descartes and Kant, Bergson and some 20th-century philosophy.

Philosophy has been excluded from the U.S. secondary schools, with the exception of elite, mostly private schools. This is a telltale sign that we don’t take critical thinking seriously as an educational goal. If philosophy has pedagogic value, it is to teach students the value of doubt, without which it is impossible to penetrate propaganda and discern the presence of particular interests within knowledge.

If I may paraphrase J.S. Mill in order to gain some clarity on this issue:

It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of *understanding* are low has the greatest chance of having the sense of *being* fully satisfied, *i.e., to believe he knows*; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any understanding which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

So, is this the time to rid our curricula of philosophy? Is there ever such a time? I suppose that depends on who you ask. If you ask the same swine who blame teachers and union labor for the collapse of our economy (!), I suppose they’ll think the single most important initiative to preserve their vision of the world is the extinguishing of all critical thinking. If you ask foolish administrators, who evidently haven’t a clue about what philosophy is, who mistake it for useless fancy, then the answer will be dictated by this ignorance.

But if you ask one who is neither a swine nor a fool, someone who knows both sides, both philosophy and commerce, then the answer will be “Never!”

If you value a free society, if you value economic innovation, creativity, and genuine prosperity, if you value living a supremely human life, philosophy is a necessity, not a luxury.


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