It's no secret to readers of this blog (or residents of these United States who have been paying attention to the world that exists more than six inches from their faces) that the last few years have been rough for state budgets, and that the budget woes are especially noticeable for state university systems.
A recent case in point: owing to budget shortfalls in Nevada, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is poised to eliminate its Philosophy Department entirely. The current chair of that department, Todd Edwin Jones, has an eloquent piece in the Boston Review that explains some of the reasons that this budgetary strategy is likely to impoverish the UNLV educational experience. He writes:
Philosophy has prompted confusion and anger ever since Socrates, one of the first practitioners of the discipline, was sentenced to death in 399 B.C.E. for “corrupting the youth.” 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.
Yet people think of philosophy as a luxury only if they don’t really understand what philosophy departments do. I teach one of the core areas of philosophy, epistemology: what knowledge is and how we obtain it. People from all walks of life—physicists, physicians, detectives, politicians—can only come to good conclusions on the basis of thoroughly examining the appropriate evidence. And the whole idea of what constitutes good evidence and how certain kinds of evidence can and can’t justify certain conclusions is a central part of what philosophers study. Philosophers look at what can and can’t be inferred from prior claims. They examine what makes analogies strong or weak, the conditions under which we should and shouldn’t defer to experts, and what kinds of things (e.g., inflammatory rhetoric, wishful thinking, inadequate sample size) lead us to reason poorly.
This is not to say that doctors, district attorneys, or drain manufactures cannot make decent assessments without ever taking a philosophy class. It’s also possible for someone to diagnose a case of measles without having gone to medical school. The point is that people will tend to do better if, as part of their education, they’ve studied some philosophy. (This is one of the reasons why undergraduate philosophy majors have the highest average scores on the standard tests used for admission to post-graduate study.) No matter what goals someone has, she can better achieve them through assessing evidence more effectively, which philosophy can teach her. Questions about whether this or that goal is one that is good to have or whether certain goals are consistent with other goals, in turn, concern ethics and values—other subjects that philosophers have long pursued.
Philosophy is sometimes described as revolving around "the big questions" -- what can we know, how sure can we be, what do we value, how can we get along in a world where others have very different values than our own. etc. They aren't big because they are insurmountable (although some of them are wicked-hard). Rather, they are big because they keep coming up in all sorts of contexts, and because getting them right (or more right than not) is important.
Philosophy classes make students grapple with these questions. In the process, they help students develop strategies for dealing with other questions in other context. In the process, philosophy students learn to think carefully, to argue clearly, to evaluate evidence, and to think through sensible objections to their own views. Philosophy students have to become proficient with language, both oral and written. They have to think analytically -- and often, abstractly. Philosophy is a discipline that pushes book nerds to be more math-y (what with the formal logic most philosophy degrees require) and math geeks to be more verbal (with all those essays and class discussions).
Philosophy classes leave students with skills more broadly applicable than dissecting individual axons out of a fruit fly embryo.
Not, of course, that I want to argue that the value of a college education or its component parts lies solely in the delivery of practical jobs skills. (Indeed, I've argued against this view.) But if we want to rank the value of academic departments in terms of the valuable and/or widely transferable job skills they impart to their students, I reckon philosophy will hold its own against the more "practical" disciplines one might name.
These are skills we try just as hard to impart in "service" courses (i.e., those taken largely by students in other majors to fulfill general education or distribution requirements) as in courses aimed at our majors. Moreover, they are skills that our peers in other departments and college recognize that we have some skill in imparting, given that they call upon our expertise to do things like develop ethics curricula for their majors. (It is true that these ethics curricula are often spurred into existence by an outside accreditation agency for a discipline, or by funding agency strings attached to a training grant. This strikes me as more evidence that organizations beyond the ivory tower -- including science and engineering organizations -- identify a central strand of philosophy as important in the training of people entering these non-philosophy disciplines.)
Arguably, philosophy could also provide people with skills that are important to participating effectively -- heck, to participating rationally in the governance of our nation, our states, our communities. As Jones writes:
It’s long been recognized that some tasks are best coordinated by governments, and that to succeed in these efforts, governments have to raise revenue from citizens. Since colonial times, Americans have recognized that education is one of the things that taxpayers need to support (and those were some lean times!). Sadly, over the last several decades, Americans seem to have grown accustomed to thinking that they can have roads, schools, fire departments, and Medicare without fully paying for them. Now that such thinking has proven a fantasy, taxpayers should have responded with a sensible, “We should have been paying for these things, and perhaps we should start.” Instead they have clamored to cut spending—usually on things that don’t directly concern them or whose immediate benefits aren’t apparent. Such thinking leads new Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval to propose a budget with enormous cuts to education (including elementary school). And it leads college administrators to insist that these cuts require eliminating the Philosophy Department.
(Bold emphasis added.)
An attentive philosophy student has a toolbox with which to analyze this magical taxpayer thinking, whether in terms of ethics or political theory, in terms of our ability to think down the links of a causal chain or our difficulties with empathy.
Surely, more facility with critical thinking, not less, is what it will take to bring us through a difficult economic climate.
Of course, when there's not enough money in the budget (and when the populace and/or their elected representative have ruled out tax increases as a way to get enough money), stuff gets cut. Maybe some of that stuff really is of little value, but a lot of the things left to cut are going to hurt someone when they're gone.
Eliminating a philosophy department may not cause the same degree of immediate harm as would, say, cutting off medical aid to the indigent or eliminating free school lunches for poor elementary school kids. But it will cause harm. Maybe that harm will take longer to smack the people of Nevada in the face, but this doesn't mean that the impact won't be devastating.