Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Making Philosophy Matter

Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and a lecturer in philosophy at Simmons College, sounds the tocsin for his fellow philosophers, urging them to wake up to the fact that their discipline is in trouble. Universities looking for ways to tighten their budgetary belts have let their eyes fall upon their philosophy departments which are increasingly regarded as academic fat.

McIntyre laments the short-sightedness of such a view, but also blames his colleagues for not doing more to make philosophy relevant to the lives of their students and to our public debates.

Here's a sample from his essay:
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.)

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.
McIntyre goes on to explain exactly how philosophers have done it themselves. Everything he says rings true, but there's one thing he doesn't mention that's an interesting fact about the jeopardy philosophy finds itself in. It doesn't seem to be at all in trouble in religious schools, at least as far as I can tell. One reason, perhaps, is that the problems examined in philosophy courses are highly relevant and crucial to a thorough religious education.

Philosophy as taught by secularists in secular institutions always struck me as a dry, barren and tedious affair. Philosophy is most exciting, I think, to those who are interested in seeing how the ideas of the great thinkers bear on their own deepest convictions. Philosophers who teach courses on very narrow, abstruse topics are simply walling themselves off from a larger body of students who might otherwise be eager to think about ideas and issues that both challenge and reinforce their own convictions, particularly their metaphysical convictions.

McIntyre goes on to observe that unlike scholars in other disciplines, too many philosophers eschew writing for a popular audience:
We have painted ourselves into a corner of irrelevance so completely that at times I wonder whether most philosophical work is even very interesting to other philosophers. There is, of course, genuine value to pure research in philosophy, just as there is in other fields. But what seems problematic is the widespread philosopher's prejudice that we are somehow sullying our discipline any time we try to make a real-world connection.

Thus even when we have the chance to make a difference, philosophers often blow it. How many of us, when we teach ethics, have used the hypothetical example of whether torture is justified to get evidence in the face of a ticking bomb? But when a U.S. president actually endorsed the use of torture, there was mostly silence from the philosophical community, from both sides of the political spectrum.

Few op-eds in national newspapers. Little attempt to make use of our terrific critical-reasoning skills in the public arena to cut through the fallacies of the politicians or the blowhards on cable TV. Too many preferred instead to brag of their brave political convictions to the captive audience in their classrooms.
Quite so. Any discipline which can't show people how the subject it studies matters to them, how it relates to their life and their deepest yearnings, is by definition going to be culturally irrelevant. Philosophy is a rich and fascinating discipline, but when it's decoupled from the ultimate questions of life, or when it's presented to students by instructors who are themselves lost in the arid, empty wastelands of a naturalistic metaphysics, it often comes across as a dessicated exercise in pointless erudition.

Thanks to Byron for linking me to McIntyre's article.