Got Philosophy?

I was in Las Vegas for an academic conference last week when I learned that UNLV was considering shuttering its philosophy department, among others, in response to budget cuts. My initial reaction could have come from one of my 20-year-old, text-message-obsessed students: WTF?

Of course, UNLV is facing an impossible task: Cut nearly $50 million from the budget without compromising the academic mission of the university. And UNLV President Neal Smatresk seems to genuinely understand how unattractive the options before him are: You can’t cut that much without slicing into worthy programs. Someone’s going to get hurt.

So at first blush, it might make sense for that someone to be the philosophy department. After all, when was the last time someone got a job “doing” philosophy? But see, that’s the thing: Philosophy doesn’t teach you to “do.” It teaches you to think. And today a whole range of critical issues call out for philosophical perspective: How is technology transforming the way we relate to one another? How can low voter turnout undermine the basic tenets of democracy? What is the necessary relationship between business and society?

I have the great fortune to hold a teaching job at a Jesuit university that requires its students to take not one, not two, but three philosophy courses as a part of its core curriculum. I teach mostly upper-level courses, and let me tell you, students’ ability to think and reason is enhanced over the two public universities where I’ve previously taught.

Removing philosophy from the public university isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a clear indication that the university is training workers rather than educating citizens. In these economically and politically troubled times, I’d like to believe we haven’t lost the ambition do both.

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