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Philosophy education goes down the drain at Middlesex University May 24, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Philosophy.
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In the money-frenzied and celebrity-gossip-hungry world of modern media, it is not surprising that the decision by Middlesex University in the UK to close its philosophy department did not make the headlines.

It would have passed unnoticed had it not provoked a three-week sit-in by a small group of students terminated by a court injunction.  It has also stimulated opposition among international academics, although admittedly mainly in the area of philosophy, but it has not yet reached a level of general debate.  The politicians and policy-makers have not seized upon it as the issue of the day because the electorate does not yet feel it’s important enough in the midst of the economic turmoil.

As The Times reported it, the closure of the philosophy department is on account of student numbers being “unsustainably low”.  Apparently, the department has failed to “develop any strengths in continuing professional development or consultancy”.  In other words, The Times concludes, “it costs too much and doesn’t do anything practical”.

At a very basic level, Middlesex University’s decision highlights a flaw in the approach to the allocation of resources to tertiary education funding based on how much courses cost to run.  It is also symptomatic of the heavily utilitarian and vocational bent of tertiary education in recent years.  Above all, it exposes a trenchant lack of respect for culture and humanities at universities in the 21st century.

Perhaps I shouldn’t generalize.  Middlesex University was, apparently, born a polytechnic.  It should be forgiven for taking an above average utilitarian approach.  Tariq Ali says that “a university that closes down subjects like philosophy should lose its status as a university and be returned to a polytechnic”.  The UK also has a fine tradition of excellence in the humanities, a la Oxford and Cambridge.

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine that in an environment of fierce competition for dwindling job opportunities, students tend to neglect subjects which are not seen to be directly related to a ready career post graduation.  The more fundamental question is: is it true that graduates in humanities are less professionally competent?  They certainly can be more professionally disadvantaged, but only if we decide that they should be so.  We must change our way of thinking.

Let’s confine the discussion here to the study of philosophy rather than the humanities in general.  Having been, nay still being, a student of philosophy, I have direct experience.  To my mind, the study of philosophy has a number of characteristics:

–          it sharpens critical thinking

The study of philosophy emphasises discourse and the examination of premises.  As in the study of law, philosophy teaches the construction and defence of arguments; but unlike law, it uses values and humanity rather than practical considerations as rules of engagement.  Above all, students of philosophy are taught to take nothing for granted and to challenge assumptions.

–          it breeds curiosity and freedom

Philosophy is man’s quest for truth.  Its importance lies not in the observation of phenomena, as in science, but in pursuing the underlying reasons.  The need for curiosity to challenge the status quo, to stress test reasonable assumptions and to persist stubbornly in charting new territories leads to real freedom, of the intellectual kind.

–          it reinforces values

Philosophical discourse enables man to delineate good from bad, right from wrong, and reasonable from unreasonable.  It develops a framework of values for human interaction as well as social order.

–          it demands clarity and consistency

Human discourse relies on language, which is often a blunt tool for the purpose.  The study of philosophy helps promote precision in the use of language, and reduce inconsistency or muddiness.  If we accept certain assumptions to be correct – or if we define them to be so – philosophical investigations will compel us to accept certain other related assumptions to be correct as well.

–          it enhances humility and tolerance

One of the first things we discover in studying philosophy is that the more we know, the more we know we don’t know.  Getting an answer to one question often opens up many other questions, to which there may or may not be answers.  Further, it makes us appreciate the vastness of human intelligence, and the validity of opposing points of view.  Although philosophers are no less opinionated than others, they tend to be more respectful and accepting of dissent.

All of the above characteristics of studying philosophy point to its value in building character, in shaping a tolerant society, and in enabling better decision making.  We should persuade more people to engage in philosophical discourse, and not to dismiss it as an activity irrelevant to the practicalities of life.  In doing so, we may equip them better to reject pursuit of unbridled materialism as progress and achievement, temper extremist views that defy reason – and the use of violence to defend them – and develop innovative solutions to cope with rapid changes in technology that wreak havoc with the comfort of relative certainty.

The notion that studying philosophy is of no practical value in life is pure hogwash.  For the benefit of future generations, whether they decide to specialise in science, commerce or the arts, we have the responsibility to encourage the study of philosophy as a means to ensure more ethical, tolerant and reasonable behaviour.  In fact, it should be a required foundation course.

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