Philosophy (Plato and Aristotle) versus The University of Louisiana, Lafayette (President Joseph E. Savoie)

….

Adios Plato, and Aristotle, and Kant, and Hegel, and Dewey, etc.   I heard the news, today, oh boy.    According to the New York Times article, “Making College ‘Relevant’,”

The University of Louisiana, Lafayette, is eliminating its philosophy major, while Michigan State University is doing away with American studies and classics, after years of declining enrollments in those majors.

So you’re not impressed.  Who cares about some backwater school in the state that elected Bobby Jindal its governor.   Perhaps, dear reader, there are some facts that you should know about The University of Louisiana, Lafayette, for they may reveal how serious the situation is for philosophy and philosophy majors.   Fall enrollment was 16,320 at Lafayette, according to its web site.  Also, according to its web site:

  • The University of Louisiana at Lafayette owns a total of about 1,400 acres. Its main campus consists of 137 acres; the athletic complex and Cajundome sit on 243 acres; University Research Park has 148 acres; the Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology has 51 acres; and the Equine Center is comprised of 100 acres.
  • UL Lafayette has a 600-acre farm/renewable resources laboratory with a 30-acre pond for crawfish and catfish culture in Cade, La.
  • The Carnegie Foundation has designated UL Lafayette as a “Research University with High Research Activity.” That puts UL Lafayette in the same category as Clemson, Auburn and Baylor universities. The only other Louisiana institution in the same category is the University of New Orleans.
  • The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
  • UL Lafayette offers 78 undergraduate degree programs.

And it’s not as if the regents for the University care only about crawfish and catfish ponds and not philosophy.  According to the Times:

When Louisiana’s regents voted to eliminate the philosophy major last spring, they agreed with faculty members that the subject is “a traditional core program of a broad-based liberal arts and science institution.” But they noted that, on average, 3.4 students had graduated as philosophy majors in the previous five years; in 2008, there were none. “One cannot help but recognize that philosophy as an essential undergraduate program has lost some credence among students,” the board concluded.

As a former chair of philosophy departments, and currently director of a Liberal Arts program, I can tell you that it would be rough to defend a major, any major, if there weren’t any majors.  But here’s the thing.  I simply can’t fathom how a campus with over 16,000 students did not have one philosophy major graduating in 2008.  Usually universities offer dual majors and some students interested in philosophy take advantage of this opportunity.  Also, philosophy is often the major of choice for students hoping to go on to law school.  (None in Lafayette?)  So either philosophy is on its death bed, which might be possible, and/or the people in Lafayette simply aren’t working very hard or in the right way to produce majors.  (I counted four full-time faculty members in Lafayette’s Philosophy Department, which works out to approximately one philosophy professor for every 4,000 students.  I can see that this is an institution that has worked diligently to make philosophy available to its students.)

And what about Michigan State?  Well, it’s in Michigan, a state whose economy is currently as cold as its winters.   (Aristotle claims that we turn to the study of philosophy only when the necessities of life have been addressed.  Or in Feuerbach’s words, “Eat first, philosophize later.”) But the problem is not just down in Lafayette or up in Michigan.

I recently attended the Eastern Division Meeting of The American Philosophical Association and can report that things are indeed bleak in philosophy on the job front, that is, if you wish to become a professor of philosophy.  And this is especially true for young people.   Typically a very large number, if not the majority, of graduate students on the market gather for job interviews at this meeting.   It is as much a professional gathering as it is a jobs fair.  But fair it is not.  The swings in our economy can make the conference feel more like Vegas in any given year than a symposium at Oxford.

I have no doubt that other liberal arts disciplines have seen a serious decline in new positions this year.  Why should large swaths of academia be any different from the rest of the economy?  But liberal arts majors should not despair, for the vast majority of them will never seek employment as professors.  (And even those who want to become professors should remember that the market does change, even if it’s rarely very good, as it was in the 1960’s.)   It seems that what we have been hearing for years–namely, that the liberal arts supply critical skills and tools that many employers appear to want–remains true.  This too is spelled out in the article.

There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”

It’s possible that these prospective employers were telling the researchers what they wanted to hear, but for many good reasons, I think not.  The fact is that the skills listed above are crucial to many, if not most, of the better paying jobs that will be available in the coming years.  (Just speak with well-placed business executives and ask how important communication skills are for good positions in their companies.)

Of course none of this addresses the intrinsic value of studying the liberal arts, often something that people learn to appreciate only when they grow older (as the Times article points out).  In this regard there is some good news for liberal arts and philosophy types: it seems that a lot of current students are interested in developing a meaningful philosophy of life.  The author of the Times article, Kate Zernike, uses a UCLA survey to show how in the last four decades finances have become more important to entering freshmen than philosophical questions.  But I prefer to see the glass half full.  After years of being socialized into a hyper consumer based economy, almost half of the freshmen are still interested developing a meaningful philosophy of life.

Consider the change captured in the annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, of more than 400,000 incoming freshmen. In 1971, 37 percent responded that it was essential or very important to be “very well-off financially,” while 73 percent said the same about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” In 2009, the values were nearly reversed: 78 percent identified wealth as a goal, while 48 percent were after a meaningful philosophy.

As a professor of liberal arts and philosophy, I’ll gladly take 48% and run with it…..

One thought

  1. There is a difference between those who have a dream to work towards and those who want a job. For me, a dream didn’t just define the type of work I wanted to do but why? Was it status? Was it money? What about rising above what people thought Puerto Ricans were capable of? Or women? How I performed my job was also important as well as the interpersonal aspect of work. I believe in sharing information and power, and helping others in achieving their best. I grew up asking myself lots of questions and I love to learn. For some of us, it’s as natural as breathing. Looking at the world today, we seem to need more than ever people who can teach others to breathe.

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