Daniel Nicholas Chodowiecki: The Death of Socrates
I was in the middle of teaching the difference between knowledge and belief when my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. It was a call from the dean of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas College of Liberal Arts. The dean informed me that he was very sorry but, barring an unlikely immediate solution to the states financial crisis, the university had decided to eliminate the Philosophy Department, which I chair. In July, I would be given a one-year terminal contract. After that, the university would fire me, along with all of my departmental colleagues, after twenty years of service.
What are they thinking? a friend asked the next day. You cant have a university without a philosophy department! Others have expressed similar shock.
But I actually wasnt surprised. 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 cant afford.
Yet people think of philosophy as a luxury only if they dont 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 lifephysicists, physicians, detectives, politicianscan 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 cant justify certain conclusions is a central part of what philosophers study. Philosophers look at what can and cant be inferred from prior claims. They examine what makes analogies strong or weak, the conditions under which we should and shouldnt 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. Its 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, theyve 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 valuesother subjects that philosophers have long pursued.
Clearly, then, studying philosophy can help people in almost any area of endeavor.
Yet what astonishes me is not that the immense long-term value of philosophy is so often unrecognized, but that many Americans think it especially problematic to find resources to fund philosophical training. Its 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 spendingusually on things that dont directly concern them or whose immediate benefits arent 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.
Yes, it costs money to pay philosophy professors, but if that means our citizens reason better, then its money well spent.
But it is simply untrue that Americans dont have the money to pay for philosophy. Americans havent paid so little in taxes as a proportion of the GDP since the Truman administration. We pay less than citizens of most industrialized countries. Thats why government cant afford philosophy education. While many people hurting from the recession cant pay more in taxes, its certainly fair for wealthier Americans and corporations to pay more, since they arguably benefit the most from roads, schools, and police forces. They have also benefited the most from past income-tax reduction and will suffer the least from income loss now. Yes, it costs money to pay philosophy professors, but if that means a doctor makes a better diagnosis, a police officer fingers the right suspect, a politician crafts a better law, and our citizens reason better, then its money well spent.
In the meantime, whats going to happen to my department?
Well, the proposal to eliminate it is not yet a done deal. Indeed, the proposal to balance Nevadas budget by making enormous cuts (while, astonishingly, promising no new taxes at all, even on Nevadas incredibly profitable mining industry) is not a done deal either. So when Im not grading or preparing courses, I spend my days making arguments (like the ones philosophers tend to study) in order to convince legislators, administrators, and community members that eliminating the UNLV Philosophy Department is a poor way to help solve the state budget crisis. Coming from a discipline that studies argumentation and evidence, how to make ethically sound decisions, and the ideas that have shaped the history of our civilization, I have a lot of good material to draw upon.
But its certainly possible that all my efforts will come to naught and that I will soon join the many Nevadans who cant pay their mortgages. My children seem especially nervous. Will I be able to keep my toys? my eight-year old asks. I tell him that Im working hard every day to prevent the cuts.
What did Joe Hill say? I ask my son. He knows the answer. Dont mourn, organize, the imprisoned union advocate told his supporters. But didnt Joe Hill die? he asks. I dont know whether to laugh or cry.
But Im not about to die. If I should fail, I know Ill be okay. True, I have no idea what I would do if I were fired. Apart from stints as a cherry picker and entertaining amusement-park goers as a costumed raccoon, being a philosophy professor is all Ive done. But if I have to pack up, sell everything, and move away, Ill remember Kurt Vonneguts advice: Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.
I do worry, however, about what will happen to citizens of states like mine that make highly damaging cuts for short-term gain despite clear alternatives. The decisions to balance the budget by drastically cutting education and to enact that cut by eliminating a major universitys philosophy department were not based on good arguments. Thats a reason for more philosophical studynot less.
Todd Edwin Jones is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of What People Believe When They Say That People Believe.