Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
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 state’s 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 can’t have a university without a philosophy department!” Others have expressed similar shock.
But I actually wasn’t 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 can’t afford.
Yet people think of philosophy as a luxury only if they don’t 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 life—physicists, physicians, detectives, politicians—can 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 can’t justify certain conclusions is a central part of what philosophers study. Philosophers look at what can and can’t be inferred from prior claims. They examine what makes analogies strong or weak, the conditions under which we should and shouldn’t 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. It’s 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, they’ve 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 values—other 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. It’s 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 spending—usually on things that don’t directly concern them or whose immediate benefits aren’t 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 it’s money well spent.
But it is simply untrue that Americans don’t have the money to pay for philosophy. Americans haven’t paid so little in taxes as a proportion of the GDP since the Truman administration. We pay less than citizens of most industrialized countries. That’s why government “can’t” afford philosophy education. While many people hurting from the recession can’t pay more in taxes, it’s 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 it’s money well spent.
In the meantime, what’s going to happen to my department?
Well, the proposal to eliminate it is not yet a done deal. Indeed, the proposal to balance Nevada’s budget by making enormous cuts (while, astonishingly, promising no new taxes at all, even on Nevada’s incredibly profitable mining industry) is not a done deal either. So when I’m 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 it’s certainly possible that all my efforts will come to naught and that I will soon join the many Nevadans who can’t 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 I’m working hard every day to prevent the cuts.
“What did Joe Hill say?” I ask my son. He knows the answer. “Don’t mourn, organize,” the imprisoned union advocate told his supporters. “But didn’t Joe Hill die?” he asks. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
But I’m not about to die. If I should fail, I know I’ll 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 I’ve done. But if I have to pack up, sell everything, and move away, I’ll remember Kurt Vonnegut’s 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 university’s philosophy department were not based on good arguments. That’s a reason for more philosophical study—not less.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.