Friday, August 19, 2005

Philosophy or bowling -- the new college electives?

Several times since last fall, I have written about the eroding liberal arts curriculum in colleges and universities across the country, as well as in my own instition of Lenoir-Rhyne College. See, e.g., (1) "Designing educational 'outcomes'" (Sept. 18, 2004), (2) "Axing liberal arts courses in a market driven curriculum" (Oct. 4, 2004), (3) "Axing liberal arts courses (part 2)" (Oct. 4, 2004); (4) "Axing liberal arts courses (part 3)" (Oct. 4, 2004); (5) "Deconstructing the liberal arts curriculum" (Oct. 27, 2004); and (6) "On why liberal arts programs are being eroded" (May 11, 2005).

The matter is not merely academic. I have just come out of a meeting today in which the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion, of which I am a member, was asked by the chair of the faculty curriculum committee to consider a proposed new liberal arts curriculum in which philosophy is no longer required of all students, but grouped together with a number of electives alongside courses in "physical wellness." Let me translate: a student, under this proposal, would be allowed to choose between Introductory Philosophy and, say, Introductory Bowling. Students would doubtless leap for joy! But from the point of view of anyone schooled in the history and meaning of the liberal arts, this is (to use the words of one of my colleagues in history) simply obscene!

The issues go far deeper than bowling or philosophy. The proposal shows a great poverty of understanding on the part of those faculty members who designed the proposed curricular changes. It reveals an erosion in understanding about the very purpose of liberal arts education, not to mention the place of philosophy in such an education. The problem behind this myopic reasoning is simple: philosophy, like the other liberal arts, has no immediately identifiable utility, therefore it is assumed to lack substantial value. By contrast, courses in "professional" programs -- such as business, marketing, tax law, physical therapy, occupational therapy, exercise science, nursing, computer science, etc. -- are seen as being practically very useful, and therefore valuable. They offer know-how that can be harnessed for useful purposes -- often with great financial rewards -- in the world of business, industry, and the health-related professions. Hence, it's easy to assume that what has no immediate imaginable use must be basically worthless. This, at least is the assumption under which the liberal arts, including philosophy, are being eroded.

While I would be the last to question the value of all that is useful, I would be the first to insist that not all value is reducible to the utilitarian value. This is the great error of our times, especially in first-world countries like the United States. We value work. We value it because it is useful. It builds things, produces consumer articles, and gets things done.

But there are many things that have no utilitarian value that are of great importance. Who doesn't think happiness and pleasure are of great value? Yet we don't value them because they're useful. Useful for what? Nothing. We enjoy them as ends-in-themselves. Who would be such a boor as to question the value of a birthday party! Yet we don't celebrate birthdays because we consider them useful, but simply as ends-in-themselves -- to celebrate the life of an individual as an end-in-itself. Church attendance is not something generally considered useful either; which is likely why church attendance has fallen off so precipitously in our utilitarian work-a-day world. In fact, those who go out, not to go to church, but to go shopping or dining out on Sundays consider it very useful that stores and restaurants should be open on Sundays, and even those who have to work on Sundays consider it useful that they should have another day added to their schedule of gainful employment. Of course, if God does exist, then divine worship must have great value, but not because of any particular usefulness it may have to God or to us. Even leisure is something of great value, though our utilitarian culture pressures us to think even of leisure in terms of its "usefulness" in enabling us to work better. But that, of course, is to miss the point of leisure. Leisure is not something whose primary value is instrumental -- in helping us work harder -- but rather as an end-in-itself. Leisure is the point of work, not vice versa. We work in order to enjoy the leisure it makes possible, not the other way around; and anyone who confuses the means and ends here has lost all sense of what life is for.

If we bought a large wooded property of many hundreds of acres in the mountains, and came across a fence while exploring our newly-acquired lands, it would be foolish to act on an initial impulse to simply knock down the fence, because we couldn't see its point in being there. The fence was presumably built for a purpose, and we should seek to discover it. Likewise with the liberal arts. It would be equally foolish to act on an initial impulse and simply do away with liberal arts courses like philosophy, just because we can't see any use in them. And that is exactly what the designers of this curriculum have done in making philosophy an elective alongside bowling. Not only are they signalling that philosophy is as useless as bowling, however much certain curious individuals may enjoy them; they are signalling that philosophy is of no more value than bowling!

I am not so naive as to suppose that enlightened minds will prevail over the pressures of utilitarian value in the faculty assembly. But one may hope, and argue, and put up a good fight.


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