Column: Philosophy department vital to university

Leon Mire, Associate News Editor

The recommendations from the vitalization project have recently been made available on Eastern’s website, and as soon as I learned they were public, I immediately logged in and looked for their recommendations on the philosophy department.

As a philosophy major myself, I have a passion for the subject and a valuable relationship with the philosophy faculty at Eastern. But I know that philosophy tends to be seen as useless, even by other academics, and that the philosophy department at Eastern is small. I feared months ago that it was in danger.

While the recommendations do not determine the future of philosophy at Eastern, they were not very encouraging. Several commenters claimed philosophy is not sustainable as a major. Others suggested that the department be eliminated and merged with another department, such as history.

But in my opinion, it would be unwise for Eastern to eliminate philosophy as a major because it represents many of the best qualities of the university. Universities are not simply technical schools, designed only to prepare students for employment. There is nothing wrong with teaching specific skills, but universities recognize, or should recognize, that they also serve an important place in shaping responsible citizens and influencing cultural discourse.

No discipline serves this function of the university better than philosophy. At its core, philosophy is about sincerely seeking answers to the most important questions humanity faces. How do we know right from wrong? How can we reliably tell the difference between truth and falsehood? Do our lives have any meaning?

Philosophy also tackles more specific questions, engaging with every other academic discipline. Does God exist? Should animals have rights? How much can we learn about our society by studying history? Is abortion morally justified? What, if any, are the boundaries of scientific knowledge? Why is education important?

People already ask these kinds of questions naturally, even if they have never heard of philosophy– in a sense, philosophy is inescapable. But becoming a responsible citizen requires grappling with these questions honestly and thoughtfully, which is what philosophy teaches students to do.

As a result, philosophy strongly encourages critical thinking. Students are required to think critically about their most basic values and unquestioned beliefs. They learn about the many different ways to approach a complex (or apparently simple) question. Philosophy teaches students how to think, not what to think.

Philosophy not only fosters critical thinking skills, which should be central to any university’s mission, but it also develops students’ reading and writing skills. It is no accident that philosophy majors consistently score highest on GRE and LSAT tests.

The rigorous reading, writing and thinking required by philosophy courses are valuable in nearly every profession. While it is true that philosophy teachers are not in high demand, philosophy majors employ those skills in law, business, communications and many other professions.

My experience has been that Eastern is especially well-suited to the task of teaching philosophy, since the school focuses on small class size and quality instruction by faculty. Philosophy is much less compelling in large lecture halls taught by teacher’s assistants. It flourishes in the kind of environment Eastern can provide.

Though the department is small, it still provides a valuable service to the university. Even the Workgroup recommendations acknowledge that the department operates at a profit when general education classes are included. A small profit is still a profit.

I know I would not have attended Eastern if philosophy were not offered as a major, and it is likely that there are other students who will discover their love of philosophy while they are here. Why, then, should Eastern close that opportunity to future students?


Leon Mire is a senior philosophy and English major. He can be reached at 581-2812 or  [email protected]