Thoughts about Middlesex Philosophy

“The management at Middlesex University is closing down its Philosophy department.”

It’s hard to know how to react to this news.  One would like to defend the teaching of the disciplines of critical humanistic thought, e.g. philosophy, sociology, anthropology — but under what circumstances?

Philosophy is often regarded as economically useless, e.g. no entrepreneur or service worker has ever thought to themselves, “Wow, I could really use a philosopher right now!”  My own objection to this position is that you are making a certain assumption, and a bad one, if you only judge human affairs on economic criteria.  What is important to humans, on an individual level — family, identity, freedom, choice, enjoyment, leisure, art — become important objects of study for both humanistic and political reasons.  Humanistic because as a matter of humanity, we have to look inward (or at each other) to understand ourselves, what makes us happy, what fulfillment means.  Political because those individual pursuits are affected by economic systems, the structures of governments, international negotiations, state instability, the supply chains of culture, art, and information, etc.  Recent readings of Jacques Derrida, Leszek Kolakowski, and an anthology of 20th century African philosophers have each in their own way shown me that the inquiry of philosophy is essential to modern politics.  Even if we do agree to seek “justice” for its own sake (say, as a matter of political contract), how do we reconcile the conceptions of human rights developed indigenously in Africa over thousands of years with the liberal European idea of human rights when we make international agreements and set up international courts?  Is it really better to leave law and criminal justice up to value-free formulations of tradition and political caprice rather than philosophical inquiry about how criminal rights and courts ought to operate?

It would seem like a mistake to approach world affairs as an economic supremacist and say, “Well, whatever the market wants, that’s what we’ll supply” and allow financial interests to define the future of humanity rather than thoughtful inquiry and creation.

However, it is also apparent that applied ethics, e.g., stresses historical and anthropological knowledge and context in evaluating situations, and so just as politics becomes inseparable from ethics, ethics becomes inseparable from anthropology or sociology.  Formal logic is closely related to mathematics and computer science in its modern applications.  Therefore, if philosophers intend to do anything applicable to the world outside of academia (without doubting the value of that domain), then the usefulness of studying a degree in pure philosophy is open to question.  If our ultimate wish is for international politics to be informed by the studies of ethics and anthropology and sociology, then can’t we just give our political science students primers in those subjects?

Traditionally, even the “old schools” like Oxford and Cambridge didn’t offer undergraduate courses in pure philosophy, but rather things like “philosophy and history” or “philosophy and political economy”.  I guess by necessity the way education was delivered had to change, with the dominance of finance in the twentieth century and the increased need for skilled vocational workers.  In the UK, this took the form of increased specialization, leaving us with tightly regimented three-year university courses where students have minimal freedom to stray from the defined line of study.  It sounds somewhat stifling, but with the reality of international economic competition it really doesn’t make sense to allow your statistics students to take random humanities courses instead of training to become good statisticians who will be able to meet market demand.

It seems like a problem that education in the humanities have the same structure of delivery as studies more geared toward vocation.  The perpetual question “What do philosophy graduates do?” seems bound up with the question “Why are there so many philosophy students in the first place?”  The answer may be in the metrics with which university departments measure themselves: the only way a department is able to prove its usefulness to management is in bringing in revenue or in promoting the reputation of the university at large.  (I presume, but don’t know, that departments enjoy various rights respective to university or governmental management.)  If a philosophy department is no more prestigious than any other department at a university, then its existence can only be sustained if it brings in enough students, i.e. tuition fees, relative to other departments, regardless of the need for students of pure philosophy in the world at large.  But the three year, regimented degree revenue model for other departments may, even in this limited economic scope, still break down for the humanities.

Besides the questions of the general usefulness of philosophy and the sustainability of philosophy programs, we also have the fact that the opportunity cost of a philosophy department is really another department, or more likely, the marginal quality of another department.  In economic downturn, the government and the schools have to make hard funding choices relating to the health of the overall economy.  Does it make sense to make a sacrifice in the marginal education quality of computer science in the UK to fund more philosophy students (with one fewer department, students are still able to study at the other forty philosophy departments in the UK)?

We also have the problem of expectations, because generations of students have grown up with the idea of the economic legitimacy of pure study of the humanities, i.e. it can be more than just a hobby, it can be a source of livelihood.  People hold on to their expectations of how the world should be even if rational analysis challenges them — just look at the demonstrations in Greece against the proposed, and necessary, austerity.  What if, in the end, the need for pure philosophers really is much smaller than the current supply, and we should encourage students interested in philosophy to just read up on their own time, while finding their livelihood somewhere else?  It’s hard to say what is really best here because finally the dialogue in philosophy is moving away from a cycle of privilege, and African and Islamic students, and students from working class families, or rural upbringings, are able to study the same philosophy courses as, the stereotype goes, white men from relatively affluent backgrounds, and contribute to a more complex investigation of humanity.  There seems to be a tension here between the need for a fair revenue model of humanities education (which doesn’t unnecessarily subsidize it against other education) and the desire for fairness of access to humanities education, which would presumably be challenged by a removal of opportunities for students to secure their livelihoods in studying philosophy or any other study of pure humanities.

Maybe the universities model is broken.  However, it is still hard to on face support any move which brings the world closer to economic determinism.


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