As universities continue to struggle with the shortfall of public assistance, this situation opens up the financial crisis to speak once more on the function of higher education, and what we value as higher education.
First, the function of a university is employment for most people. However, does this really follow? I never thought it did. I have friends with degrees in French literature working at Enterprise Rental Car, or investment firms hiring linguistics degrees in addition to more common degrees like Business or Finance. Back at the turn of the 21st century, I walked into a philosopher’s office, and decided to change my major. I went from Art Education to Philosophy. It’s a rather strange switch, I know. However, it just felt right. I did it for my own purposes, which I saw as self-empowerment. I never went to university to think that I’d get a job in my field of study. Instead, I went because in some ways I was expected to go.
Self-empowerment came from philosophy’s benefit as a therapy of the soul. Philosophy courses taught me not what to think as so many other courses do, but challenged my personal beliefs. Every philosophy professor challenged me to rethink my own thoughts. I’d learn how some problem had been articulated by a historical philosopher, and challenge their argument. I’d see the implications of some historical idea for my life, or I’d find that the philosophy or philosopher in question led to different questions altogether than the one’s I had started with. I’d stop by the professor’s office hours and have very meaningful conversations that one cannot find in the public anywhere else. In this way, philosophy taught me to think about questions that have no definitive answers. It fosters skills in critical thinking, logic and the intellectual imagination that only comes from philosophy and by extension other humanities-based disciplines.
Think about it—an entire major that answers questions that have no definitive answers. How many times in life do we come into contact with those types of questions? Everywhere. Whereas if we conceive of education as only for getting a career, our education will not be soulful or meaningful beyond the career we have chosen. Certainly, human life has more experiences that reflect the type of questioning that goes on in the humanities at large, and more specifically philosophy. How many times have we wondered if something our governments did was just, or how we ought to proceed in doing a very difficult and moral thing? How many times have we reflected on what was art, or what really is beauty? How many times have we found our faith lacking in certainty and sought in reflection what we thought faith took for granted?
The type of questioning in a philosophy courses we ask our students to do cannot be reliably predicted. The benefit I argue for philosophy is one in which this unpredictable growth produces a sense of intellectual autonomy and learning that defies contemporary practice. Students are made uncomfortable once they are shown exactly how vulnerable our beliefs actually are, and this is the most common reason why students fail to experience philosophy (and the humanities at large) in a positive light. They are taught that more practical fields of study can be given a single answer. In many disciplines, students are shown the right answer, and the questions they are taught to ask have definitive answers. In engineering, the calculation for what the buttress can support has one right answer. However, in living our lives as human beings, we rarely face such clear problems. Not every dilemma we face can be put to an equation. Sometimes, our problems are different than that.
This is not to say that the humanities are for everyone. They are not. Some people are just better at soil science than others. Some people are more comfortable with narrowly entrenched questioning than going to push the limits of what is conceptually possible to know. However, a university is a place for self-empowerment and understanding. Students should have the freedom to study these questions. These are the types of questions that are important to reflective individuals. If you’re not reflective about the human condition, then do something else. If you have the nerve to ask questions of a philosophical nature, then the more power to you as an individual versus a world that is unsettled by philosophical investigation. Philosophy so affected my soul in my younger days that I couldn’t put it down. I can’t stop being philosophical and so I have decided to go to philosophy graduate school. I have taught it to undergraduates for the last five years, and continually love teaching it.
Now, does anyone think that the humanities are for the rich at large? I’ve never found this to be the case. I’ve studied philosophy at Essex in the UK, Simon Fraser University in Canada, and at SIUC in the United States. Most of the graduate students I’ve run across are run-of-the-mill Middle-classers. No one is exceptionally rich and the demands of graduate study force one into poverty. We all know that as first-time lecturers or as Associate Professors in North America, we will not make much. We’ll be lucky to payback some of the student loans. Still, if we can land a job in academia, we will be comfortable, and that’s all I or my colleagues truly want.
Lastly, I wanted to touch upon the incompatibility between advanced capitalism and public universities. Eagleton’s point about their incompatibility raises the question that I started this response with: How are we to value higher education? If our societies are not interested in turning out reflective individuals, but simply consumers and career-oriented people, then what is valued is not reflection about the human condition. Instead, what is valued is how universities simply function as a cog in the overall machine of the economic state. We make practical oriented decisions about what we value everyday. In so doing, we don’t need to dispose of the idea of how some public goods are better managed by government than the private market forces that have infected the management of public goods. We can make practical decisions without disposing of some intrinsic goods that must always be part of the equation such as public housing for the poor, or emergency responders. How we manage our universities is just another way to ask what we value as a public good over thinking that no such intrinsic goods need matter—a debate it should be pointed out that is entirely philosophical!