A graduate of St. John Fisher College and the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, George Cassidy Payne is an adjunct professor of philosophy at the State University of New York.
Castles on Sand: Why Dropping Philosophy Matters
According to a recent Washington Post article, “The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point has proposed dropping 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences — including English, philosophy, history, sociology and Spanish — while adding programs with “clear career pathways” as a way to address declining enrollment and a multimillion-dollar deficit.”
This shortsighted trend is not unique to the University of Wisconsin system. I recently noticed that one of our regional community colleges has trimmed their philosophy menu down to a mere four courses. Last semester, the college decided to not even offer Introduction to Philosophy, a perennial standard for a reason.By contrast, the college offered twice as many economics courses; nearly 50 courses on business; more than 60 biology courses; and no less than 70 sections of mathematics. The way things are going, quite possibly the college will soon drop philosophy all together. No more Socrates. No more Plato. No more Descartes. No more thinking for oneself, for oneself. No more criticizing to learn rather than to judge. And no more discovery for the sake of wonder alone.
This unfortunate development is a serious threat to higher education. Yes, these other subjects are important. To understand the creation and transaction of currencies is vital to succeeding in the world. But why create money in the first place? Why transact with each other at all? Why do humans — as social animals — need economies in order to feel satisfied? Opposed to popular belief, philosophy actually helps students grasp why economics matters in the real world.
Same goes for math. Every educational institution should excel at teaching the fundamental and potential applications of mathematics. But why do we count anything, let alone numbers? Why are human beings symbolic creatures that use abstractions to communicate? What about the universe corresponds with the mind that can realize basic structures and patterns of evolution? Philosophy makes mathematics come alive.
I could go on. What good is biology if we do not know why we exist? To be honest with ourselves, we do not know why anything exists rather than nothing at all. The biological sciences will not amount to anything more than passive observation and data collection without philosophy. Philosophy is the bios in the logos. The questions of purpose and destiny are philosophical in nature; these are questions that propel thinkers — comprehensive and systematic thinkers such as Charles Darwin and E.O. Wilson — to go beyond their observations and dream of grand possibilities,As I see it, every subject depends on philosophy. English seeks to know why we write, speak, draw, and perform the ways we do. Architecture and engineering wonders what brings a person to envision the blueprints of skyscrapers and flying machines. Medicine and nutrition ponders relationships between mind, body, and food. What should we consume and how should we consume it? How is sickness different than illness? How do we judge good health? These are all essential philosophical questions.
There is a parable I read somewhere about building castles on sand. I think it was a philosopher who said it:
Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine, and doesn’t do them will be like a foolish man, who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.
— Matthew 7:24–27, World English Bible