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According to this essay , university philosophy departments are in trouble.

In November 2010, The Boston Globe reported that student interest in humanities courses has cratered in recent years. And long-term trends are troubling, too. When adjusted for total enrollment, numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics show a 20-percent drop in philosophy and religion majors from 1970 through 2009.

The solution the author proffers is to make philosophy “relevant.”

 How can we avert the crisis? We must recognize what is unique about philosophy, and I’m afraid it isn’t us or the research we publish for one another. It is rather philosophy’s historical mission, which is not merely to find the truth, but to use the truth to improve the quality of human life. In Plato’s time, philosophy was meant to change lives . . . .

[T]he goal—especially at the undergraduate level—should be to help students recognize that philosophy matters. Not just because it will improve their LSAT scores (which it will), but because philosophy has the potential to change the very fabric of who they are as human beings . . . .

A good way to start might be to share with our students why we ourselves care so much about philosophy—how it has helped us in our own lives, as citizens or even personally. But how many of us actually do that? We extol Socrates, but how many dare to follow his example? Of course some philosophers are out there making philosophy matter, and we should talk more about them to our students: how Martha Nussbaum’s political philosophy has influenced her work with the poor in India; how Peter Singer’s theoretical ethics has informed his advocacy for animal rights; how Kristin Shrader-Frechette has defended the norms of good scientific reasoning in her watchdog focus on the nuclear-power industry.

Oh, how Sixties!  This is just a sophisticated (and I use that word advisedly) version of the demand for “relevance” made by students back then, which was—come to think of it—just about the time student enrollment in humanities courses began to decline.

Perhaps the author should take a closer look at Socrates, the example he cites.  In his Apology , Socrates tells the jurors that if he had sought to act as a good man ought—injecting himself in public affairs—he would have been put to death long ago, and have been of no benefit to himself or others.  Anyone who publicly or overtly challenges the reigning orthodoxies runs a risk.  In our day and in our country, that risk isn’t quite “existential.”  You’re not going to die.  But if you have opinions that are unfashionable in the academy, you may not be hired or continued in employment.  And if you have opinions that are unfashionable outside the academy, you may not attract public support or students who are only interested in “getting ahead.”  The activists will show up, to be sure, but they’re much closer to 1% than 99%.

Still, the example of Socrates is worth considering.  The challenges he posed were not on the level of public policy or social change; they were much more personal.  What is virtue?  What does it mean to lead a good life?  I know that our educational system has done an awful lot to beat interest in these questions out of our students.  All too often, they come to us as relativists, having been thoroughly indoctrinated in the toleration of indifference.  They are, as C.S. Lewis reminded us almost 70 years ago, deserts in need of irrigation.

So, let’s irritate, er, I mean irrigate, and watch the seeds sprout.  It’s hard to imagine young people who can’t be brought to care about the big questions of life, if only they can be presented compellingly, in a way that can’t be evaded.  I’ve read enough academic philosophy (both Anglo-American and continental) to know that the standard modus operandi  likely won’t work.  But there are engaging teachers out there who can makes students feel as if their lives depend on getting the answers right.  I’ve encountered them, both when I was a student and among my colleagues.

I recognize that this is a bit of a luxury.  Not everyone can afford the time or the money for the leisure required for these sorts of encounters.  But here there is no adequate substitute for the face-to-face confrontation.  You’re much more likely to squirm if someone is looking at you than if it’s just you and a keyboard or you and a touchscreen.

My author is right that academic philosophy departments can’t continue to conduct business as usual.  He’s wrong, however, to think that the answer is engagement of the sort he recommends.  Take the big questions seriously.  Take the answers seriously.  Take the students seriously.

Joseph Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.

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