News have spread during the last couple of days that the entire philosophy department at Middlesex University in the U.K. has just been closed by the administration. I’m not very familiar with the university or the program specifically, but from what I’ve read, it is one of the few places in the U.K. that teaches continental European philosophy and currently has 60-something students doing graduate work.
An online petition has been started to urge the university to change its mind. Go here to sign it. Philosopher Nina Power from Roehampton University, London, has more information on this growing campaign to save the department at her Infinite Thought blog.
Aside from the fact that continental philosophy has been a marginalized field in the English speaking world, this news is even more disappointing because it reflects a larger trend in today’s universities. While fields like political science continue to aspire to be like the natural sciences (and wind up suffering a perpetual inferiority complex for failing to measure up to this impossible task), other “impractical” fields like philosophy, history, and literature are being shut down entirely.
Gone are the days when a liberal education was something to aspire for for its own sake. Modern universities are increasingly becoming diploma factories churning out freshly minted B.A.’s in business, pre-law, and pre-med. In that sense they are no different than trade schools – places where a student can go for a few years in order to prepare for joining the salaried masses competing for an indefinite amount of job openings on today’s difficult marketplace. An education therefore becomes something purely instrumental, where the knowledge and intellectual growth that a student acquires matters less and less.
In fact, it can even be said that today’s universities have become entirely appropriated within the market-oriented structure of modern society. Professors’ jobs are no longer to educate individually, but to produce a ready-made workforce that is trained to accept hierarchy, scrounge and clamor for any window toward promotion, and yet idealistically believe in the meritocratic nature of social relations today.
But this itself is not news. There is a deeper and more disturbing side to the phasing out of philosophy in universities. (Keep in mind that, paradoxically, as more and more departments cut back on resources, more and more undergrads are majoring in the field.) Down at its Socratic roots, philosophy is a critical enterprise that by its own nature never stays complacent and upsets the status quo. Philosophical reflection encourages both the freedom of thought – that is, to think outside given frameworks and challenge common assumptions – and also freedom of speech, to give voice to one’s views so that others then may examine your assumptions for themselves. Without these criteria, what one can have is no longer philosophy but ideology or mere dogma. Not coincidentally, freedom of speech and freedom of thought are also the values that modern democracy touts as its defining features.
What is to happen, then, if a discipline founded on self-reflection and criticism is phased out by the very institutions that purport to be the last remaining realms of free speech?; when a body of knowledge is no longer taught because it is viewed as too abstract, vague, or impractical by those unwitting architects of the social order that decide these things? When technical rationality begins to dominate academic life to the point that there is no longer room for philosophy (or any other discipline that doesn’t fit the logic of the free market), that is also when democratic politics are threatened. As training in the humanities urges students to prod, challenge, and question the everyday world and their place within it, the loss of these values will only strengthen the existing hierarchies created by the organized chaos of the market.
“Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen,” wrote Heinrich Heine in 1821 (“Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people.”) Is it really too early to say for us now that where they ban philosophy, they will ultimately destroy democracy?