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What is Guiding Higher Education in Pennsylvania?

During the past year the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) ordered universities in the state system to complete a review of department programs with lower numbers of majors in order to justify offering these programs.  The review (reported in the Pocono Record, 6/20/2010) involved 185 programs across the 14 campuses.  Such a sweeping review should be guided by sound principles governing the role of higher education; however, PASSHE has been less than transparent about the motivation and purpose.  Are the targeted programs too costly, or are they no longer of value?  Scrutiny of either rationale raises concern that the actions of PASSHE run counter to the interests of the students of Pennsylvania. 

For example, PASSHE required eight Philosophy departments to justify their continuing.  All were allowed to continue pending further reviews to begin in 2012.  Are further reviews really necessary?   Is Philosophy a discretionary discipline for higher education in Pennsylvania?  To even consider eliminating or marginalizing a Philosophy program exposes a poor grasp of the nature of higher education and the value of the humanities.  They are called the “humanities” for a reason–these develop a person, a citizen, not just a career professional.  The ancients referred to them as the “liberal arts” (in contrast to “practical arts”) because these studies were available only to the free citizens whose wealth secured them the freedom to pursue cultivation.  Is PASSHE reverting to the attitude of the ancients, that liberal arts are only for the rich, with access to these disciplines in private schools?

The financial motivation is being downplayed by PASSHE (even though the state system faces severe financial woes once the $38 million of stimulus money is used up, and finances had been cited in some accounts of the review). The Vice Chancellor for External Relations, Karen Ball, is quoted in an AP article (Jun 16, 2010, Kathy Matheson) saying “The fiscal impact was not the overarching purpose of it.”  That statement does not deny fiscals considerations played some part.  Whatever that part, it was unwarranted, since downgrading a major to a service department does not reduce cost significantly; staff costs are the same. 

So what is the motivation?  The Vice Chancellor continued, “The primary purpose is to make sure we’re serving our students and keeping our course offerings relevant for them.”  So, according to PASSHE, a discipline such as Philosophy might no longer be serving college students well.  That is a stunning judgment to come from an academic institution!  On what basis?  PASSHE points to the currently lower number of majors.  How plausible is it that this one statistic, measuring the preferences of today’s undergraduates, is a reliable assessment of the legacy of Plato and Aristotle? 

The reason programs such as Philosophy have relatively low numbers of majors is that higher education has succumbed to market pressures and approaches students as consumers, rather than as young people in need of education.  Instead of articulating why they need an education and dictating what that should be, colleges now cater to the students, customers who are “always right.”  If only that were so.  These young people often enter college without understanding its full mission and so focusing primarily on issues beyond it, on career life.  Hence, universities are tempted to sell students on the idea of college by trumpeting new “programs” conceived not according to fundamental subjects and skills but around kinds of professional careers.  Conceiving of a “major” in this way, ESU now offers 68 majors!   Obviously, such a structure does not guide students into Philosophy and the other humanities; rather, it tends to steer students away, exploiting their simplistic conception of higher education as “majoring in X in order to be an X-er.” 

What is so surprising is that higher education does not take advantage of the advice coming from the private sector.  It has complaints about the latest graduates–too many have only specialized knowledge, poor writing skills, poor reading habits, poor work ethic, self-absorbed attitudes, and few points of shared cultural reference.  Hence the private sector has been urging a return to the more traditional curriculum, of which Philosophy is the centerpiece.  For, Philosophy courses are where students learn to think—to analyze evidence, evaluate arguments, and formulate reasoned positions.  That is what “critical thinking” is.  And that is why leaders in the private sector prefer students who take more courses like philosophy rather than narrow specializations.  Furthermore, Philosophy courses, by asking students to read the most lasting significant works of human history, replaces students’ fixation on ephemeral pop culture of the moment—more lamentable than ever—with a larger perspective, one that  fosters intellectual maturation.  Nothing could serve students and Pennsylvania better.

Dr. Peter Pruim is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.

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