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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

If universities sacrifice philosophy on the altar of profit, what’s next? | Education - The Guardian

Hull says the subject doesn’t meet the needs of ‘business partners’. Try telling that to Thales of Miletus, argues Julian Baggini, writer and philosopher.

‘Events unfolding at Hull are symptomatic of a deep malaise affecting not just universities but the wider culture.’
Photo: University of Hull

You might think that a university philosophy department facing closure in Hull is of as much interest to the average person as the shutting of a butcher’s in Wolverhampton is to a vegetarian in Totnes.There are almost as many universities as high streets now, and for every closure here there’s an opening somewhere else.

But the events unfolding on Humberside are symptomatic of a deep malaise affecting not just universities but the wider culture. The crude pursuit of what is “practical”, “efficient” or “useful” is threatening everything of value that isn’t evidently profitable.

Philosophy has been taught at Hull ever since the University opened in 1928. The department has no problem with recruitment and has a good faculty. Because humanities courses are so cheap to teach and student fees so high, there is no conceivable way it could be losing money. In a letter to colleagues, Kathleen Lennon, emeritus professor of philosophy, insisted: “Philosophy at Hull is financially viable – providing a healthy return for the university.”

So why is the university not accepting any more joint honours students and publicly entertaining the possibility “that we will not be recruiting new students” in 2019? A statement by Jeanette Strachan, the university’s registrar, to the local newspaper suggests some worrying answers. Strachan said the university sought to offer students “a high-quality academic experience and ensure that their qualification holds value over time”.

The word that screams out of that sentence is “value”. The implication seems to be that a philosophy degree does not provide a sufficient financial return for those who “invest” in it...

That’s what the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus did in the sixth century BC. Fed up of being told that he was poor and therefore his learning was useless, he applied his analytical skills to the climate and the economy and then bought up every olive press in town. When the bumper olive harvest came, as he had foreseen, the presses were in huge demand, he had a monopoly and made a killing. Thales pulled off this stunt not to earn money but to prove a point. Someone of his intellect and ability could devote themselves to getting rich if they wanted. But he valued wisdom and learning more. His lack of wealth did not reveal a personal flaw but a justified choice about what he held most dear.
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Source: The Guardian