Thursday, November 18, 2021

Two links from Leiter.
Two letters, one from professional philosophers, one from scientists

Dear Chancellor Greenstein,

In your speech of 5 November 2021, you said that “Students want breadth. They want to have a lot of choice for their majors and they should. Just as important, communities need them to have choice. Because we’re public. Because we owe ourselves to the state and to the students, the question is how do we provide people with the breadth of program choices they need.” The very next week you issued a directive to close “low-enrolled” majors. Here at Bloomsburg University, we have shuttered the Philosophy, Physics, Anthropology, and German majors. There was no discussion with affected parties, no seat at the decision-making table, no shared governance, no data offered or targets to meet, not even commiseration, just the hammer from above.

As philosophy faculty, students, alumni, and supporters of a broad-based liberal arts education, we implore you to reverse this decision and make a commitment to the continuance of the philosophy major at Bloomsburg and throughout the State System of Higher Education. Authentic higher education is not just worker training for businesses. Philosophy has been the central discipline of universities since Plato’s Academy. We invented logic, systematic ethics, and the natural sciences—philosophy is not some ephemeral, boutique area of study but the heart of the university. Young Pennsylvanians deserve the chance to improve their lives through the study of philosophy, and not just if they are privileged enough to go to U. Penn or Swarthmore.

We are not requesting an “opportunity” to re-apply for the major, which would no doubt involve promising unattainable deliverables to meet arbitrary benchmarks. It does not matter how many students major in philosophy; we will never attract as many as fields that are the names of jobs. What matters is that students have the choice that you promised on November 5th. What matters is that Bloomsburg University retain the philosophy major as our students deserve. We request that you guarantee its continuance.

A recent report from a Government NCEA working group on proposed changes to the Māori school curriculum aims “to ensure parity for mātauranga Māori with the other bodies of knowledge credentialed by NCEA (particularly Western/Pākehā epistemologies)”. It includes the following description as part of a new course: “It promotes discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views (among which, its use as a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Maori and other indigenous peoples.”

This perpetuates disturbing misunderstandings of science emerging at all levels of education and in science funding.These encourage mistrust of science. Science is universal, not especially Western European. It has origins in ancient Egypt. Mesopotamia, ancient Greece and later India. with significant contributions in mathematics, astronomy and physics from mediaeval Islam, before developing in Europe and later the US, with a strong presence across Asia.

Science itself does not colonise. It has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art. However, science also provides immense good, as well as greatly enhanced understanding of the world Science is helping us battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming. carbon pollution. biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. Such science is informed by the united efforts of many nations and cultures. We increasingly depend on science. perhaps for our very survival. The future of our world, and our species. cannot afford mistrust of science.

Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices. and plays key roles in management and policy. However. in the discovery of empirical. universal truths. it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.

To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations; better to ensure that everyone participates in the world's scientific enterprises. Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science. 

"We invented logic, systematic ethics, and the natural sciences." Rationalists did not invent empiricism. The history of navigation predates Thales by a thousand years. Philosophers didn't build the first house or road; they articulate and codify, then takes the credit for "creation", since following the diktats of theology in any culture, ideas must precede facts and events. 

The philosophers and the critics of the scientists' letter defend the primacy of metaphysics, either "western" or "indigenous". The philosophers' letter slides awkwardly between utilitarianism and humanism. The scientists don't question the existence or history of Māori technics.

The link in the second letter is to an article describing the responses. The letter itself is harder to find, but I found a screen grab and transcribed it. The NCEA Working Group's proposal is here.


addendum: looking through the archives I can't believe I didn't post this. I had a short email exchange with the Petsko at the time.
"A Faustian bargain", Gregory Petsko, in Genome Biology, 2010
An actual defense of the humanities.
Dear President Philip,

Probably the last thing you need at this moment is someone else from outside your university complaining about your decision. If you want to argue that I can't really understand all aspects of the situation, never having been associated with SUNY Albany, I wouldn't disagree. But I cannot let something like this go by without weighing in. I hope, when I'm through, you will at least understand why.

Just 30 days ago, on October 1st, you announced that the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts were being eliminated. You gave several reasons for your decision, including that 'there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs.' Of course, your decision was also, perhaps chiefly, a cost-cutting measure - in fact, you stated that this decision might not have been necessary had the state legislature passed a bill that would have allowed your university to set its own tuition rates. Finally, you asserted that the humanities were a drain on the institution financially, as opposed to the sciences, which bring in money in the form of grants and contracts.

Let's examine these and your other reasons in detail, because I think if one does, it becomes clear that the facts on which they are based have some important aspects that are not covered in your statement. First, the matter of enrollment. I'm sure that relatively few students take classes in these subjects nowadays, just as you say. There wouldn't have been many in my day, either, if universities hadn't required students to take a distribution of courses in many different parts of the academy: humanities, social sciences, the fine arts, the physical and natural sciences, and to attain minimal proficiency in at least one foreign language. You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it's because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs - something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.

Young people haven't, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it's hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky's parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in Chapter Five of his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in his cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.

That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I'm sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it - if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don't.

It goes on. It's worth reading.

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