In an article in today's NY Times, "In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Examined Life," Winnie Hu argues that the monumental problems of our world--from a major war based on specious reasoning and outright lies to a collapsing global economy to an array of ethical issues arising from new science and technology--have prompted many college students to turn to philosophy. I think she's right. I am impressed and moved by the depth of this generation of college students, and it isn't a surprise to me at all that the numbers are up in philosophy departments. This should be the case throughout the humanities and the arts departments too. HASTAC has been dedicated to the idea that our contemporary world of science, technology, and global politics is far too complicated to leave only to the scientists, engineers, and social scientists. We ALL need to be thinking this one through together.
At the same time, the movement into philosophy may also signal that, unlike some other traditional areas in the humanities, philosophy as a field has grasped its importance to this era and has gone through striking internal changes in the last two decades. It has moved further and further away from analytical philosophy to ethics, cognitive philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of science. It has become far more interdisciplinary. Far more relevant. It's great that it is appealing to more and more students. We need more reflection in our world. Desperately. introspection is important for our culture.
It is also important for academic humanists in those fields that have not comprehended a larger mission to think about what they have to offer to this generation of students. Too many humanities departments continue to be mired in specializations that look pretty much the same now as they did twenty or even fifty years ago. It's tedious to keep repeating this but it bears repeating: The critical skills, deep engagement with texts, the interpretation of visual and auditory signs and systems, the theoretical engagement with social and political issues, and the historical perspective humanists can bring to our technological age are invaluable . . . if only humanists will acknowledge and claim their expertise and their power to speak to the most series issues of our age.
This is not to say humanists have to give up their specialized research. Not at all. There are ways to do specialized research while comprehending one's basic calling and making courses and majors available to undergraduates that speak to that underlying mission, rather than to the hyper-specialization that characterizes too many academic fields, not just in the humanities but across the curriculum.
Here's the url for the NY Times piece.
(For the photograph of the Philosopher's Walk, Kyoto, thanks to Flickr Creative Commons photographer Robert Paul Young.)