Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Preparing less prepared students to think 

I'm not sure if I agree with the idea of having philosophy taught in two-year colleges like Bergen Community College.

Theirs is an unusual program. It thrives at a two-year community college in an era when students are increasingly practical-minded and career-oriented, perhaps for good reason. Philosophy majors can expect to make a dismal 21 percent below the mean annual earnings of concentrators in other fields, according to the "College Majors Handbook."

But over the past three decades, Cronk and his cohorts have built a department practically from scratch, discovering along the way how to make abstract, ephemeral topics enticing. It's a testament to what love of a discipline, scrappy management, and respect for students with a wide range of backgrounds and abilities can do.

..."I'm grateful that you were the one who introduced me to philosophy," writes Jennifer Anderson, who took "Eastern Philosophy" and "Basic Logic," in an e-mail to Dlugos. "The passion and enthusiasm you have for what you know and teach is obvious.... It made me want to question things, pushed me to learn how to question things, and helped me to realize that while it may be likely I won't ever have any completely indisputable answers, the questioning is what will keep my mind turned on."

...In part, Cronk, Redmond, and Dlugos simply believe that philosophy is deeply relevant to everyone. Aristotle's "Ethics" is "about becoming happy; the pursuit of happiness," says Cronk. "Almost everybody is interested in that."

"Philosophy is sort of like plumbing," offers Redmond. "Not everyone needs to be a professional plumber, but it's certainly helpful to have some basic skills."

Dlugos adds: "Philosophy is training for the career of being a human being."

Having been a philosophy minor in college -- and only didn't become a major because my attraction came too late to be able to graduate in four years -- I'm inclined to agree. Yet the purpose of a public, two-year institution would seem to be for something different than a liberal arts associate degree.

I would be very interested to know what becomes of Bergen CC Philosophy Department's graduates. Perhaps they go on to a four-year college elsewhere using the thinking skills they've learned at BCC. That would be a wonderful outcome. But I also wonder whether one could find them in jobs that may pay less, but that they find somehow more satisfying.