Shingle-hanging 101: The little philosophy shop that never was
“A philosophy course? Oh, that'll come in handy," he said. "Now all you have to do is open up a little philosophy shop. You’re all set!”
After all these years, I can still see the smirk on that man’s face. Can’t recall his name, but the smirk lingers.
Fool that I was, I had thought I'd impress this man, the uncle of a childhood friend. I recall sitting at his kitchen table. His wife had just served me a cup of tea. What I remember about him, apart from the condescending attitude, is that he appeared to be successful. He was a professional photographer with a big house and a new Mercedes-Benz. I suspect he had a college education and had benefited from similar courses.
At the time of this conversation, I was about halfway through the journey toward my bachelor’s degree. When the chitchat at the kitchen table turned toward me, someone asked how school was going, so I told them that one of the courses I’d just finished up at UMass was an Introduction to Philosophy course, and that it was much more interesting than I’d imagined such a course would be.
That’s when the uncle made the crack about the financial utility of philosophy. I’m embarrassed to report that I guffawed along with him, as though I, too, understood how useless and frivolous it was to study philosophy.
Maybe my nervous laughter happened because I wasn’t sure, myself, what the point was of taking such a class.
As time passed, though, it finally dawned on me that it had been the first time I could recall sitting in a classroom and not being taught what to think, but being taught how to think. Applying logic and ethics in a deliberate way to my own thought processes amounted to a personal revolution.
I returned to school the next semester, and worked toward my degree in French language and literature. But every now and again, I would remember the uncle’s crack about opening up a philosophy shop. I wouldn’t be opening up a French poetry shop, but I did become certified to teach French to high school students.
The financial saving grace of any academic subject is that you might one day teach it to someone else. Of course, that only works as long the powers-that-be agree that such knowledge merits transmission to the next generation.
In the current American atmosphere where the corporation is king, any academic subject that does not have obvious short-term earning power is an endangered species.
How narrow should higher education be? There are calls, today, for universities to be run like businesses, and that implies pruning away those educational offerings that don't lead immediately to a paycheck.
Following the recent ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, it was reported in Charlottesville’s Daily Progress that Sullivan’s detractors thought she “lacked the mettle” to axe “obscure” academic pursuits such as German and Classics.
Apparently, the smirking uncles of the world are now in positions of power, and in the name of fiscal responsibility, they’re calling for an emphasis on narrow vocational training in areas such as business and finance– presumably because you can, indeed, hang out a shingle and open a little hedge-fund shop.
Teresa Sullivan may have been reinstated, but behind the scenes, the powerful influence of those with big money and little regard for traditional education remains.
What will the world look like if they get their way? Picture an American landscape of “higher” education without the humanities: without art, literature, philosophy, history, or foreign language study.
How long would it take for the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of thousands of years of civilization to disappear? One generation? Two?
Yes, we want our college graduates to be self-supporting, tax-paying citizens. But we also need an American electorate that can sniff out hypocrisy and discern faulty reasoning when they hear it flowing from those who aim to be our leaders. And when history is repeating itself, it would be good to have someone around who recognizes the pattern and can lead us to an optimal outcome.
Also consider that, in our rapidly evolving world, we can anticipate changing careers several times throughout our working lives. The most flexible worker will be the one with a full quiver, the one who has had a broad education. Just as we can’t predict what foreign language will be essential in the coming decades, we can’t predict what the long-term benefit may be of any course of study.
If you think that the value of a life can be assessed by how much money a person earns, consider Socrates, who engaged Athenians in challenging discussions every day as he hung around the agora.
Those discussions have reverberated through the past two and a half millennia, from teacher to student, shaping Western civilization.
But even Socrates never did hang out a shingle and open a little philosophy shop.
Janis Jaquith hung out a shingle and raised three little children, all of whom are now adults.Read more on: janis jaquith