Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

A Plea for Philosophy at Liberty U.

Liberty University has shuttered its department of philosophy. This is a mistake. I implore the University's administration and trustees to reverse course.

Liberty, of course, is a controversial school. It is a proudly and unabashedly evangelical Christian institution. Its founder, Rev. Jerry Falwell, was controversial. Its current president, Jerry Falwell, Jr. is controversial. The moral values it upholds and stands for are, today, alas, controversial. But it has provided many young people with an excellent liberal arts education. I know this to be true because I have met a number of them and even taught or informally advised a few as graduate students. I also know it to be true because I have visited the University and talked with students.

My visit was last year, together with my beloved friend and teaching partner Cornel West. We spent a day-and-a-half meeting faculty, staff, and students. We did not meet President Falwell--he was not on campus--though we were assured that far from opposing our visit he enthusiastically endorsed it. (Falwell is best known as a supporter and confidante of President Trump. Both Cornel and I, from our different perspectives, have been critical of the President.) We did a formal presentation before a massive audience but then had opportunities to talk with students individually and in small groups. These conversations were unsupervised by faculty or administrators. The students could speak freely to us, and they certainly availed themselves of that freedom. We were, to say the least, impressed.

We were impressed by the desire of these young men and women to explore the deepest questions, and to explore them in a critical, unconditional way. They wanted to know the best that has been thought and said by the greatest minds--from the pagan Greek and Roman thinkers, to the Islamic and Jewish as well as Christian philosophers and theologians of the Middle Ages, to the grand figures of Enlightenment and modern thought. And it was clear from our discussions with these students that their professors in philosophy and the other humanities disciplines had indeed exposed them to the ideas of many of these thinkers--to their considerable intellectual benefit.

Cornel and I came away from our visit to Liberty with esteem for its students and faculty and respect for the University. We said so publicly--even though that is, to say the least, an unfashionable thing for professors at Harvard and Princeton to say. (We're expected to disdain institutions like Liberty University, pity the students, and hold the faculty in something not too distant from contempt.) And we came away thinking of ourselves as having a relationship with the folks at Liberty--a bond. We want Liberty to flourish. We want it to be the best it can be. We want it to continue to provide a true and fine liberal arts education for students who are attracted to the religious and moral environment it offers.

And so I hope that the administration and trustees of Liberty will hear my plea as coming from a friend--someone who wishes you well and believes in your mission. Humanities are central to liberal arts learning and philosophy is the heart of the humanities. You cannot have a true liberal arts college or university that does not have a vibrant philosophy department or some equivalent institutional way of teaching students what is taught in departments of philosophy. Indeed, philosophy is where it all began--in Plato's Academy. Philosophy gives us the tools and motivation and rational justification for asking and seeking by proper methods honestly to answer all the questions that we categorize in other disciplines, from history and economics to chemistry and astronomy.

I know that some people do not regard philosophy as "practical" (though in truth it is the most practical of all academic disciplines). And I am aware that the need to cut costs often tempts people to cut things that seem "impractical." But far from abolishing philosophy as a course of study at Liberty, you should be strengthening the department (which was already a good one) and encouraging more students to enroll in its courses and even major in the field.

I am not condemning or scolding. We're all human and we all make mistakes and misjudgments. I've made plenty, believe me. But mistakes can often be rectified. And this one is in that category. There is no shame in saying, "well, we've given the matter some more thought and concluded that for Liberty to be the best Christian university it can be, we need to retain our philosophy department. The questions that philosophy explores are questions our students need to be wrestling with." Far from being embarrassing, such a decision would be applauded by everyone who understands the value and importance of liberal arts learning and who believes that Liberty should be a great Christian liberal arts university.


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