Don’t Drink the Hemlock: Save Philosophy and Religion at LCC

Illustration provided by Erica Goulding
Illustration courtesy of Erica Goulding

The Administration at Lane Community College has proposed virtually eliminating the Philosophy and Religion program in order to balance the budget. From a financial standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense. As a full-time instructor of 17 years, my “break-even” is 13 students. For some part-time faculty, the number is 6. Class sizes are either 30 or 40. I actually make a profit for the college through tuition alone, apart from State funding.

Due to some logistical issues having nothing to do with demand, our enrollment has been down a little more than other Social Science disciplines, but we’ve gotten it back up. This term we’re filled to 93% capacity, and I’m submitting a plan for keeping these numbers up as we move forward.

But what’s disturbing to me, and ought to be disturbing to everyone, is the idea of getting rid of Philosophy and Religion to close a budget gap. Certainly college is about preparing for work. Lane has many professional and technical programs which serve that function. But college is about more than finding a job. It’s about learning how to think critically, wrestling with ultimate questions, understanding the world and being a well-rounded human being. As Winston Churchill put it, “The first duty of the university is to teach wisdom, not a trade; character, not technicalities. We want a lot of engineers in the modern world, but we do not want a world of engineers.”

Philosophy is, literally, “the love of wisdom,” and the original academic discipline. Philosophers use data from the sciences, art, literature and human experience to draw conclusions about the nature of knowledge, reality and moral value. Philosophy teaches broad, conceptual thinking. It also directly addresses Lane’s first two “Core Learning Outcomes” of (1) Think critically and (2) Engage diverse values with civic and ethical awareness.

The academic study of religion is essential to understanding history, culture and modern geo-politics. You cannot understand the rise of ISIS, the migrant crisis in Europe, or the attitudes of American evangelicals about gay rights and abortion without understanding religion. And the study of religion, particularly non-Western religions, has the added benefit of cultivating tolerance and understanding of those different from us.

Eastern religions contain “wisdom teachings” which are what I like to call “practical philosophy.” The Hindu concept of “detachment” suggests a way of living without lurching back and forth between hope and fear. “Mindfulness” is at the heart of a large and growing therapeutic movement in psychology. Our Buddhist Meditation Traditions course offers students lifelong techniques for dealing with the pressures of modern life. These are things which will be with students long after they’ve forgotten that mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell or how to use the quadratic equation.

If the Administration has its way, Lane will be left with at most two philosophy courses a term and no religion courses. I, a tenured faculty member, will lose my job; they can’t fire me, but they can eliminate my position.

It is disappointing, but not surprising, that no real management cuts are being proposed. The Faculty Association has an alternative proposal, which balances the budget in part by restructuring management, giving faculty greater responsibility in governing the college. This offers a long-term solution; lopping off major academic disciplines does not.

Half the courses I teach are online, reaching beyond Lane’s limited local pool of students. They also reach people who otherwise wouldn’t be in college: students with young children or those who have found work in an improving economy, but want to continue their education. The administration would be wise to use people like me as a resource for expanding enrollment and thus, revenues, rather than cutting us.

College is more than vocational skills. It is about learning how to think, developing an appreciation for intellectual issues and understanding ethical and civic virtue.

Seventeen years ago, when I first came to Lane, the Administration put forth this same poisonous prescription. The Board rejected it. Since then the Philosophy and Religion program has continued to transform student lives.

Don’t drink the hemlock.  Urge the Board of Education to save the Philosophy and Religion Program at LCC.

Jeffrey Borrowdale

Faculty instructor and Coordinator for the

Philosophy and Religion Program