Even if we are not aware of it, we all have an idea of what degree has value and what degree lacks value. When choosing a field of study, sometimes the intrinsic value of a $30,000 degree conflicts with popular or familial concepts of value. Dad wants you to study engineering but, damnit! you want to study poetry.
Even within the university, we can’t agree how to assess the value of any given discipline. Surveys, voting, logical arguments, mathematical proofs, popular demand, visceral stimulation, deific command, or gut feelings are just some of the tools we use to decide what is good for us as individuals and as a society.
This fall, for the first time ever, I heard a philosophy student say that she is taking PHL100 because her parents insist that she develop critical thinking skills. Kudos to Martha Nussbaum. The lauded University of Chicago philosopher has been touring the media circuit promoting her message about the value of humanities in a democratic society. Her claim underscores our own university’s recent cutbacks to arts programs across the whole spectrum of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Many departments are struggling to stay afloat.
So, we have devised a little thought experiment (with some help from the University of Montevello in Alabama) to dive deeper into this issue. I hereby announce round one of an ongoing debate on the value of the various disciplines represented at U of T. Introducing...The Life Raft.
Picture this: civilization as we know it has crumbled. The planet's life-giving resources are so diminished that only one patch of livable Earth remains. Most of the survivors of this near-apocalypse are boarding a vessel that will carry them to the new world, where they will rebuild. Only one seat on the vessel remains and all of academia must vie for it using their most deadly weapon: reasoned discourse.
A representative professor from each department is invited to write an article arguing why their discipline will be essential in the new world. Although the stakes seem very high, fret not - civilization remains intact, even if some of our academic programs are not.