I majored in Philosophy at Dartmouth, as did John. So I’ve tried to pay attention to developments in that department over the years, especially since my daughter enrolled at the college, thereby putting me in a good position to talk to current students.
The news isn’t good at all.
A few years ago, well-regarded professors Julia Driver and Roy Sorensen left Hanover to teach at Washington University in St. Louis. This year, Bernard Gert, who taught when we were students and was a favorite of ours, retired.
Now comes the news (reported by Joe Asch, but apparently not announced by Dartmouth) that Walter Sinnot-Armstrong is leaving for Duke. My daughter took Sinnot-Armstrong’s course “Reason and Argument” as a freshman mainly because of the favorable things she had heard about him and his course. She found Sinnot-Armstrong to be a terrific professor.
Joe reports that the Philosophy Department has lost two other professors in the past eight years — Robert Fogelin to retirement and Sally Sedgwick to the University of Illinois at Chicago. I’m not familiar with either, even by reputation. But for a small department to lose this many professors in an eight-year period is pretty shocking.
Dartmouth can’t be blamed when professors like Bernie Gert (who I believe was the college’s longest serving prof) retire. But Dartmouth really shouldn’t lose quality faculty, especially professors like Sinnot-Armstrong who has been at college for three decades, to Duke and Wash U.
As I wrote in connection with the defection to Cornell of star professors in the Classics department, these sorts of losses, to schools generally considered no better than Dartmouth, suggest decline. And not decline in the general, universal sense that we conservatives like to grumble about, but decline in relation to rival institutions.
Decline can also occur through addition, as when the wrong professors receive tenure. Joe Ash says that this too has happened in the Philosophy department. According to Joe, Dean Carol Folt saw fit to grant tenure to philosophy professors to whom the department itself had denied it on the grounds of weak scholarship. Her decision, Joe says, was based on “social and political grounds” which “won out over shallow considerations like research publications, intellectual horsepower, and teaching.”
If I were picking a major at Dartmouth now, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be Philosophy.
UPDATE: Here is a short statement that I like quite a bit in which Prof. Sinnot-Armstrong addresses the question, “What is Philosophy?” Prof Gert addresses th same question here.
Let’s hope that, as far as Dartmouth is concerned, the relevant question hasn’t become, “What was Philosophy?”
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