N.Y. Community College Focuses On Philosophy As state universities cut back on humanities programs, LaGuardia Community College in Queens, N.Y., is going in the opposite direction. At LaGuardia, philosophy is challenging the stereotype that four-year colleges are for intellectuals and community colleges are for career training.
NPR logo

Philosophy Valued At One Community College

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/132633254/132657626" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Philosophy Valued At One Community College

Philosophy Valued At One Community College

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/132633254/132657626" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Now to the case of one community college thats defying a trend. Because of serious budget shortfalls, many state universities are threatening to cut humanities programs, such as foreign languages or philosophy. Even some private universities are doing the same.

But a community college in Queens, the philosophy program is king, as NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: LaGuardia Community College has no real campus. Classes take place in four former manufacturing buildings. There are 17,000 matriculated students, plus many thousands more who take non-degree programs. There's a well-regarded nursing school, engineering, veterinary technology.

But here's the surprise - 4,500 are taking philosophy. A hundred and fifty sections, seven full-time professors, most of them added in the last two years.

Peter Katopes is the interim president of LaGuardia. He says people tell me the role of community colleges is narrow: To train students for tomorrow's jobs.

Dr. PETER KATOPES (Interim President, LaGuardia Community College): What are these jobs?

ADLER: The real task, he says, is training students for what he calls the entrepreneurship of the imagination.

Dr. KATOPES: It's giving students the opportunity to really understand the context of their lives, and you do that through the humanities. If you do even a cursory survey of very successful CEOs, you will find that an unbelievable number of them did their undergraduate degrees in English or philosophy or history.

ADLER: All kinds of students are taking philosophy here. Liz Montesclaros is 29. She needed a job and, without thinking much about it, she joined the military.

Ms. LIZ MONTESCLAROS (Student): It's not the best place for questioning. Very rigid, very structured. When I finally got out, that's when I decided, hey, this is what I really wanted to do. I want to explore the questions that matter to me. What are we doing here? Why am I here in the first place, for what purpose?

ADLER: E.J. Lee is 22 and started out as a business major.

Ms. E.J. LEE (Student): My parents were, you know, growing up - make money, make money, make money. So I figured, you know, business was what you do. But as a business major, I was required to take an ethics course. And as soon as I sat in that class, I knew that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

ADLER: These are the kind of attitudes you might find normal at a four-year liberal arts college. But the students here speak 120 different languages. And most of them were not born in the United States.

Mr. GABRIEL LOCKWOOD (Student): We're all so different on the outside. And on the inside we're all searching, we're all seeking.

ADLER: Gabriel Lockwood is 36. He wandered through Europe, knows a half-dozen languages, worked as a translator, took courses at various European universities but couldn't get credit for them in the United States. So at 36, he's starting again. His full of questions and philosophy, he says, has helped to answer some of them.

The classes in philosophy are the usual. Introduction to Philosophy, Ethics, Medical Ethics, Religion and Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Logic, Aesthetics, Eastern Philosophy, but also new courses being developed in African Philosophy and Latin Philosophy.

John Chaffee is the chair of the department, and says philosophy is a necessity, not a luxury.

Dr. JOHN CHAFFEE (Chairman, Philosophy Department, LaGuardia College): It's something which is really at the heart of life. It addresses the foundational questions that we all wrestle with. And these are questions that Viktor Frankl said burn under our fingernails.

Philosophy is a discipline that gives us the tools to really understand ourselves, and the skills to answer the mysteries that are really at the heart of ourselves and at the heart of life.

ADLER: Today, the Philosophy Club is meeting. More than a dozen students and two professors sit in a circle and debate happiness.

Professor Richard Brown asks, suppose you lived a totally pleasurable life...

Professor RICHARD BROWN (Humanities Department): But then you found out the day after that that youd been living in a virtual reality for your whole life and that you never actually done any of those things, but you had all the experience. You had all the pleasure. You had all the satisfaction. You had all the contentment. Would you say you were happy in those previous experiences?

ADLER: Arthur Rodriguez, Javier Velasco and Mohammad Bahi(ph) begin to argue.

Mr. ARTHUR RODRIGUEZ (Student Member, Philosophy Club): Even if this life is a dream, and then we wake up when we die and we accomplish nothing, you still can't take away the experience of that dream or what you thought you accomplished.

Mr. JAVIER VELASCO (Student Member, Philosophy Club): If you had no suffering, you can't really recognize happiness or appreciation for something if its always there.

Mr. MOHAMMAD BAHI (Student Member, Philosophy Club): It's like saying that, oh, you're not divorced, youre just married once. You really dont youre your wife. It's like, you dont have to.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Professor MINERVA AHUMADA (Humanities Department): They bring very different things to the mix.

ADLER: Minerva Ahmad teaches introduction to philosophy and Eastern philosophy.

Ms. AHMAD: It's more personal here, it is more challenging here, but also, the results that you get are way more surprising than what I got at other kind of institutions.

Professor RICHARD BROWN (Philosophy): Everyone's got problems, but our students have a lot of real serious, real-life issues.

ADLER: Philosophy professor Richard Brown.

Prof. BROWN: And then to suddenly see them become curious about, well, the nature of forms or universals or what's the morally right thing to do, it's really a privilege. These people never envisaged that theyd be studying these kinds of things and also understanding it and having it influence their life.

ADLER: Five years ago there wasn't even a philosophy major at La Guardia. Now, 60 students are majoring, and several I talked to said they want teach in the future. Liz Montesclaros(ph).

Ms. MONTESCLAROS: Im just struck by the passion of the people who are here, the faculty and the students.

ADLER: The president of La Guardia Community College made philosophy a priority. The department chair built a department and hired faculty. Now this community college in New York City that's under many people's radar has more philosophy majors than many four-year colleges and universities. Like that line in the film "Field of Dreams" - if you build it, they will come.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.