The Importance of Philosophy at HBCUs: The Case of Howard University

Note: This blog post was co-authored by Sigal R. Ben-Porath, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania

The first African American Rhodes Scholar, Alain Locke was a professor of philosophy at Howard University. He began this position in 1918 and retired as the chair of the philosophy department in 1953. Heavily influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, Locke developed the philosophy of the New Negro, which was committed to the idea of building the Black race. Under Locke’s leadership, the philosophy department at Howard University became a powerhouse of learning, research, and thought.

Unfortunately, this same department is currently under fire. The institution’s leadership plans to fold philosophy into an interdisciplinary unit dedicated to teaching core curriculum courses. In a higher education climate that values degrees that bring in substantial tuition dollars, philosophy departments are prime targets for cutting and consolidating. Eradicating philosophy departments is a mistake at any institution, and it is tremendously short sighted in the case of Howard University.

The department under the direction of Alain Locke was a birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance. This legacy is long and important to the underpinnings of American culture. The philosophy department at Howard should be celebrated as one of the few departments in the country with an Africana perspective, providing a unique space for thinking about American and African American culture.

Have we forgotten the words of Carter G. Woodson on the importance of teaching an individual to think for him or herself — “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions”? It is important that young African Americans explore deep philosophical ideas as a part of their education even if they are pursuing professional degrees. And it is vital that Americans have the opportunity to benefit from the productive ideas generated in this unique environment of inquiry.

Philosophical thought leads to questioning, meaningful exchange, and personal development. Alain Locke’s work on the value of race and the toll of interracial relations informs our philosophical and social thinking today, in academe and beyond. Philosophical research also offers opportunities to consider ethics, the meaning of language, and the reasoning behind scientific approaches. Classes in philosophy help young people to develop capacity for logical and critical thinking.

It is a tragedy for any college or university to cut or consolidate its philosophy department. It is even more disheartening when that department, however stressed for funds, serves large numbers of minority students. Young African American students need the opportunity to widen their horizons and exposure to philosophical thinking is vitally important in this process.

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