Howard University College of Arts and Sciences
Department of Philosophy
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About - Introduction

Introduction:

The Unity of Departmental and University Missions

"Once upon a time some four thousand miles east of this place, I saw the functioning of a perfect system of education. It was in West Africa, beside a broad river.... Education was completely integrated with life. There could be no uneducated people. There could be no education that was not at once for use in earning a living and for use in living a life. Out of this education and out of the life it typified came, as perfect expressions, song and dance and saga, ethics and religion. ... Nothing more perfect has been invented than this system of training youth among primitive African tribes. (Du Bois 1973, 83,84)

Du Bois projected an ancient African ideal of education as a model even for contemporary university education. In his vision, destroying the link between Africa and African America would annihilate the African American. Writing about the role of the historically black college or university in the 1930's, Du Bois said the African American institution of higher learning should be founded on a knowledge of the history of their people in Africa and in the United States, and their present condition. Without white-washing or translating wish into fact, it begins with that; and then it asks how shall these young men and women be trained to earn a living and live a life under the circumstances in which they find themselves or with such changing of those circumstances as time and work and determination will permit (Du Bois 1986, 1012).

The department also looks to Alain Locke for guidance. The first African American Rhodes Scholar and the first Black Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard, Locke joined the faculty at Howard University nearly a century ago, and he continues to be the most influential member in the history of the department. Searching for new methods of education, Locke argued that contemporary education is in a state of disintegration: "unless some revitalizing integration is soon attained, ...a breakdown of the culture itself may be anticipated." (Locke 1989, 265).

Both Locke and Du Bois were keenly aware of the virtues of Howard's motto: veritas et utilitas, truth and usefulness. The philosophy department at Howard looks to their inspiration for the future. In particular the department seeks ways to connect philosophy to all other subjects offered by the university. It also tries to connect what students do at Howard with what they will be doing for the rest of their lives. The department focuses on the roles philosophy might play in averting the "breakdown of the culture itself" that Locke feared.

We look at the university through Du Bois' eyes. As he puts it, the "university must become not simply a center of knowledge but a center of applied knowledge and guide of action" (Du Bois 1986, 1015). Together with the rest of the Howard University community, the department aims at solving problems that are particularly troublesome to the African American communities, as these communities have made Howard's existence possible for over a century now.

Howard's solution of such problems will have beneficial consequences for all the communities of the United States. Du Bois argues that the task of the African American university is to "emancipate not simply the black folk of the United States, but those white folk who in their effort to suppress [African Americans] have killed their own culture" (Du Bois 1986, 1017).

The department finds its mission in the larger context of the university's mission: to solve pressing problems that trouble the communities that make Howard possible. No other university has Howard's resources, responsibility, and resolve to address these problems. Because Howard addresses problems in ways that no other institution can, we need excellence at Howard not just for the sake of excellence, but to fulfill our responsibilities.

Howard must have an institutional ethos that justifies Howard as a research university. We require total commitment from faculty, students, and staff on this point: we do research because we must solve problems. Research is the art of problem solving. Howard's problems range from the highly theoretical to the immediately concrete. A powerful university recognizes no real separation between these extremes.

We should be able to ask every faculty member and student: what is your problem? Why is it your problem? Who else has worked on it? How have they failed? What new direction are you taking? What new problems will your solution create?

The department encourages students in its introductory classes to realize that every course they take at Howard is designed to solve a problem, and that their responsibility as Howard students is to select a problem at least by the start of their junior years and to take major steps along the way to solving it by the end of their senior years.

The department tries to orient its courses to the context of Howard's history. What problems has Howard already solved (with special emphasis on Howard's greatest success in civil rights issues)? What problems does Howard now address? What is the status of their solutions? What problems should Howard address in the future? If students see Howard faculty engaged in solving problems, then they can help Howard accomplish its two-fold mission: to solve problems, and make it possible for its students to make this art their life-long passion.

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