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Our Rich History: Growth of TM philosophy dept. from critical thinking to first-ever endowed chair

By Tom Ward 
Thomas More University   

Part 62 of Our Series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021.” This is the second part about the Philsophy Department. See part 1 here.

As the Philosophy department moved into the 1990s, most disagreements from the past regarding curricula were largely settled, though new demands were placed on the faculty because of developments that were part of the college’s overall enlargement of programs.

Gerald Twaddell. (TMU Archives)

Once TMC had settled its new curriculum for 1986 (following a charge by President Coffey), the Philosophy department was apparently satisfied with its own six-hour requirement for the core. (These were the 3-hour “Philosophy of Human Nature” as an introductory course, plus the option of one of three, 3-hour Ethics courses). In some respects, the faculty seemed to change its focus more toward the requirements for its majors than toward those of the core requirements for all students. As they stated in one of their goals in 1986, they would begin “a careful review of upper-level courses with the intention of enhancing their content for students majoring in Philosophy” (Philosophy Department Report, 1985-1986, TMU Archives).

By 1988, the department added a new course, “Critical Thinking,” to its offerings. The 1988-1990 catalog presents Critical Thinking as an upper-level course with the number PHI-336, to be a requirement for philosophy majors. In the next catalog, 1990-1992, however, it is numbered as PHI-195 and placed before the introductory course for the core (Philosophy of Human Nature), with no prerequisites. The intention behind this change was that it would be a course for students in ACHIEVE, a program that would permit “high-risk” high school seniors to enter TMC after meeting certain conditions. As such, it could be considered a foundational course, one that would have possibly fit the criteria for a third core course had they been granted one. Yet, Critical Thinking did not fulfill a core requirement, nor was it a prerequisite for any other philosophy courses, though it was still required for majors. At whatever level one might take it, however, the course developed “skills in logical analysis and in productive thinking,” making it a valuable foundation for any field of study (Twaddell memo to all faculty, Aug. 10, 1990, TMU Archives).

Fr. John Cahill (TMU Archives)  

A reasonable question at this point is why the department decided to add Critical Thinking to the curriculum as a requirement. As Msgr. Gerald Twaddell now recalls, “Critical Thinking” was simply a shift to a more fashionable title for “Logic,” which was often an introductory course for the study of philosophy. “Technically, critical thinking emphasizes different things such as analysis of arguments rather than rules for valid arguments. It’s more practically oriented” (Msgr. Twaddell’s response to inquiry, Aug. 30, 2022). 

At the time, department chair Fr. Twaddell emphasized the usefulness of Critical Thinking for other departmental curricula. He suggested to faculty advisors, who might be preparing students for graduate-level exams “which require sophisticated logical analysis,” to “do them a favor and convince them to sign up for” Critical Thinking (Twaddell memo to all faculty, Mar. 10, 1993, TMU Archives).

To highlight the need for students to learn to think critically, Fr. Twaddell shared the results of an interesting thought experiment he did with his students in a Philosophy of Human Nature class. He had his students read an article by a physicist and then comment upon whether they thought the scientist showed bias in his presentation. The answers the students gave demonstrated that they did not distinguish between facts and opinions — to them, it showed bias to speak with certainty about one’s position, even if that position was based upon verifiable facts and another was not, as if the students believed that one opinion was no more valid than another. Fr. Twaddell opined that this could account for the numerous faculty evaluations in which students accused their professors of “being biased” (Twaddell memo to all faculty, March 24, 1993, TMU Archives).

Dr. Joseph Cronin. (TMU Archives)

Critical Thinking was not the Philosophy department’s only concern as it entered the 1990s. Although the Diocese of Covington’s Seminary of St. Pius X closed its doors for good following the spring 1988 semester, TMC’s Philosophy department was still engaged in educating future priests. “Pre-theologians” was the term for students who entered the seminary after achieving a college undergraduate degree but lacked the background in philosophy to allow them to advance to graduate studies in Theology. Some pre-theologians from Mount Saint Mary Seminary in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati were accepted into TMC’s Philosophy program.

It was difficult to determine ahead of time what the faculty teaching load would be for each upcoming semester because the number of pre-theologians varied yearly from a few to none at all. Along with this, the number of TMC students majoring in philosophy was also quite small. The department, though, definitely thought they needed an extra full-time professor to meet their needs (Philosophy Department Annual Report, 1991-1992, TMU Archives).

Things were sometimes rendered more difficult by faculty of other departments who failed to grasp the significance of the philosophy curriculum when they advised their students. Some advisors seemed to think that the philosophy courses in their proper sequence were merely “suggestions,” and so students could be advised to take Ethics courses without first taking their prerequisites. But as the department saw it, “This attitude is undermining the full effectiveness of the core” (Philosophy Department Annual Report, 1990-1991, TMU Archives).

Some new duties devolved upon the Philosophy department when the college initiated the Thomas More Accelerated Program (TAP) in 1993. Degrees attained through TAP would also demand many of the same core courses in the regular baccalaureate and associate programs. Since most of the initial TAP program was oriented to business courses, with the Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) being its inaugural degree program, the Philosophy department tailored its Business Ethics course for the needs of business majors. But teaching the TAP courses put an additional strain on the small philosophy faculty who were already working overload hours (Philosophy Department Annual Report, 1992-1993, TMU Archives). 

See also, https://nkytribune.com/2022/01/our-rich-history-the-thomas-more-accelerated-program-tap-becomes-a-reality/ and https://nkytribune.com/2022/02/our-rich-history-growth-of-tap-and-masters-in-business-administration-degree-at-thomas-more/

Dr. Catherine (Cate) Sherron. (TMU Archives)

Part of the shortage of faculty was alleviated with adjunct professors. Fr. John Cahill returned to TMC to provide assistance during some years. Fr. William Cleves, even though then serving as TMC president, still taught one course per semester for a few years. Joseph Cronin and Steve Holler were able to assist beginning with the 1992-1993 academic year. While working on a PhD, Professor Cronin helped teach some of the TAP courses and went full-time the following year. Professor Holler split his time between teaching philosophy and theology (Philosophy Department Annual Report, 1992-1993, TMU Archives).

In the fall of 1994, Dr. George Blair began a second stint as Philosophy chair. He still hoped to increase the philosophy core requirement to nine hours with the addition of Critical Thinking to the core (Philosophy Department Annual Report, 1994-1995, TMU Archives). Yet, in spite of the department’s attempts to have Critical Thinking required for all students, the idea apparently failed with the Core Curriculum Committee which was “not willing to add another course to the core without taking one out, and they don’t want to take any course out for this one” (Philosophy Department Annual Report, 1996-1997, TMU Archives).

In 1999, a woman — the first since Sr. Camilla Cahill, CDP—joined the Philosophy department and has been at TMU ever since. Catherine (Cate) Sherron was hired with the expectation that she would teach primarily in the TAP Program, though what began in 1999 as a one-year temporary contract turned into a full-time position. She went on to receive her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Cincinnati in 2003 and became chair of the department in June of that year (Interview with Dr. Sherron, Sept. 2, 2022).

The new millennium witnessed a significant change in the way the Philosophy department organized its course offerings. This was at least, in part, a response to the very practical need to increase enrollment in the non-core philosophy courses. The fact that philosophy was at the heart of a liberal arts education did not mean that many students in a liberal arts institution wanted to take more than the minimal requirement of core courses; in most years, the upper-level courses had few students, especially because there were not many philosophy majors. Because of this, one of the department’s chief concerns became something not directly related to the teaching of philosophy—the “marketability” of philosophy courses.

Dr. Jerome (Jay) Langguth. (TMU Archives)

The problem was that “Courses are distributed in an irrational manner because of the current philosophy core requirement. It would make more sense for students across the college to be able to choose courses rather than having to take a particular course. Currently our courses are usually full or empty — we would like to see a more even distribution” (Departmental Review of Baccalaureate and Associate Degrees of the Philosophy Department, Fall 1999, #35 – Weaknesses, TMU Archives).

Dr. Blair retired from TMC in 1999 (he passed away in 2013), and Fr. Twaddell took his place as Philosophy chair. The department faculty discussed ways to increase enrollment in philosophy courses —
was there a way to make philosophy more intriguing and desirable without sacrificing the intellectual integrity of the courses? They approached the task by taking more consideration of the real needs and interests of the students who might desire to investigate what philosophy was all about. As Msgr. Twaddell expressed it recently, “On the whole, I think we’ve deliberately worked to aim outward rather than inward to the academic world,” and “We’re deliberately avoiding the ‘ivory tower’ approach” (Msgr. Twaddell response to inquiry, Aug. 30, 2022).

The solution they finally proposed was to offer two areas or tracks of courses instead of the current core arrangement of the Philosophy of Human Nature plus one of the three Ethics courses. The proposal grouped the two tracks of courses under the names of traditional philosophy fields: first, “Metaphysics and Epistemology,” and second, “Values and Ethics,” with both having multiple choices of courses attached to them (Departmental Review of Baccalaureate and Associate Degrees of the Philosophy Department, Fall 1999, p. 1, TMU Archives).

With the introduction of this system, faculty would no longer have to teach three or four sections of the same core course, which could be quite tedious, and students would have more of a choice in what they wanted to study, even if they were not philosophy majors. As it turned out, the distribution of students among the course offerings became more even, just as intended for the new system.

As they attempted to make the new proposal work, the faculty undertook “a number of initiatives both in trying to attract more students into philosophy as a major and in being flexible in admitting non-philosophy majors to some upper-level classes …” (Program Evaluation Summary, 2000-2001, p. 5, TMU Archives). Because the load for a philosophy major was not onerous, many of those who enrolled in philosophy courses were taking them for a second major, usually completing the courses in their junior and senior years.

Following through on the proposal to attract more students, the department added a new course, “Major Philosophical Authors” in 2001. This course would focus on the writings of only one philosopher so that the students would do an in-depth study of him/her. The faculty would rotate teaching the course, and all would be able to choose the author on whom their students would concentrate. This has led to the introduction of students to many contemporary philosophers they probably would not have yet encountered in regular History of Philosophy courses, such as Alistair MacIntyre, whom Msgr. Twaddell has described as “revolutionizing Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy of ethics and politics” (Msgr. Twaddell response to inquiry, Aug. 30, 2022). The faculty hoped that this focus on only one philosopher (which would be a requirement for the BA or AA degrees), though without requiring any previous philosophical knowledge, would be beneficial to students who might otherwise struggle to complete a philosophy degree (Proposed changes to the Philosophy Curriculum as presented to the Academic Affairs Committee, undated, ca. 2000, TMU Archives).

Within the next few years, the Critical Thinking course was renamed “Introductory Logic,” the three Ethics courses were combined into one course entitled “Applied Ethics,” and “God and Reason” was changed to “Philosophy of Religion,” plus a new “Aesthetics” course was added to the curriculum. These various additions and changes would not only be open to majors but to all students who would choose them as a core requirement (Proposed changes to the Philosophy Curriculum as presented to the Academic Affairs Committee, undated, ca. 2000, TMU Archives).

William and Ellen Ziegler. (TMU Archives)

Another addition to the philosophy faculty came in 2003 when Dr. Jerome (Jay) Langguth was hired following Dr. Cronin’s departure. Dr. Langguth’s PhD also came from UC in 2000 (Moreover, Spring 2004, p. 10). One of his specialties is Aesthetics.

A departmental program review covering the period 1999-2005 demonstrated the success of the program in practical terms. The core still required two philosophy courses, though, as noted above, the distribution of students in philosophy courses was more even than before—“opening our courses so that more of them (practically all of them) would count for one or the other of these requirements … allowed us to distribute students more evenly across all courses.” Acquiring the BA in Philosophy had long demanded a forty-page research paper, not a daunting task for most college seniors. But by 2005 the department had “formalized the process for writing” their BA theses, though they still needed “to make the process more stringent so as to avoid procrastination on the part of students and thus poor quality papers”  (Self-study for Departmental Review, 1999-2005 digital record, TMU Archives).

Along with creating a more even distribution of students in their courses, the philosophy faculty took on extra responsibilities when the Humanities Division introduced a Humanities Degree Program in 2005-2006 for both the BA and the AA degrees. Besides teaching courses for this program, the department “has assumed general administrative duties as well as advising responsibilities for any students in this program”  (Self-study for Departmental Review, 1999-2005 digital record, TMU Archives). This put an additional burden on the three full-time member faculty comprised of Fr. Twaddell, Dr. Sherron, and Dr. Langguth.

For most of the 21st Century so far, Dr. Sherron has served as chair, beginning in 2003, with a brief hiatus of 2007-2009 when the chair was Dr. Langguth, to the current academic year. During her term, the department “reinvented” some courses, which made them more “experimental in pedagogy” with the intent that students would see how philosophy relates to their own lives. They also planned several new courses, some of which were to be interdisciplinary and team taught, such as “Sports and Ethics” and “Environmental Ethics” that included Dr. Chris Lorentz from the Biology Department (Interview with Dr. Sherron, Sept. 2, 2022). Among the new courses being considered was an Environmental Studies Program. “Philosophy will play a supporting role for this program by offering courses such as environmental ethics, human nature with an emphasis on ‘nature,’ and philosophy of science geared toward environmental studies/science.  We are interested in starting an MA in ethics in the future, also” (Self-study for Departmental Review, 1999-2005 digital record, TMU Archives).

Some noteworthy additions to the curriculum came in 2016-2017 with the introduction of “Global Ethics,” and the “Ethics Lab,” a one-credit hour course just for majors who would determine their own focus of study, added in 2018-2019 (Interview with Dr. Sherron, Sept. 2, 2022). The department is also planning a new Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) major that will also be interdisciplinary with faculty from those other departments. Dr. Langguth has further responsibilities as he is currently the interim Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Ziegler Endowed Chair

For over a year now, TMU has been in the process of developing a new core curriculum. The outcome of this is still pending, though philosophy got a boost from another source. When TMU began planning for its centennial year (2021-2022), President Joseph Chillo approached VMC alum and Board of Trustees member Wilbert L. Ziegler, JD, about acting as the honorary chair of the “Second Century” capital campaign. He gladly accepted and went even further — he, along with his wife Ellen (Hackman) Ziegler (also a VMC grad), wanted to contribute to the establishment of TMU’s first-ever endowed chair, which would be in philosophy, the field in which he graduated in 1953. As a result, the Ziegler Endowed Chair in Philosophy came into being with the intention of supporting academic excellence in the department. The stipulations were that the holder of the chair would annually teach three classes, deliver one public lecture, help secure a noted visiting speaker, and assist one student with a research project. He also wanted to honor Sr. Camilla, who had been an important influence during his philosophy studies (Notes provided by Dr. Kevin Reynolds, Vice President for Institutional Advancement, Sept. 7, 2022).

Msgr. Twaddell was chosen to be the first holder of the chair. After discussions with the Zieglers and others, he decided that a good focus for the lectures would be on public issues. On February 21, 2022, Msgr. Twaddell delivered the inaugural address, on “Patriotism,” in Steigerwald Hall, with plans to do another on “the Common Good” (Msgr. Twaddell’s response to inquiry, Sept. 6, 2022).

The creation of the Ziegler Endowed Chair serves as a reminder of the central place of philosophy in a Catholic liberal arts university. Although most years witness only a few graduates with philosophy degrees, they are among some of the best prepared students to face life outside the walls of TMU, no matter the field in which they ultimately make their careers. As noted in the introduction to the section on philosophy in many of the catalogs of the 2000s, “The primary goal of this program is to produce graduates who will be capable of approaching any activity in life in a reflective way” (TMU Catalog, 2005-2006, p. 74, TMU Archives). It is safe to assume that this will always be one of the primary goals of the Philosophy department at TMU.

Tom Ward is the Archivist of Thomas More University. He holds an MA in History from Xavier University, Cincinnati. He can be contacted at wardt@thomasmore.edu. We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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