Philosophy: Hot Major at Two-Year College ; Passionate Professors in New Jersey Turn Its School's Philosophy Department into Success Story

Article excerpt

As summer slowly melts into fall, students here at Bergen Community College are registering for classes. School won't begin for another two weeks. But on the third floor of the serpentine structure that houses most of the college, George Cronk, head of Bergen's philosophy and religion department, is joined in his office by two colleagues.

This triumvirate - Professor Cronk, Michael Redmond, and Peter Dlugos - represents the past, present, and future of philosophy and religion at Bergen.

Theirs is an unusual program. It thrives at a two-year community college in an era when students are increasingly practical-minded and career-oriented, perhaps for good reason. Philosophy majors can expect to make a dismal 21 percent below the mean annual earnings of concentrators in other fields, according to the "College Majors Handbook."

But over the past three decades, Cronk and his cohorts have built a department practically from scratch, discovering along the way how to make abstract, ephemeral topics enticing. It's a testament to what love of a discipline, scrappy management, and respect for students with a wide range of backgrounds and abilities can do.

Cronk is fond of saying that no other two-year college east of the Mississippi has a program to rival Bergen's. In fact, an informal survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education recently found that Bergen's program boasts triple the enrollment of similar-size two and four-year institutions across the country.

Its success also speaks to a broader search for the type of meaning at the core of philosophical and religious inquiry - even at a school where more than half of the 14,000 students attend part time and many enroll in vocational-training programs.

"The thinking is obviously pretty deep, but even in the really deep stuff - Descartes, Plato - when you break it down, it can apply to everyday life," says Mark Verile, a psychology major who's taken Introduction to Philosophy and Religions of the World with Cronk.

In 1972, when Cronk arrived on this 167-acre campus with its lush golf course, philosophy and religion were obscured within another department. He was its only full-time professor. Now, eight faculty members teach more than 2,000 students each semester. The department offers 50 sections of 14 courses and has attracted 30 majors.

In 1981, Mr. Redmond was hired as the department's second full- time teacher. Mr. Dlugos joined the staff in 1996. During an interview with this reporter, the three delineate their love of philosophy - how they discovered the field, why they can't imagine life without it. It's a contagious ardor.

"I'm grateful that you were the one who introduced me to philosophy," writes Jennifer Anderson, who took "Eastern Philosophy" and "Basic Logic," in an e-mail to Dlugos. "The passion and enthusiasm you have for what you know and teach is obvious.... It made me want to question things, pushed me to learn how to question things, and helped me to realize that while it may be likely I won't ever have any completely indisputable answers, the questioning is what will keep my mind turned on."

Even when there were just two of them, Cronk and Redmond tried to connect with students. In the '80s, professors were required to volunteer one or two hours at arena-style registration in the school gym. Cronk and Redmond worked the floor, putting in 12-hour days, answering questions about requirements. "We made a science of it," says Redmond. They also enhanced their tiny program's visibility. …