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.
Without institutional support, Cronk and Redmond say their department's growth would have been impossible. But they've worked for that, too, gaining favor with administrators through a "willingness to shoulder institution-wide responsibility that could have been avoided," says Redmond.
Since the 1980s, a professor from their department has spearheaded accreditation, the quality-control process to ensure that the school meets standards. Cronk, who heads the Faculty Senate, led accreditation in 1985; Redmond, now vice president of technology and information services and a former dean, did so in 1995; and Dlugos is heading up the 2005 review.
Yet if philosophy and religion professors hadn't engaged their diverse group of students, these efforts would have meant little.
In part, Cronk, Redmond, and Dlugos simply believe that philosophy is deeply relevant to everyone. Aristotle's "Ethics" is "about becoming happy; the pursuit of happiness," says Cronk. "Almost everybody is interested in that."
"Philosophy is sort of like plumbing," offers Redmond. "Not everyone needs to be a professional plumber, but it's certainly helpful to have some basic skills."
Dlugos adds: "Philosophy is training for the career of being a human being."
To convince their students, however, they've learned a back-to-basics approach, different than each had planned on when arriving at Bergen - where nearly 40 percent of students are over age 24, and many are the first in their families to attend college.
"I never took anything for granted," says Cronk, who still entertains the idea of teaching more complex material at an elite school. "I never assumed anything about background knowledge, and always started from scratch." Cronk, Dlugos, and other department professors have edited a reader-friendly compilation of classic Eastern and Western works.
While Dlugos and Redmond, like Cronk, have also at one time hoped to work at a more prestigious four-year institution, they've come to appreciate Bergen's advantages, and neither plans to leave. In teaching "Contemporary Moral Issues," which delves into sexual ethics and the nature of love, Redmond has engaged 18-year-olds, single mothers, and grandmothers - each with a unique perspective.
Today, he believes the pursuit of philosophy is no less important at a two-year school than at a four-year college. And as more students attend community colleges, it may become more important. Last year, two-year schools enrolled nearly half of all undergraduates, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.
The type of philosophical inquiry taught at Bergen has, in recent years, also spilled beyond campus, into cafes and parks.
The Cafe Philo movement in Europe, where ordinary citizens take part in philosophical discussions, took off in the 1990s. Bergen has hosted its own "Friends of Socrates" group in a local Borders Books since 1999. And in 1996, Christopher Phillips formed the first "Socrates Cafe" discussion - there are now 200 nationwide - in Montclair, N.J., only 14 miles from Bergen .
"Everybody has a philosophy about life, but most people don't take the time to articulate or express it," says Mr. Phillips. "There's something exhilarating and forward-looking about taking an hour or two a week to reflect with other thoughtful souls and discover your philosophy."