Of late, there has been a significant uptick in the attention people are paying to the decline of the humanities. (See the recent NY Times article summarizing much of what has already been reported elsewhere.) There are fewer and fewer students interested in majoring in the humanities, including philosophy. There are, justifiably, many who are worrying about who or what are to blame. Perhaps the Great Recession scarred many incoming students (and their parents) into the false belief that the humanities aren’t marketable and will lead to financial ruin. Lee McIntyre presents a compelling argument that, at least for philosophers, it our own fault. While there are likely to be a host of causes for the decline of the humanities in general and philosophy specifically (and not necessarily all of them bad), one of the biggest problems, I believe, is that for too long we haven’t done a very good job articulating the benefits of a philosophical education. If we’re to have any hope of improving our position in the modern academy (and ensure the continued existence of philosophy programs), we’d better fix this mistake and fast. Joblessness is no long just for philosophy majors. Useful people are starting to feel the pinch.

For those of us who have complete a Ph.D. (and especially those who have achieved tenure), the benefits of a philosophical education often seem obvious, unimportant, or esoteric. To those for whom the benefits of philosophy seem obvious, taking the time to elaborate on those benefits to undergraduates seems equally unnecessary and can too often be neglected. The benefits (whether obvious or not) are frequently are stated far too esoterically to be in any way convincing to those who don’t already see the benefits. “The life of the mind…” “The deep questions…” “Challenging dogmatism…” Etc. Most freshman would have no idea what we’re talking about if that’s how we try to convince them they should major in philosophy. If that’s what most of us are doing, then it’s no wonder that numbers are down. Finally, perhaps a small minority might simply regard the benefits as unimportant because “I’ve already got my Ph.D./tenure, so who cares.” This attitude, even if minimal, points to a fundamental disconnect. Many of the benefits of a philosophical education are lost on those of us who teach it. We never had to go get “real jobs” with a philosophy major. We need to convince undergrads that there is a reason to study philosophy AND NOT get a graduate degree. So, to that end, let’s talk about the benefits of studying philosophy. (I’ve already discussed and discounted the too frequently employed argument for higher GRE scores.) The kinds of benefits I want to focus on are those that can make sense to and convinced those whom Russell derisively called the “practical” people. (Don’t get me wrong; I love Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy.” I just don’t think its going to convince many of the practical people. And if they’re the ones with the purse strings or the students we need to recruit, then the argument doesn’t work.) Many of us are likely already aware of these benefits, but it helps to articulate them.

  1. The Money is Good – This should be our first argument!1 (Some departments already do this, such as USC.) Philosophy majors do pretty well, and that’s not something to hide. Students are concerned about their job prospects, and rightly so. The Wall Street Journal demonstrates how well philosophy majors typically do.
    1. The Numbers:
      1. Looking at mid-career median salary, Philosophy is not only the highest in the humanities, it outstrips several other supposedly more marketable majors like IT, chemistry, accounting, business management, nursing, and marketing.
      2. Philosophy is tied for the highest percentage of change from starting salary to mid-career salary. So they may not start off making a bunch, but their value becomes apparent.
    2. The Stories: People don’t always find statistics as compelling as individual stories. We’ve got plenty of success stories. The Why Study Philosophy site has links to several great articles with personal narratives. There are tons of successful people in a host of different fields that were philosophy majors. A much more comprehensive list is available here. But a few I like to note are Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons), David Souter and Stephen Breyer (Supreme Court justices), Peter Theil (creator of PayPal), Wes Anderson (director), Phil Jackson (coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls), Ricky Gervais (comedian and actor), Woody Allen (actor and director), and Steve Martin.
  2. The Skills are Useful – What skills to we teach? Well, a lot of pretty important ones.
    1. Reading – As I often tell my students, if you can learn to read philosophy texts (especially Kant), then you can read anything. Reading philosophy is hard and takes careful attention and patience. Reading is on the decline. If we can teach our students how to be patient with a philosophical text, how to interpret it, how to see recognize the arguments made in it, etc., then they’ll be able to apply these skills anywhere.
    2. Writing – Writing philosophy is hard too. That’s not entirely unique to philosophy, but we can do a great job teaching students how to write. Writing philosophy takes clarity, consideration of the audience, attention to fine distinction, and organizational skills. Of course, we actually have to spend time teaching how to write, not just marking papers with a grade and handing them back if we’re to help them here.
    3. Thinking – Critical Thinking isn’t just a class, it’s a way of life. And it’s something we emphasize in all our classes. We teach logic. We teach how to make distnctions others miss. We teach how to see alternatives others ignore. We teach how to make an argument. If they can learn to demonstrate these skills in courses on metaphysics, political philosophy, aesthetics, or ethics, they can do it elsewhere. These are not situational skills. And there aren’t many professions in which these skills wouldn’t be helpful.
  3. The Questions are Interesting – This point almost goes without saying (at least to other philosophers). This is what gets us up in the morning. The questions fascinate us. They stick in our minds and won’t let go, even after years or decades of working on them. And our enthusiasm for these questions can be infectious. Students can see us be excited about what we study and see it too. Not every student in a 101 course will find a question or issue that fascinates them, but many will. Spreading a passion for philosophical questions shouldn’t be hard, since they’re some of the basic questions of life. Students want to study something they care about. We can easily provide, if we make the effort.
  4. What else? 
    1. Getting more data – We haven’t spent a lot of time investigating this question about the benefits of philosophy. I think a great project at the university level would be to contact as many past philosophy majors as possible and survey them on what they’re doing now, how it pays, and what benefits from their philosophy degree they see now. Then an intrepid professor or department could set up a system whereby keeping track of all upcoming graduates is easier, so that more data can be collected.
    2. Your thoughts? – I’d love to hear from others in the comments what you think other benefits for philosophy are. Can you think of any I’ve missed? Would you put the emphasis elsewhere?

It’s not easy for undergraduates or their parents to see the value of philosophy. It takes some thought, consideration, and argument. And that, I think, is the most beautiful part about discussing the value of philosophy. When we make the case for philosophy, we are getting our audience to do a bit of philosophy. We get them thinking past the obvious. We won’t convince everyone. And that’s okay; we don’t need to. But we can get more than we do now. (As a reminder, the previous entry in this series focused on the means for communicating these benefits. The means are just as important as the message, if we want to succeed.)


Notes: 1 There might be some selection bias at work here, in that those with certain skills sets that tend to get better paying jobs are more likely to become philosophy majors. This seems like it would be far less of an issue than with the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT scores argument(s). I’m also not convinced that a selection bias would be driving very much of this result.