Diversity in Philosophy: Is the Problem Lack of Pre-College Exposure?

Recall these figures from “What is the State of Blacks in Philosophy?” by Tina Fernandes Botts, Liam Kofi Bright, Myisha Cherry, Guntur Mallarangeng, and Quayshawn Spencer: though blacks in the U.S. make up over 13% of the general population, they make up just 1.32 percent of the total number of people professionally affiliated (as grad students or faculty) with U.S. philosophy departments. Approximately 0.88 percent of U.S. philosophy Ph.D. students are black, and approximately 4.3 percent of U.S. tenured philosophy professors are black.

What explains this? Writing in Times Higher Education, Briana Toole (University of Texas) suggests that it has to do with access to philosophy education prior to college:

I believe that this number is so small because BME [blacks and other minority ethnic] groups are less likely to have been exposed to philosophy prior to having entered college. Unsurprisingly, the subjects students have had the opportunity to study during high school will make a difference in what they choose to study in college.

As Joe Pinsker writes in The Atlantic, examining the relationship between family income and choice of major, “children from higher-income families were more exposed to the sorts of art, music, and literature that [top-tier] colleges deem worthy of study, an exposure that might inspire them to pursue those subjects when they get to college”.

This may explain the under-representation. Consider that BME students are more likely than their white peers to attend “high-poverty schools” where philosophy is unlikely to be offered. By contrast, students who have attended private schools or wealthier public schools are more likely to have had some exposure to philosophy.

Put simply, there is an “opportunity gap”. This opportunity gap may make it less likely that BME students, and more likely that white students, will pursue a major in philosophy.

This rings true in my experience. I had every intention when I arrived at college to study political science in preparation for a career in law. As a graduate of a small, rural high school in the South, I simply didn’t know that philosophy was a subject one could study.

Thoughts on this? My high school—a public school in the New York suburbs—didn’t offer a philosophy course, and I don’t think it is unusual in that regard. However, we did read and learn about philosophers in social studies (history) and English. Could small differences like that, and small differences in the percentages of different groups exposed to philosophy in high school explain the disparities we see in the profession?

It’s an interesting avenue for empirical investigation. As a preliminary move, if someone would like to create a survey to learn about how rates of pre-college exposure to philosophy vary by race that will work on a WordPress site, or that I can link t0 from Daily Nous, contact me at [email protected]

Justin Weinberg, Airport at Night

Justin Weinberg, Airport at Night


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