Answering the Taxpayers

Answering the Taxpayers

I am a professor of philosophy at a public university. What is the value of philosophy to the taxpayers who subsidize my teaching? Philosophy is an abstruse and difficult field. Many of those whose taxes support higher education probably would have a hard time seeing the point of most philosophical debates. Why ask people to pay for discussions of seemingly arcane and incomprehensible topics? Besides, does a field like philosophy have any quantifiable or objectively measurable value, or do its putative benefits seem vague and elusive?

Further, don’t philosophers raise troublesome questions and defend positions that might undermine the bedrock convictions of the people who subsidize their salaries? Why, for instance, should conservative, God-fearing people be willing to help support research and teaching that might lead their children to liberalism or atheism? Shouldn’t professors instead have the responsibility of inculcating the values of the people who help pay our salaries? I think that too many academics dismiss such questions with a condescending smirk or a dismissive shrug. Yet these are serious questions and they deserve direct and convincing replies.

Keith Parsons, a professor of philosophy at University of Houston – Clear Lake, takes up the task of justifying to taxpayers why public universities should offer philosophy courses in a column for the Huffington Post entitled, “What Is the Public Value of Philosophy?

The short version of his answer is that philosophy, by presenting students with potentially unsettling challenges to their beliefs, teaches students “how to think.” He contrasts education with “indoctrination” — teaching students “what to think.”

It seems to me that the strongest challenge to philosophy’s spot in the university curriculum is not from those who seek to indoctrinate college students, but rather from more seemingly practical courses of study, such as STEM fields or business majors. Further, it is silly to think that the professors in those fields are not teaching their students “how to think.” The study of sciences and business areas are full of challenging and surprising ideas that play a role in teaching students how to think. While it may be true that “an education in philosophy gives a person the tools to reflect critically, think logically, [and] make rational decisions,” I think philosophers should guard against pretending they are the sole providers of these goods.

How would you answer the taxpayers?

(image: dollar bill collage by Mark Wagner)

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