Where Philosophy Is Missing

Where Philosophy Is Missing


Some colleges have no philosophers. Some colleges have philosophers, but not many, yielding a very low philosopher-to-student ratio, particularly when compared to elite institutions or flagship state schools. Such colleges—which include many community colleges, state branch campuses, and historically black colleges and universities—seem to turn out very few students who ultimately join the philosophy profession. If the philosophy profession is interested in increasing diversity among its ranks—including socioeconomic and racial diversity—and also increasing the number of jobs available for philosophers, then it should push these schools to hire more philosophers. That is the argument of Christopher Pynes (Western Illinois) in a notable guest post at Leiter Reports.

The mission of the American Philosophical Association (APA) begins with this: “The American Philosophical Association promotes the discipline and profession of philosophy, both within the academy and in the public arena.” It would seem to be consistent with its mission to lead, in Pynes’ words, “a professional full-court press to increase access to philosophy in those schools that lack reasonable access to philosophy by all available means.”

He adds:

This will require focused effort—not a shotgun approach. We’ll have to do the hard work of determining where philosophy is missing or in short supply, and because we are dealing with scarce resources, we can’t waste effort on small or unlikely gains…. Correcting the problem and diversifying the profession through growth is going to take a long time—several generations…. Growing the discipline and solving the diversity problem cannot be fixed immediately, but rather will take steady, continual, and focused progress. If we can’t do that, then the profession will continue to suffer from structural elitism and remain less inclusive and sadder still, less relevant.  We will become the new Classics.

I think the proposal is an intriguing one, and Pynes is right to keep an eye on the long term. As far as I know, the APA has not to date taken on tasks like this (please correct me if I’m wrong). I would encourage it to at least consult with experts on various strategies for pushing for increased and more equitable access to philosophy.

Cusik - Patriarch

(image: detail of “Patriarch” by Matt Cusik)

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Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

Oh, Justin. I already knew you were a superior person, but to call this a “proposal” takes a kind of optimism and charity that I can only dream of.

Rich institutions have more resources to devote to the humanities. Across a wide variety of institutions, the humanities are under threat and seen as decorative afterthoughts to fields that are considered intrinsically more important or are (wrongly) thought more likely to get students jobs. There is nothing special about philosophy in this regard.

How in the world would the APA be able to influence the strategic direction of colleges and universities? I might have an especially pessimistic take on the competence of the APA, but even if I’m wrong about that, on what grounds could the APA pressure universities to change their focus? Clearly anyone who would suggest this as a solution to our problems has no idea how universities work.

There is some, limited, room for faculty to put pressure on their own institutions. If you are lucky enough to have a job, you should go to faculty meetings, serve on committees, and make the case for the importance of philosophy. And when institutions, like Howard a few years ago, move in directions that threaten their philosophy programs, people should protest. But the idea that the APA is going to swoop in, snap its fingers, and create tenure lines out of thin air is magical thinking.Report

Alexus McLeod
5 years ago

While I agree with the spirit of Chris Pynes’ comments, allow me to suggest an alternative view. He writes, in his post at Leiter: “In my view, the diversity problem in philosophy is a structural problem arising from the lack of access to philosophy by diverse populations.”

While I admit I have no insight on the administrative functioning of the universities he’s speaking of, I don’t think this claim is true. There is *access* to philosophy, there just isn’t interest. And I think there is a good reason for this lack of interest. I the problem we face says much more about the state of philosophy than of these colleges and universities. Philosophy, in many ways, is the “whitest” of the fields in academia–and by this I don’t just mean the fact that the people who practice it are overwhelmingly white (although this is also true). Philosophy has historically, and in many ways continues, to fail to take seriously or give equal consideration to non-European philosophical traditions. There is a heavy Eurocentrism still at the heart of our profession, despite the many good-will attempts to fix this problem.

As long as things are this way, regardless of how much of a push there is by outside forces to bring philosophy to HBCUs and other institutions that do not have philosophy departments, philosophy will (rightfully, IMO) encounter resistance. I think what is really needed here is for *philosophy* to change, more than for these universities to change their attitude toward philosophy. If we begin to actually take diversity (of methodology, tradition, etc) seriously, then more institutions will begin to see philosophy as the kind of thing they want or need to have as a part of their intellectual life. When we begin to see Indian philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Africana philosophy, Latin American philosophy, etc. as equal partners in the philosophical project, rather than as curiosities not central to our field, then maybe institutions primarily serving people of color, for example, will take us seriously. When people of color feel like we are a part and are welcome in philosophy as equals (and I do think this is getting better than it used to be, but we’re still not there yet), our students and universities will likewise welcome philosophy. As it is, trying to bring philosophy into such institutions without significant change in the culture of philosophy in US academia feels to me a whole lot like intellectual colonialism. Diversity in terms of numbers of people of different races, genders, etc. in philosophy is unachievable, IMO, without commitment to intellectual diversity, looking beyond the Euro-American tradition.Report

PhD Classics
PhD Classics
5 years ago

As someone who traded sides to a Classics department to do Ancient Philosophy at PhD level, the phrase “We will become the new Classics” is a particularly biting one – especially in light of the fact that the genders are far, far more balanced here than they were in my old Philosophy department.Report

Manyul Im
5 years ago

Just a brief thought from an institution (University of Bridgeport) that serves a student population of roughly 50-60 percent non-white students. I’m a philosopher and an APA supporter but it would be difficult for me, as dean of Arts & Sciences, to make the case to our students that they (some number of them at any rate) should pursue a career in academic philosophy. There is a large disparity in the economic safety net that is available to most of our students as compared to most students who attend the elite or even semi-elite institutions just up the road from us. It feels morally wrong to me to send such students off into a profession that can be both economically sub-optimal, given their other options, as well as being likely to be socially and psychologically demoralizing in its current state. I’ve heard other philosophers who teach in institutions like mine say the same thing. So, if there is a strategy that would work, it seems like it should begin more with changes in the field, in terms of economic conditions (complexly not in the field’s control) and ending micro-aggressive racist talk and behavior (very much in the field’s control).Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Manyul Im
5 years ago

As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t encourage any undergraduates to go to grad school for the reasons you give (and others). But the OP’s focus was on increasing undergraduate majors and teaching philosophy in highschool.

If we must evaluate majors in terms of their instrumental value, philosophy is a solid choice. There is now empirical evidence showing that STEM majors are often not better off, in terms of mid-career earnings, than those who majored in the humanities. Philosophy majors do especially well. We should probably do a better job communicating these sorts of findings to our deans, even though I don’t think this is the best measure of the value of philosophy.Report

Manyul Im
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

Thanks. I’ve always wondered how that evidence about humanities majors breaks down in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds of the students. My uneducated guess would be that students situated within better networks and top degree-brands for getting into job interviews and jobs constitute most or all of the positive data. But that data would be useful if I’m wrong.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

As others have noted, if we want to convince universities to hire more philosophers, we should work to increase the demand for philosophy. If we want to increase the demand for philosophy then we need to supply the general public with philosophical works that they can read and that are liable to be of interest to them. To ensure such a supply, we need to treat works of public philosophy as serious academic contributions when considering tenure and promotion.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago

I’ve long shared that view, Nonny Mouse. I’ve always found it interesting that so many people fruitlessly read new age self-help books, yet so few people read philosophy. Ironically, philosophy seems to fit the bill for just the kind of help they’re looking for (at least some fields within philosophy).

Give the people what they want: philosophy that they can read that is actually useful to them. I see no reason why the common person would seriously concern themselves with “Quadition”, but I think the common person in 2015 would be very much concerned with questions pertaining to meaning, authenticity, ethics, and social/political organization. The two key things are to write on these topics in a way that is 1)helpful, relevant, and practical (in the sense of being able to be utilized in some constructive facet of life) and, perhaps more troubling for us, 2) accessible to people who have long since overlooked the possibility of taking philosophy classes.Report

Wendy C Turgeon
5 years ago

philosophy as public service: I think we need to move beyond perpetuating the professor, or even the teacher, and return to the model of philosophy where men and women served in a range of professions but brought philosophical acumen to bear in those professions. This is needed even more today where our government is barely functioning because members of Congress seem unable to compromise and negotiate in the spirit of democracy. We see business leaders cheating and lying their way to huge profits and culture sink to the level of the Kardashians and reality TV. And we see regular people around us thirsty for meaning in their lives when consumerism fails them.

I do not mean to suggest that philosophy can cure/fix all of that but in so far as our discipline claims to engage in critical thinking, moral reflection, social justice examinations, clearly the wider public could benefit from some workers who have these skills. This is not to denigrate philosophy for philosophy’s sake but if one of our concerns is saving philosophy from the path of Classics (yes, a grim story which breaks my Greek-history-loving heart), we need to acknowledge the virtues of philosophy for all.Report

Eric Brandon
Eric Brandon
5 years ago

Is it really true that philosophy, as a discipline, is in decline at the community college level? This is certainly not true in North Carolina. Recent curricular revisions for both the AA and AS degrees actually increased the number of philosophy sections being taught across the state at community colleges. There have also been a significant number of full-time positions in philosophy offered by the the state’s community colleges in just the past two years.

Another state, California, seems to have many community colleges with robust offerings in philosophy. Are there some other states where philosophy is in serious decline at community colleges?

I do think that there are many potential philosophy majors who start at community colleges and that four-year schools could do a better job of connecting with those students before they transfer.Report