Philosophy’s Public Relations Moment — Were We Ready?

Philosophy’s Public Relations Moment — Were We Ready?

The Republican Presidential Primary Debate earlier this week led to a spike in public attention to the study of philosophy. Various news outlets covered Marco Rubio’s claim that the United States needs “more welders and less philosophers,” as well as other disparaging comments about philosophy by John Kasich and Ted Cruz (see previous post), along with responses by philosophers and others. Web searches for “philosophers” (and “welders”) spiked:

google search data philosophers welders (data from Google Trends)

This kind of attention to the value of philosophy is rare. It is also an opportunity to inform the public about philosophy and philosophers, as its attention is so infrequently focused on us and what we do. Were we ready? To be ready would be to have talking points and soundbites prepared, data in attractive and accessible forms at the ready, and a willingness and ability to proactively reach out to media.

I don’t think we were ready.

American Philosophical Association (APA) Executive Director Amy E. Ferrer did well, I thought, when contacted by Inside Higher Ed, as one would expect from someone in her position. Her comment to them was short and informative:

Rubio’s refrain about the value of philosophy is unfortunate — and misinformed. Philosophy teaches many of the skills most valued in today’s economy: critical thinking, analysis, effective written and verbal communication, problem solving, and more. And philosophy majors’ success is borne out in both data — which show that philosophy majors consistently outperform nearly all other majors on graduate entrance exams such as the GRE and LSAT, and that philosophy ties with mathematics for the highest percentage increase from starting to midcareer salary.

Yet, a quick web news search suggests that Inside Higher Ed was the only news site in which Ferrer was quoted (please let me know if I’m wrong about that). A few other sources reported on her comment to IHE, but that was it. This seems like a missed opportunity. One of the crucial tasks of the APA is to promote professional philosophy, and that involves being able to engage with an enormous, diverse, and fast-moving media. I do not know how proactive Ferrer and others at the APA were in contacting the media following the Republican debate, but the dim results indicate that there is room for improvement.

Once again, I will urge that this is a job for marketing professionals, not philosophers. We philosophers do not have expertise in this. For example, consider how much better the statement in IHE by Ferrer (who, thankfully, is not an academic philosopher) was than that of philosopher and APA Chairwoman Chesire Calhoun in this widely circulated New York Times piece:

“It’s certainly valuable to get a vocational degree, but I think there is sort of a misperception of the value of getting a philosophy degree or a humanities degree in general,” said Cheshire Calhoun, a philosophy professor at Arizona State University and chairwoman of the American Philosophical Association. Ms. Calhoun notes that philosophy is not about toga-wearing thinkers who stroke big beards these days. Rather, she says, the degree denotes skills in critical thinking and writing that are valuable in a variety of fields that can pay extremely well. While some universities have cut back or eliminated their philosophy departments, and the job prospects for academic philosophers are notoriously bad, Ms. Calhoun argues that students who pursue undergraduate philosophy degrees tend to have a leg up when applying to graduate school. The notion that philosophy means “pre-poverty” is a misnomer, she said.

Translation: philosophy’s not about togas or beards [too bad—beards are trending], look past the cutbacks and bad job prospects, you won’t exactly be poor, and you’ll have leg up when applying to graduate school. Graduate school? Might I suggest that this message does not appear to be part of a purposeful, effective, marketing strategy?

I don’t mean to be too hard on Professor Calhoun, for whom I have tremendous respect. We can all get caught by surprise when hit up by reporters, and who knows how much they’ll mangle what one says, but nonetheless, this seems like a missed opportunity.

Philosophers did not know about Rubio’s quip in advance, and we have no idea when a public figure or big event will again give philosophers the spotlight. That is why it is important for the APA to have an effective marketing strategy in place, and for individual philosophers to be prepared to reach out and engage with media, both local and national.

Perhaps the APA should have sent out a mini press kit by email to its entire membership Tuesday night. Perhaps the APA should offer media training for philosophers interested in promoting the discipline. Perhaps the APA should have taken out an ad in The Washington Post. I don’t know. I’m not a marketing expert. But we could have done better.

That said, some philosophers really stepped up to the plate and placed pieces in various news outlets, including:

  • John Corvino (Wayne State) in the Detroit Free Press: “Senators make more money than sanitation workers, but we definitely need more sanitation workers than senators.”
  • Avery Kolers (Louisville) at Salon: Don’t suppose that “social worth of a profession tracks the market price it commands in the current economy.”
  • Rory Kraft (York College) in the York Daily Record:  “What we need are those who both can do the real tangible things that everyday society uses to function and think critically about what direction we want our future society to move into.”
  • Alan Levinovitz (James Madison) at Slate: “We ignore the rigorous study of proper argumentation at our own peril.”*
  • Douglas MacLean (UNC) in Time Magazine: “Who Needs Philosophers? Scientists, Politicians and Welders Do”
  • Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State) in The Atlanta Journal Constitution: “What Do Philosophers Make? Ideas and Arguments”*
  • David Talcott (King’s College, NY) in USA Today: Philosophers “compel us to ask the hard questions about what is truly valuable.”
  • Kenneth Taylor (Stanford) interviewed at NPR: “Philosophy has the potential to do amazing things to your mind.”*
  • Kevin Zollman (Carnegie Mellon) in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “The way that philosophers have shaped and continued to shape the country we love.”*

(Please let me know about others.)

You needn’t agree with everything these philosophers said in order to agree that they deserve a big thanks from the profession. There’s still a media spotlight, if dimmed a little, on philosophy, so it is not too late for you to write something for public consumption about its value. (Op-eds in local media outlets should not be underestimated. They have less reach, but are often taken quite seriously by readers in the communities they serve.)

These matters of public image and public relations might strike some as unworthy of our time and consideration. Obviously, I disagree. I think philosophy is worth studying. Paying attention to the means by which we can best navigate the social and economic conditions in which we work is a way of preserving, promoting, and respecting philosophy. It is nothing new. In the past, philosophers had to navigate around kings and churches and were nonetheless able to produce valuable philosophy. Today, we have to navigate through a more crowded marketplace of ideas and entertainments, as well as a gauntlet of pandering politicians. The better we do that, the better position people will be in to pursue the study of philosophy.

(* added to original post)

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