Three Recent Plugs For Philosophy’s Practical Value


In the span of a day or so at least three paeans to the practical value of studying philosophy have appeared online, at…

◙ The Wall Street Journal: “Why I Was Wrong About Liberal-Arts Majors,” by entrepreneur David Kalt:

Looking back at the tech teams that I’ve built at my companies, it’s evident that individuals with liberal arts degrees are by far the sharpest, best­-performing software developers and technology leaders. Often these modern techies have degrees in philosophy, history, and music—even political science, which was my degree. How can this be? It’s very simple. A well-­rounded liberal arts degree establishes a foundation of critical thinking. Critical thinkers can accomplish anything. Critical thinkers can master French, Ruby on Rails, Python or whatever future language comes their way. A critical thinker is a self­-learning machine that is not constrained by memorizing commands or syntax… [I]f more tech hires held a philosophy or English degree with some programming on the side, we might in the end create better leaders in technology and life.

◙ The Chicago Business Journal: The Sword of Damocles: The value of philosophy to a business leader,” by consultant and writer Peter DeMarco and philosopher Chris Morrissey (Trinity Western):

I advise undergraduate students not to seek a business degree. The biggest complaint I hear from executives about their employees is their inability to think (morally and intellectually) through problems and decisions. A real philosophy program taught by good philosophy professors who understand the common sense teachings of the ancient Greeks is a far better path to learning how to think. Business degrees cultivate specific skills. Unfortunately, many modern universities aren’t really unifying anything these days. A well-architected philosophy and great books program will teach your son how to think broadly about how life actually works. The latter provides a far better foundation for learning how to lead.

◙ Crooked Timber: Why Majoring In Philosophy is Less Risky than You Might Have Thought,” by philosopher Harry Brighouse (Wisconsin):

Last year Governor Walker and our legislature added to the mission of the UW that it should “meet the state’s workforce needs”. Some people on the campus were not enthused about this addition. But as a professor loyal to the College of Letters and Science, and especially as a professor who wants to see Philosophy thrive, I was thrilled…. 

Of course there are lots of ways of contributing to society—making it better—other than by serving the state’s workforce needs. But it turns out that Philosophy, more than most disciplines you can study here, equips you with the skills and traits you need to contribute to the state’s—and the world’s—most urgent workforce needs. I had a look at the Forbes list of the characteristics companies most wanted in their graduate hires for 2015. We don’t teach all of them. But we do teach most:

1.Ability to work in a team structure
2.Ability to make decisions and solve problems
3.Ability to communicate with people inside and outside an organization – and here they mean communicate – that is, to say what you mean, and mean what you say, precisely, concisely, and clearly.
4.Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
5.Ability to obtain and process information
6.Ability to create and/or edit written reports
7.Ability to sell and influence others…

How do we teach these characteristics? Through getting students to read complex texts closely, interpret them, discuss them with others, write about them a lot, make class presentations, argue with their classmates.

At some point I will have to add these to the Value of Philosophy Pages. In the meanwhile, if you’ve seen other examples fairly recently, feel free to share them in the comments.

UPDATE: “Experts in philosophy or foreign languages will ultimately command the most interest from employers in the next decade” — according to billionaire Mark Cuban (via Andrew Sepielli)

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Alo
Alo
4 years ago

These are all great news, but applying critical thinking skills will show why one should be skeptical about such claims, though it validates very well philosophy and that is very much to be lauded for.

First, critical thinking is not confined to philosophy, though philosophy refines very well critical thinking skills.

Second, it is almost certain that philosophy majors do not have the specialized skills that science or computer science majors have. That means it takes longer, everything else equal, to train them in some area which needs those specialized skills.

Third, though philosophy trains individuals to think sharper, it may not necessarily be the cause of people being sharp. That could be due to many factors such as being in an environment that fosters critical thinking or being intelligent.

I don’t mean to spoil the praises but subjects don’t cause anything by being subjects. People interact with knowledge in all sorts of ways, and it may foster or not foster critical thinking, philosophy or not.Report

harry b
4 years ago

Thanks for the link Justin.

On one of Alo’s points. I think that many disciplines (in and out of the humanities) promise to teach critical thinking. I also think that Philosophy has valuable intellectual resources that you can’t get elsewhere and that, in particular that you can’t get elsewhere in the humanities. But the big question is — do we actually teach these things? That’s why, in my speech, I talked about instructional strategies. The promises of any major are empty unless the faculty are actually living up the promise of making the learning happen. To be honest, I think the bar is low at most universities and colleges. The good news is that, if I am right, we can make philosophy a more appealing and valuable major by attending carefully and systematically to improving our instruction.Report

Harold T.
Harold T.
4 years ago

Speaking as an old man, an APA member, who got seriously interested in philosophy outside the academy after studying physics at a graduate level, and who first spent about seven years working in academic publishing, and then worked for 30 years in financial IT before being laid off at age 62, at that point considered utterly worthless in the tech marketplace, I can say that virtually *nobody* in the business world *really* gives a sh– about critical thinking, writing, breadth of knowledge or general intellectual ability in practice. And no thirty-something who’s hiring is looking for any people who can think outside the box who weren’t fortunate enough to go to Hah-vud or start a business in their garage or some such. The one percent of the one percent & all that…

In *principle* (heh heh) philosophical ‘training’ should be seen as useful to employers. But practice reigns, while principle curls up and dies.Report

stillrambling
stillrambling
4 years ago

These articles come out on a regular basis, and I have often pointed my students to them. However, I have stopped doing so for a simple reason: they are all just combinations of anecdotal fallacies and wishful thinking. True, all of these things *should* be important. But, out of growing concern for my students, and my own curiosity (I’m a first generation college student, and have worked lots of jobs outside of the academy), I recently did some research in the typical realms I’ve always told my students love philosophy majors. IT–particularly Google–after looking at over 1000 job descriptions, I did not find a single one (aside from internships) that did not require either a law degree, an MBA, a CPA, X years programming experience/knowledge of programming languages/computer science degree/etc. NGOs, non-profits, gov., organizing: after looking at over 2000 job descriptions (yes, I clearly felt a combination of obsession, guilt at potentially lying to my students all these years, and existential fear at our apparent uselessness in the eyes of so many), I did not find a single one (aside from internships) that did not require any of the above, or X years experience abroad, engineering degrees (of various sorts), finance, foreign policy, economics, statistics, etc. Indeed, of the dozens of majors that I tracked while looking through general jobs, I *never* *once* came across the word “philosophy” anywhere–save when a company was flaccidly trying to describe what it hopes to do, but never in a qualification capacity. I contacted several people much more advanced in the career, my old placement officer at my R1 school, and others who know the industry better than me–and who often share such articles on facebook. I asked them where/how people find the jobs thus described, because I have never seen in any of these articles a pathway to getting that excellent job that validates it in the eyes of money and family. I swear that not one of them ever got back to me, although each promised that they would. Therefore, while I absolutely wish that our ever-technocratic world valued the skills described in these once-a-month articles about “Think Philosophy Is Useless? Think Again!”, and while I absolutely agree that whenever someone hires a phil major (et al), they are likely pleasantly surprised, there seems no increased interest in them.

Also, as an aside to an above comment: while I in no way wish to denigrate any aspect of liberal arts, humanities, or the various fields in general, I can’t help but bristle a bit when everyone claims that everyone teaches critical thinking. While this is true, to an extent, I have literally, for years and years, taught a course called “Critical Thinking” (a.k.a., Informal Logic). The phrase does mean something specific, although it has become a catch-all for departments to increase their purchase by including it as something that they teach. Again, I don’t deny that other professors can, and indeed often should and must, teach critical thinking. But this is true in the same manner that when I teach Ancient Philosophy, I also can, and should, and must teach some ancient History. However, I would never step on my historian colleagues’ toes and claim that I did what they did, for I recognize their level of expertise, experience, training, and accolades vastly exceed my own. I wish that there was more solidarity in universities on the other side: there are courses, and teachers of them, that are strictly contentless, and thereby focused solely on critical thinking itself. Report

stillrambling
stillrambling
Reply to  stillrambling
4 years ago

(Just so no one thinks me exaggerating: like any good academic, I kept records of all this. If anyone would like, I can provide the aggregate job-search websites I looked at, although I’d prefer not to name the individuals to whom I spoke–who number about a dozen colleagues at a half dozen universities with grad programs, as well as the employment-arms of said universities, inquiring about what they tell recent grads. All I got was a lot of good-natured, honest, hopeful vagueness. It is quite possible that I, and they, are simply not knowledgeable about all this, but that’s what bothers me most: I couldn’t find anyone, anywhere, to tell me exactly *how* a philosophy student does something else, and where they would be welcomed with open arms.)Report

Longtimelistener Firsttimecaller
Longtimelistener Firsttimecaller
Reply to  stillrambling
4 years ago

“I did not find a single one (aside from internships) that did not require either a law degree…” Me either, but Philosophy majors tend to be fantastic at getting into law, as are many other liberal arts majors, so while you didn’t find Philosophy, if you found law then the odds are very good you found some graduates of philosophy programs or veterans of past philosophy coursework (or other humanities). I’ve only been in the business for 16 years, not as long as harry b, but in the time I’ve been a professor, my students have gone to law school, med school, MBA programs, IT, social work, education, and sometimes STEM fields for graduate study.

I admit, I get a bit weary of the essays that we really are desirable too. But I think a charitable reading of harry b’s post is not if one gets a Philosophy BA, then one is therefore desirable to great private sector employers (especially in this past decade of decreased hiring and increased reliance on part-timers), and is rather that Philosophy equips students with skills that promote success in the next stages of their work and development (including law, for certain). I’m really pleased that former students of mine who go into law, especially, have written me more than once to exclaim that we prepared them really well for law school, better in some ways than their classmates from other disciplines. Report

harry b
Reply to  Longtimelistener Firsttimecaller
4 years ago

Thanks for this — your charitable reading is in line with what I meant!Report

stillrambling
stillrambling
Reply to  Longtimelistener Firsttimecaller
4 years ago

Clearly we do well in grad school: last I heard, we score higher (on average over the last 30 years) than any other major on both the LSAT and the GRE, save occasionally being supplanted by Physics or Maths students. And I would further venture that there are no better students (again, on average) than philosophy ones in law–we chew arguments to pieces for breakfast, and once you’ve analyzed texts like Kant, law is almost hilariously fun. (I was randomly slated to teach law as a grad student, with no former training, and I found it a blast.)

My point was that the articles always talk about the grounding in philosophy that makes an excellent hire, whereas if we are being both honest and charitable it seems that philosophy “prepares” one for 1. grad school, 2. a number of other possible jobs–but only if you are a double-major (e.g., phil/computer science, and YES you will get an IT/programming job). But these articles almost never know/say that, having been written by people in industry, and people in our world are often Pollyanna and just imply that this is proof that a phil major = jobs. There’s still no avenue for that.Report

E. Walker
E. Walker
Reply to  stillrambling
4 years ago

When a department — an anthropology or chemistry department, let’s say — advertises on its website that it teaches critical thinking, that usually means it takes itself to teach its students to think like good anthropologists or good chemists. Undoubtedly, a philosophy department takes itself to teach its students to think like good philosophers. That’s one sense of the phrase “critical thinking:” the sense in which thinking well requires knowing some stuff about the domain about which you are supposed to think well, the sense in which critical thinking is contentful.

Another sense of “critical thinking,” the sense most often invoked by philosophers, is that of thinking well regardless of the content or subject matter. I’m not sure there is actually such a thing as this sort of critical thinking. The extent to which sound reasoning depends upon a general understanding of how stuff works escapes us because that dependence runs so deep.

The sense of “critical thinking” that philosophy is truly entitled to keep for itself is that of becoming *articulate* reasoners: learning to talk fluently about reasoning. All departments — including philosophy — teach their students to think like exemplars of their field would. But philosophy is the only field whose exemplars deploy a relatively recognizable, comparatively regimented vocabulary for talking about reasoning itself. This doesn’t make critical thinking (in this sense) content-neutral: you still have to know the context and subject matter of an episode of reasoning if you want to think well about that episode of reasoning. Report

stillrambling
stillrambling
Reply to  E. Walker
4 years ago

Critical Thinking–as a course–is informal logic. You teach argument structures, fallacies, inconsistency, validity, soundness, cognitive biases, etc. That is still different than what you are describing, and is technically content-neutral, insofar as you can use examples of cats, or ex-girlfriends, or TV-shows, or (in my case) contemporary justice issues and current geo-political events, or any other issue to illustrate each of the different aspects. That’s what I was talking about, and what I was saying is different than other courses: although often these things are in the background of other courses, and sometimes even in the foreground, it is its own discipline, with its own experts and textbooks and whatnot. Report

harry b
4 years ago

You want to know *exactly* how a philosophy student does something else? Its the same as with almost all degrees, including most STEM degrees. What you do is construct a resume, which nowadays should include some sort of practical work experience or volunteering experience, and stresses skills you have (which, if you are sensible, you will learn about in conversation with others, including your professors). I spend a fair bit of time advising students on what their resumes should look like, so try to keep up with the best advice on that as part of my own learning — and also advising them on the more difficult task of figuring out what direction they want to take. If you’re trying to get a job straight out of college you apply for jobs that interest you and that signal that they are open to new graduates. Its very hard in today’s labor market to find jobs open to new graduates that are reasonably well paid and interesting, so many of our graduates, like graduates of all other majors, including from most of the sciences (less so from the professional schools) will, fairly soon, seek further qualifications. Our help in that task is writing high quality, compelling, letters of recommendation, which show we know the student in question, and specifies the qualities that student has that suit them for the course of further study they are choosing.

That said, our graduates go directly into management consulting, business, IT (yes, IT), project management, politics (for better or worse), teaching secondary school (which you can now do with just a liberal arts bachelors, through TFA and other alternative-route programs), marketing (one of the first students I taught, whom I inadvertently induced into the major now runs a very successful PR company for socially-conscious business). I always advise students to double major, because Philosophy requires only 30 credits, and double majoring diversifies your entry options — recentish and current majors I’ve known well doubled in Spanish; Computer Science; Biology; Math; Physics, Sociology, Management, Engineering, Political Science and Accounting and Finance (so one of our recent graduates is with a big 4 Accounting firm, and attributes the edge she has over her colleagues to the skills she learned in Philosophy). I don’t have a lot of contact with Freshmen (and the one freshman class I do teach, because of its subject matter, selects for students who tend to go into pre-professional programs, so very few of them become Philosophy majors, though I keep in close touch with them throughout their undergraduate careers). so when I induce students to major in Philosophy it is usually as an add-on, and I do it because I discern that they are i) intellectually unsatisfied with their one major, ii) not acquiring the kinds of skills I talk about in my speech, which are often not well taught in some of the majors I have mentioned and iii) well-suited to doing philosophy. Of course, we can’t say that Philosophy confers the skills employers are interested in unless our instruction is up to scratch, and reflects that aim.

Its hard work getting a job of any kind out of college in this economy. Part of our job is to help students find the route into a good job, and part of it is to equip them to do the job well when they get it. Report

stillrambling
stillrambling
Reply to  harry b
4 years ago

Fair enough. I agree completely with the double-major bit, as well as the above comment regarding prep for grad school. I guess what bothers me is that there are still those out there, in my experience, who imply that with a philosophy degree you can do anything!, and they bandy about these articles of proof of the major’s worth, whereas the market is much more complex than they imply. And when I have solicited their assistance, they have been very vague or general, but still share these articles every time they show up as proof that everything will be fine. I assume it is clear I care deeply about my students, and it is increasingly hard when you see them struggling; and though it is also clear that the economy is rough all over, there is an inherent irony to articles which laud the specific skill set of the philosophy major (and with which I completely agree!), yet a world in which employers are looking for increasingly specialized skills and blaming universities for not being more voctec. (A pair of studies came out early last year asking Fortune 500 CEOs and private firms their primary complaints regarding hiring millennials. Aside from doesn’t work well with groups, can’t write an email to save their lives, and showing up on time/dress, the biggest agreement was lacking in critical thinking skills. However, their primary response was that schools weren’t teaching these skills–but they were still almost exclusively hiring business majors, who famously score near the bottom on critical thinking tests compared with other majors. What drives me nuts is that my kids could dance circles around them, but their resumes can be tossed if they didn’t double-major, as HR managers are expected to hire kids from finance, are disappointed, and then blame universities for not creating pliant tools.) Report

stillrambling
stillrambling
Reply to  harry b
4 years ago

Also, good for you, harry b, for helping out with resumes and taking the time to keep yourself updated on those damn things. I know plenty of people who just tell the kids to go to the career office, because 1. they have no idea, and (most often) 2. they’ve never written one in their lives, because they did the straight BA-PHD-TT job track. It helps to have practically-minded professors providing practical skills and knowledge, even while we try to push them to ask bigger questions.Report

harry b
Reply to  stillrambling
4 years ago

Thanks: yes, its really obvious you care a lot about your students. I feel enormously for this post-2008 generation (as my remarks indicate) and feel that we have a particular obligation to them to prepare them for a job market that is worse than we experienced (I guess graduate unemployment was high when I graduated in the UK in 1985, but I knew I’d be ok because of the welfare state, and, anyway it improved quickly and this one…. hasn’t). This is one reason that I get very frustrated with colleagues in the humanities (not in my department, I hasten to add) who bemoan the instrumentalist/credentialist attitude out students have to education — which, I think, they do, but who can blame them?

The problem with career offices is that they don’t know the kids, so they don’t know what questions them to prompt them to change things on their resumes, or to prompt them to think through what they really are interested in — I often find a kid has left something crucial off the resume that I know about them either through casual conversation or through observation (they don’t necessarily know what they are good at, or what employers are interested in) — and keeping up with things requires talking not to CEOs (not that I know any!) but people who regularly participate in entry-level hiring.

I think one of the problems for employers is that while business school does not attract, or induce people to become, critical thinkers, now that it is such a huge major it does attract ore of the people who are interested in going into business; so there is a signal to the employers that they are really interested. My observation at my institution is that attending the regular job/career fairs is a good move — making personal connections with recruiters helps signal that you are really interested.

But. The reason I published the speech on crooked timber (where I know it will get some attention) was not to attract students to the major (prospective majors do NOT read CT, with very rare exceptions — and any 19-20 year old who reads CT is so atypical as not to be part of the conversation we’re having!). but because I think we, in our discipline, have an obligation to our students to spread the message of what we think we are doing and what we think our students are capable of so that the message filters to prospective employers. I don’t think we should be marketing the major to students really (as opposed to marketing taking a few philosophy courses, which we should be doing, and encouraging students who we think will benefit from it to add it as a major) but we should be marketing the major to the people we want to employ them. I was also aware when preparing the speech that a good number of parents would be there, and that some of them were private sector middle-to-senior managers. Our College has a very dynamic and visionary Dean who has created a course on career preparedness for juniors which already has good enrollments, and has been working hard to connect the college to local and regional employers in various ways, including by and this is starting to pay off (he’s effectively putting us in competition with the Business School, but don’t tell anybody!). Good leadership helps.Report

Eric
Eric
4 years ago

My program asks us to collect these sorts of things to “make the case” for philosophy as a major to skeptical parents, etc. I have come to parse the issue this way: there is a big difference between what we think philosophy really is (in which case we have to be as truthful as possible as to what we really do) and how we explain it to the outside world which has a built-in antipathy for philosophy and sees all value in practical terms (in which case I think we are allowed to “dumb it down” just a bit).Report