Philosophy, Employment, and the Public Good (guest post by Alison Assiter)

“Educating students in philosophy and the humanities is a public good. We need people who think analytically and imaginatively and in unusual ways.”

The following guest post* is by Alison Assiter, Professor of Philosophy at the University of the West of England (UWE). Professor Assiter works in political philosophy, feminist thought, and Enlightenment philosophy. Her most recent book is Kierkegaard, Eve and Metaphors of Birth.

Readers may recall that last month, UWE administration announced plans to eliminate its degree program in philosophy. If you would like to object to this proposal, please write to UWE’s Vice Chancellor, Steve West, at: [email protected].

This post is the fifth installment in the “Philosophy of Popular Philosophy” series, edited by Aaron James Wendland, a philosopher at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He tweets @ajwendland.

[Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen, “Balancing Tools”]

Philosophy, Employment, and the Public Good
by Alison Assiter

A few weeks ago, my colleagues and I in philosophy at the University of the West of England (UWE) were told, right in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown, that management planned to close our programme. Our university, in its vision for 2030, sets out to ‘power the local economy’ but also, amongst other aims, to ‘empower and engage a values-led staff and student community’. It has been explained to us that philosophy doesn’t fit this vision as well as other subjects, and there is a perception at UWE that philosophy graduates are less employable than graduates from other disciplines.

This perception of philosophy is not restricted to UWE and it is consistent with the view that the humanities exist in an ivory tower disconnected from the ‘real world’. As an Australian politician proclaimed in 2013: ‘we want research with Australian tax payers money to be about the better future for our country not about finding some interesting thought bubble that some academic sitting away in a university has come up with’. More recently, the Australian government announced plans to significantly increase fees for studying the humanities in an attempt to nudge students into cheaper ‘job-ready’ programmes.

The trouble with the prevailing perception of philosophy and the humanities is that it’s just not true. Humanities’ graduates clearly help power the local economy, and philosophy graduates stand out in terms of pay:

Data gathered by PayScale from the 2016-2017 academic year shows that people with bachelor’s degrees in philosophy tend to earn more over their lifetime than people with degrees in any other humanities field. Philosophy students have both the highest starting salary of any humanities major ($44,700) and the highest percent increase between starting and mid-career salary ($84,100).

By mid-career, humanities graduates catch and even surpass graduates with science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. Of course, finding employment that contributes to local economic output and that pays a sustainable wage is important, but philosophy and degrees in the humanities offer more: i.e., their historically informed study of human thought-processes and communities enable students to think critically and creatively and they prepare graduates for citizenship.

In The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt highlights the importance of philosophy by making a distinction between ‘knowing’ and ‘thinking’. Knowing involves a certain understanding of facts, say, that water is H2O or that the Magna Carta was published in 1215, whereas thinking is an analytical, evaluative, and imaginative exercise of the intellect that questions the basis, worth, and potential of our factual understanding. Thinking, for example, analyzes the theoretical framework that tells us water is H2O. It also seeks to explain the value of constitutional rights. And it imagines new ways human beings may want to lead their lives.

Arendt’s account of thinking was profoundly influenced by Kierkegaard, who, in his famous essay on ‘The Present Age’, claimed that people who fail to think have a ‘herd mentality’ where they imitate the views of the crowd. According to Arendt, it was precisely an absence of ‘thought’ that characterized Adolf Eichmann’s actions during the Holocaust. Instead of thinking for himself about the horrors of what he was required to do, Eichmann simply followed orders in pressing the button that led to gas being emitted into chambers housing prisoners.

As Arendt’s Eichmann example illustrates, critical and imaginative thinking is crucial for responsible citizenship. In The Human Condition, Arendt develops her understanding of citizenship by distinguishing between ‘labour’, ‘work’, and ‘action’. Human labour and work ensure that we have the necessary food and infrastructure to survive. However, it is through thought-induced action that we come together as citizens within a community to discuss and confront the challenges we face. Arendt herself was particularly interested in cultivating thoughtful citizens in order to ward off totalitarian threats. And with a looming climate crisis, creeping authoritarianism, systemic racism, and a crippling pandemic, raising critically engaged citizens is as important as ever.

The possibility of educating thoughtful and responsible citizens is, for Arendt, based on our ‘natality’: the fact that we are born into and open to new experiences of the world. Arendt also believed that teachers take up their duties out of a ‘love for the world’ in the sense of a ‘concern for the continuation of the world’. If fact, she thought we teachers must ‘decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable’. And ultimately, Arendt argued it is the critical and creative skills obtained via an education in philosophy and the humanities that enable students to fulfil their potential as citizens—as human actors who are capable of making a difference in the world.

This means educating students in philosophy and the humanities is a public good. We need people who think analytically and imaginatively and in unusual ways. Since the coronavirus has disrupted daily life around the world and forced us to reflect upon the way we do things, there is a real chance for philosophers to bring about widespread change. For this reason, we need to resist the closure of philosophy programmes and encourage the development of citizens who are seriously engaged with and actively addressing the challenges that confront us all.

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