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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David Wallace
David Wallace
1 year ago

I’d like to believe that philosophy training improves students’ earning potential. And it might be true, but the higher average earnings of philosophy graduates don’t by themselves establish it. Students don’t get assigned their choice of degree by a randomized process. And in the UK in particular, where students apply directly for a degree in a specific subject (rather than selecting a major post-admission, as in the USA) different subjects are more or less competitive and have different admissions standards.

It would be both interesting, and probably not too hard, to see whether philosophy improves earning potential when you control for students’ A-level grades, but I’m not aware of anyone having done that.Report

Matthew Knachel
Matthew Knachel
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

This point is well taken. It’s quite plausible that financial success of philosophy majors reflects selection effects– that the subject attracts students with higher aptitude (and more prosperous families?). I too would love to see a study that teases this out.

Nevertheless, I think it’s useful to share these comparative-salary data, if only to reassure prospective (high-aptitude, financially stable) philosophy majors who might otherwise be dissuaded from study by the myth of the unemployable philosophy major.

[Note: I don’t take myself to be objecting to Professor Wallace.]Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Matthew Knachel
1 year ago

I agree, it’s worth sharing them.Report

Erik H
Erik H
Reply to  Matthew Knachel
1 year ago

I spent tonight talking about ethics w my 16 year old daughter. I gave her the space to argue that under some circumstances, slavery and nuclear holocaust are moral.

In order to learn to think she needs to “try on” the arguments.

Lots of professors here, right? Question: Can you guarantee that people in your department who try on such arguments–in class, in papers, in conversation–will be (properly) viewed by others as budding/learning philosophers rather than closet supporters of slavery and holocausts?

I don’t think so. I think that USED to be true, but not in 2020.

The *face* of modern philosophy has, to the public eye, moved away from the “critical thinking and logic skills” which were its stock in trade for the previous few millennia. Obviously there are many brilliant folks but to laypeople, philosophy is becoming more and more corrupted by tone arguments, cancellation, taboo questions, etc. That makes it much less appealing.

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David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Erik H
1 year ago

Where’s the evidence that “laypeople” have any opinions whatsoever about philosophy in 90% of cases? I mean, in the US specifically, I guess a lot of Republicans have some particular stereotype like the one your drawing on about college profs as whole. But that’s not a view about philosophy specifically or a change from a prior positive view about philosophy specifically. Are you sure your not just projecting *your* assessment of current philosophy onto the (largely indifferent) public? Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

LikeReport

Abimbola Oluwafemi Emmanuel
Abimbola Oluwafemi Emmanuel
1 year ago

It is not in philosophy’s place to justify its own pedigree as a potential money-spinner. The reason is simple: philosophy is not a money-spinner. We risk doing a disservice to philosophy itself by attempting to take on its enemies on the economic turf. Instead, effort should be concentrated on showing philosophy’s unique kind of ‘riches’. Philosophy is rich, but not in an economic sense of the word. Convincing the enemies of philosophical inquiry that it is worth keeping for its own sake is the task before the philosophical community as a whole. Report

Matthew Knachel
Matthew Knachel
Reply to  Abimbola Oluwafemi Emmanuel
1 year ago

Good luck convincing those enemies. I teach at a state university in Wisconsin, where we’re ruled and under-funded by such enemies. Haven’t seen much evidence they can be convinced of anything.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep using these kinds of data to reassure curious undergraduates–who *are* struck by philosophy’s non-economic riches–that they won’t be condemning themselves to eternal penury if they decide to major in our subject.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Abimbola Oluwafemi Emmanuel
1 year ago

The best arguments to convince the enemies of philosophy to drop their hostility may not coincide with the best arguments to convince worried 18-year-olds that they can do a philosophy degree without wrecking their job prospects.Report

Matthew Knachel
Matthew Knachel
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

I worry this is true, but trivially–because there are no arguments that will convince our enemies to drop their hostility.Report

dcw
dcw
Reply to  Abimbola Oluwafemi Emmanuel
1 year ago

I don’t think the OP disagrees. I read the economic point as embracing a live-to-fight-another day stance. We need to put out the immediate fires – philosophy departments under immediate threat by people who do seemingly evaluate everything in economic terms – to buy us time to make the harder argument – that there are goods worth having other than economic goods (and even harder, that intellectual goods are among them). Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  dcw
1 year ago

dcw: like.Report

Doudline
Doudline
Reply to  Abimbola Oluwafemi Emmanuel
1 year ago

Matthew 10:16 “Behold, I am sending you forth as sheep among wolves. Be therefore as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.”Report

Louis F. Cooper
1 year ago

I agree with the OP that “educating students in philosophy and the humanities is [or can be] a public good.” Note the clause and the humanities. The second part of the OP is not just a defense of philosophy; it’s a defense of any subject whose study can inculcate “critical” and “imaginative” (to use the OP’s words) habits of mind.

I think the tendency of many people glancing quickly through the OP will be to read it as solely a defense of philosophy. It isn’t. Report

Leo
Leo
1 year ago

There is a university in the DFW Metroplex that has core requirements that include: four semesters of no choices for: philosophy, literature, history; two semesters of no choice for theology; one semester of no choice for economcs, art, psychology; two semesters of choice for mathematics and for natural science; and from one to four semesters of choice for a foreign language based on high school preparation.

Those core requirements will provide a strong education in virtue and wisdom that will foster imaginative thinking to augment any major within the university and for a lifetime of self-education and for asking why in many areas.
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Roderic Girle
Roderic Girle
1 year ago

I doubt that this closure can be prevented. Other such Philosophy closures have happened. They will not be prevented by philosophy academics talking to each other and signing each other’s petitions. It is no use telling each other how important we are and what we are supposed to do. If we had gotten this message across to the community over the years, then this would not be happening. It is time for academic philosophers to ask why they have let this happen. Why are the public so not interested? Why are our ex-students who did first year philosophy not leaping to our defence?
I think it is a case of being out of touch, and not having a public lobby, not an academic lobby, who know what’s at issue. And that it’s not an issue of our thinking philosophy is important, but an issue of their knowing about, being interested in, and so, being keen to support philosophy.
In a way the closures reflect the highly introverted attitude in academic philosophy and in most humanities disciplines. There has been an increasing lack of outreach into the community, a lack of what used to be called “Town and Gown.” Even when Public Lectures are given in Philosophy, if ever, they are most often held on campus, not in the Town Hall, or in local venues off campus. How many Philosophy Departments have regular Philosophy Club meetings out in the community? Are people actively working on getting Philosophy into schools (even as an extra-curricular activity)?
This needs to be talked about and outreach planned. Where might this start?
If nothing is done, and introversion continues then the outcome will be an impoverishment of public life, and more closures. Note, I put them in that order.
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Ben Gilburt
Ben Gilburt
Reply to  Roderic Girle
1 year ago

Hi Roderic,
In this instance, I think quite a lot of public interest has been demonstrated. Take a look at this petition on the UWE Philosophy closure with over 10k signatures – https://www.change.org/p/marc-griffiths-uwe-pro-vice-chancellor-and-executive-dean-of-health-and-applied-sciences-save-uwe-s-philosophy-programme?fbclid=IwAR1MmU0ye36Cel8MSt6K_RrL2_JcPvqdWqiIhf1TZbPw4nMLug396Byr1GM
A lot of current and former students are defending the course closure. It may be hard to see, in a world with a million other news stories every day at the best of times, and even more, voices screaming during a global pandemic, but we are defending it.
I do think UWE philosophy makes some impact on the local society. The UWE philosophy society runs events in Bristol where non-students are invited and join in. It may not be the biggest impact, but remember that we’re primarily students there to learn, so that we can make that difference in society in the future through our work and general behaviour. We also have a placement module and several of the placements which the faculty helps us with are community-driven. It seems unfair to point a criticism like that at philosophy specifically, because I don’t see a vast amount of maths, geography, law, or really any other subject doing vastly more public events with students.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Roderic Girle
1 year ago

One thing that seems to me a lot of people overlook is that, simply put, philosophy does not have such potential for wider social impact. It does not lead, directly at least (and maybe not at all), to significant empirical discoveries that can visibly enhance the lives of people. It is not, as mathematics, integral to financial operations and other sciences, so as to make it absolutely necessary. Those features put a huge constraint on the efforts to bring philosophy to a wider audience. When it’s at its best, philosophy consists of a series of intricate, long arguments, rebbutals, replies to rebuttals and ever-increasing disambiguation and discovery of nuances in meaning and arguing. And all that without immediate practical benefit.

It’s not easy to popularize something like that.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  krell_154
1 year ago

Don’t underestimate public interest in pure research! There’s lots of successful popularization of cosmology and astrophysics; there’s lots of successful popularization of dinosaurs. Neither subject has ‘immediate practical benefit’. Report

Jamie House
Jamie House
1 year ago

I work in an education system that espouses rhetoric of 21st century learning where students will learn broad general skills for an “uncertain future”. It is my opinion that teachers and schools do not have any semblance of what that means or should mean. So in teaching “critical thinking”, schools teach kids to think about and act on issues in the world community from an intuitive standpoint. Reasoning and rationality are not taught. Belief in ideology is.

Philosophy should be widely accessible and widely taught. Perhaps the best defense of irrational tweet storms and twitter mobs from “educated” people. Civility depends on it.Report

Alison Assiter
Alison Assiter
1 year ago

To Roderic Girle and some others: let’s be positive and assume that change is possible. II humanity, acting collectively, can do something that was unimaginable as recently as March and that is close all the major airports and airways across the world, then keeping one philosophy programme (and others too) open, should not be such a big task. Hopefully, moreover, at least some of us talk to non-philosophers at least some of the time. Some of them might read the above defence of the humanities in general. and join organisations like sHAPE that set out to give Arts, Social Science and Humanities subjects the status afforded to STEM subjectsReport

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
1 year ago

First: I agree intuitively that philosophy is important in many of the ways OP suggests.

Second: I’m not sure we are making our case very well when we suggest that our best theories come from the armchair reflections of Arendt or Kierkegaard. They can inspire theory, prompt new ways of seeing, etc. But we can’t take them to describe the tangible benefits of anything while ignoring the huge amount of social science on education, critical thinking, civic virtue, democratic participation, etc.

Third, the same statistics are used to justify philosophy in the academy over and over. We copy and paste, copy and paste. The fact that these are deployed, each time uncritically and without qualification, not accounting for the most obvious concerns (e.g. selection bias), makes our opponents’ case. If we want to defend the humanities against the perception of the superiority of the more practical or sometimes more quantitative disciplines, we should do so without making mistakes that threaten to prove their point. Every time these are reproduced in various forms on Daily Nous, it’s kind of embarrassing for our field that someone always needs to chime in to say something about this.

The funny thing is I would find doing social science incredibly uninteresting and tedious. This is probably why I’ll never try to write about how great educating philosophers is for society, because I recognize, to do so responsibly ,I would have to do a bit of a real social science lit review, one that didn’t involve me primarily discussing why a philosopher/theorist in the 1970s thought critical thinking is so so important.Report

Alison Assiter
Alison Assiter
1 year ago

To Grad Student4

I don’t think I ever suggested that Kierkegaard and Arendt provide the best theories…just interesting ones to make a case… and this is a news piece.. Imagine a philosopher writing The Sun headline announcing the death of Freddie Mercury .It was ‘Freddie is dead’ but (we could add) ‘of course he might not be because we can never be sure if the coroner’s report is accurate and he might not have been playing at Live Aid, and he might not have been a Parsi’..and perhaps he has been reincarnated on Mars….. etc etc’
….

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Grad Student4
Grad Student4
Reply to  Alison Assiter
1 year ago

Thanks for your response. I thought I was being reasonable and indeed charitable to assume you held them to provide important/the best theories. If they don’t, and they merely offer philosophical whimsy, then it seems my original point stands: not the best way to do public advocacy.

And I shudder at the argument that one can deploy statistics in public advocacy with no qualification because a demand otherwise would be akin to radical skepticism about perception. This can’t be a serious argument as a general principle. And in this particular case, there is no reason to think F. Mercury was reincarnated on Mars, but there is very very good reason that these statistics suffer from self-selection bias.

People use distortionary statistics to their favor all the time. I was saying we shouldn’t do this in philosophy. Now I also want to add that we shouldn’t use fallacious arguments to defend our advocacy against criticism. The argument ‘Oh, if you think I should use statistics responsibly, I assume you also would want me to report Freddie Mercury could have been reincarnated!” is even more embarrassing to the profession. Report

alison assiter
alison assiter
11 months ago

My latter point was actually intended as a joke, but the joke was no doubt in poor taste. We can, of course, question what counts as knowledge. We can also ask the question: what are the biases in particular claims to know something? Some, of course, have gone even further and claimed that reason itself is biased in sexist or racist ways. I personally believe that there must be an a priori notion of reason. We can use that to compare different statistical claims about the earning potential of philosophy graduates.

We philosophers, however, need to publicise available statistical information based on research evidence that appears to show that philosophy graduates have earning potential. This is because we all have a responsibility to graduates and graduate students of philosophy and also to those who would love to study philosophy if only it were available to them. If you, or anyone else, has access to statistics that give different results from those I quoted, please let us know and we can evaluate each claim to knowledge.
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