What the Public Thinks of Philosophy and Other Humanities Fields


A new report from Humanities Indicators (a part of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences), based on a survey of over 5,000 U.S. adults, reveals and discusses various beliefs and attitudes the American public has towards the humanities, and includes information specifically about the public’s perception of and engagement with philosophy.

 “The Humanities in American Life: A Survey of the Public’s Attitudes and Engagement,” covers how the public engages with the humanities and how often, what they take to be the various kinds of benefits of the humanities, their views about the humanities and childhood, and the role of humanities in the workplace. Some findings include:

  • There is substantial engagement with the humanities in American life. However, very few people engage regularly in the full range of activities, or even in all the activities associated with a given discipline (e.g., someone who watches history shows is not very likely to also research history topics online).
  • Though Americans hold a generally favorable view of the humanities, especially as an area of education, their enthusiasm is relatively attenuated in comparison to other intellectual fields and even to some of the humanities’ component disciplines (especially history).
  • Many Americans do not recall being exposed to the humanities by their parents, and most adults wished they had taken more humanities courses in school.
  • And finally, a substantial share of Americans has been hampered at work due to a deficiency in one or more humanities skills, though the survey also reveals that many Americans do not think they need humanities skills in the workplace.

You can get a sense of what people take to be the value (and disvalue) in studying the humanities from the following chart:

How do things look for philosophy specifically?

Let’s start with the bad news. Philosophy is the least favorably / most unfavorably viewed humanities discipline:

True, it’s not the most loathed of the humanities, but that we could use “You Probably Hate French More” as a tagline for the discipline is not much consolation.

The report does not offer an explanation for philosophy’s comparatively poor showing, or how bad this is. After all, 77% of respondents had a “very” or “somewhat” favorable impression of philosophy, and that is only 12 points lower than the most favorably viewed of the humanities, history. One does wonder, though, how respondents interpret the “somewhat favorably.” If they take it to mean “at least a smidgen of positive feeling” then the “very favorable” category is probably the more informative indicator, and there, philosophy is 19 points behind history.

Here are some more specific details on the public’s impression of philosophy, courtesy of Robert Townsend, director of Humanities Indicators:

  • 37% of Black Americans have a very favorable impression of philosophy, compared to 24% of Asian Americans and 27% of White Americans
  • Americans in the lowest income quartile are somewhat more likely to have a very favorable view of philosophy than those in the highest quartile,
  • Self-identified political liberals are substantially more likely than conservatives to have a very favorable impression of philosophy. While 41% of liberals have such a favorable impression of the term, only 17% of conservatives are similarly disposed.

Despite philosophy’s relatively low favorability ratings

  • 25% of Americans said they wish they had taken more courses in it, and
  • 87% of Americans feel that teaching both ethics and logic to K–12 students is important (though about a third thought that elementary school is too early for these topics). 

Additionally:

  • Women are no more likely to wish they had studied more philosophy than men,
  • Black and Hispanic Americans are somewhat more likely than White Americans to wish they had taken more classes in the subject,
  • Americans identifying as politically liberal are twice as likely as conservatives to wish they had studied more philosophy,
  • 29% of Americans recall their parents often discussing ethical issues, though that is smaller than the share who remembered their parents rarely or never engaging in those conversations (36%),
  • Though a large majority of every age group consider the teaching of ethics important, older Americans are more likely than the youngest adults to see the value of teaching the subject to children,
  • Approximately three-quarters of Americans believe ethics ought to be taught both in school and outside (in the home, church, or community).

When it comes to engagement with philosophy:

  • 23% of adults “often” think about or researched the ethical aspects of a choice in their life (another 31% do so “sometimes”), and
  • The youngest adults, ages 18 to 29, are somewhat more likely to engage ethical questions than older Americans,
  • Americans with a college degree are more likely to engage in ethical questions than those with a high school diploma or less.

There are more details in the full report, which you can view here, along with philosophy-specific information here.  Many thanks to Robert Townsend for his work on this project and for sharing its findings.

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