Reading about the closures of several philosophy departments has me worried that our centuries-old experiment of liberal arts education is ending. The United States has been trying to transform liberal arts education into pre-professional training for well over a decade, at least since the 2008 recession; and that desire has accelerated, with students and their parents demanding the expansion of programs and majors they believe will lead straight to well-paying, secure jobs.
Consider the jokes about what philosophy majors will do post-graduation. A typical example is a T-shirt that reads, “I have a degree in Philosophy: Why do you want fries with that?” This reveals a pervasive misconception about what philosophy is and what philosophical training prepares its graduates to do.
Philosophy, like any other bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts, prepares graduates for a wide array of jobs, the kind that can lead to more skilled mid-level positions later on. Yet philosophical training seems to be understood as an example of what the philosopher Lisa Heldke calls “stupid knowing,” which classifies someone as more stupid for having gained it. She points to cultural tropes of farmers as unsophisticated laborers whose farming knowledge somehow disqualifies them from higher-order thinking. Philosophy graduates are held to have these higher-order cognitive skills, but at the same time, the possession of those skills is cited as evidence of stupidity: How stupid do you have to be to pursue a “worthless” major that guarantees poverty?
Philosophy prepares graduates for a wide array of jobs, the kind that can lead to more skilled mid-level positions later on.
However, the data suggests that we need more philosophy classes if our students’ employment futures are a prime concern. We know, for example, that philosophy students do extraordinarily well on the GRE, LSAT and GMAT tests, showing that they are well prepared not just for further academic study but also for training in law and business. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2017 found that the net return on investment for a philosophy degree is equivalent to that of an engineering degree. Not only is philosophy education less expensive than other forms of education that lead to well-paying, respectable jobs, but philosophy graduates end up earning more over their lifetimes than graduates in any other humanities field and more than graduates of some STEM fields.
The more philosophy graduates demonstrate the falsity of the “useless major” trope, the more deeply entrenched it seems to become. Some have taken the claim “philosophy doesn’t prepare its graduates for any single job” to mean that philosophy leaves its graduates without any job skills. The truth is in between: Philosophy prepares its graduates for many different jobs.
Teaching students to see and assess the range of possibilities in between extremes—including between the horns of a false dilemma—is what I do in my classes each semester. Students arrive in my classes believing that if there is not a single “right answer” to a question, then anything goes. It’s all about feelings, and feelings can’t be wrong. Yet the humanities, and particularly philosophy, prepare students to engage meaningfully with the ambiguities of life outside the classroom, where single right answers are in short supply and where creative problem-solving skills are essential for the difficulties we face.
The humanities, and particularly philosophy, prepare students to engage meaningfully with the ambiguities of life outside the classroom.
In the absence of single right answers, we still can identify many of the wrong answers, and this is one of the ways philosophy proceeds—a lot of philosophical work is clarificatory, aiming to help us learn what does not work and why. This is how the Socratic questioning in Plato’s early dialogues functions. By finding all the faulty definitions of value concepts, we distill what is most central to them. This, in turn, gives us better tools for clarifying our own commitment to the values guiding our lives. Philosophical reasoning does not mean “anything goes”; it is a tool we can use to hone our fuzzy and misshapen values and beliefs about reality. RELATED STORIES
Freedom from having to find the “right answer” permits the pursuit of answers that, while imperfect, get us closer to figuring out better ways to be. With a deep understanding that not all problems have only one solution, we are better equipped to avoid the perfectionism that can keep us from taking any action whatsoever.
And still: This doesn’t mean that anything goes. That there isn’t a single right answer to some of the problems facing higher education does not mean we are free to do whatever we want; it means that, guided by our values, we are free to imagine new ways of living out those values.
The promises of college and university mission statements—like cultivating in students a thirst for lifelong learning and providing transformative education—depend heavily on the skills promoted by a liberal arts education. This includes such “soft” skills as:
If more schools were more willing to live up to their mission statements, rather than rejecting them because in tough times “all bets are off,” we would see a doubling-down on the fields that constitute the liberal arts—all of them. And we would be continually training ourselves to teach our students how and why liberal arts education prepares them for the ambiguity they will face beyond the classroom.
Kristina Grob is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina Sumter. She is the author of the paper “Teaching the Students We Have So They Become the Learners They Need to Be: Metacognition in Philosophy at Two-Year Colleges.”
Is a Philosophy Degree Worth It?
Five Reasons to Major in Philosophy
I get a lot of students who tell me that they loved the one or two philosophy classes they took as an undergraduate student, and that they would have enjoyed taking more courses if their schedules allowed it, but since they weren’t majoring in philosophy it just wasn’t possible. This is really unfortunate when you find a student that really loves philosophy and you know isn’t nearly as passionate about their chosen major.
So I ask them, have you ever considered majoring in philosophy? Or keeping your current major and adding philosophy as a second major?
Most often the student will say “no”, they’ve never really considered philosophy as a major. Sometimes they’ll say that they have thought of it but dismissed it for one reason or another. A lot of students express worries about the marketability of a philosophy degree. One student told me, half jokingly, that her parents would kill her if she said she was switching her major to philosophy!
I understand where these students are coming from, I sympathize with their worries,and their parents’ worries, about employment and the marketability of their degree.
But too often I think these worries are based on misconceptions about the practical value of a philosophy degree. I’d like to address this question — “why major in philosophy?” — and along the way clear up some of the more common misconceptions about the value of a philosophy degree.
“What are you going to do with that?”
There aren’t many careers that a bachelor’s degree in philosophy will give you specific training for. But there are very many different kinds of careers that philosophy majors go into after receiving their bachelor’s degrees. The study of philosophy develops many skills, including:
• critical thinking • evaluation of chains of reasoning • construction of chains of reasoning • consideration of many different perspectives on a single subject • clear written communication on complex topics
and these are skills that will serve you well no matter what you end up doing.
After graduation, philosophy majors go to law school, to medical school, to business school, to seminary, and to graduate school in a range of fields from art business to education to gender studies to philosophy; they go to work for business consulting firms and for humanitarian non-government organizations; they take jobs as technical writers, teachers, web designers…
“What’s the point of studying a field in which there aren’t any right answers?”
It’s true that there is no consensus, even among professional philosophers, on the correct answers to most of the basic problems of philosophy (e.g., what makes some actions morally right and others wrong? do we have free will? what is reality ultimately made out of? is there a god? can the legitimacy of the authority of the state be established, and if so then how? is mathematics something humans discovered or something humans invented?), but that doesn’t mean that philosophy doesn’t make progress, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn by studying other philosophers. What we learn by studying the field of philosophy includes:
Having studied these things, you might not know for certain what the answer to any particular basic philosophical question is, but you will be able to make your mind up about what to think from a position in which you are more fully conscious of what the alternatives are, and what their known strengths and weaknesses are. This gives you a kind of freedom to responsibly decide for yourself what to think that, alas, not everyone enjoys.
Training in the practice of philosophy means training in:
and these are skills that will serve you well in any intellectual problem you might encounter.
Is philosophy a respected major?
Is philosophy a valuable major?
Why is philosophy worth studying?