Monday, May 7, 2012

Defending the First Science

I get seriously peeved when people slam the study of the humanities as being irrelevant or out-dated. I get even more upset when people mock my own discipline of philosophy and discourage students from majoring in it in preference for more “practical” subjects. Given how touchy I am about this topic, you can imagine how I reacted when I came upon a piece by Frank Bruni (an otherwise intelligent fellow) last week in the New York Times Sunday Review that all but told students that they were doomed to living in their parent's basement for the rest of their lives if they even considered a major in field like philosophy. Here the section of his article that really set me off:

According to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary. Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.

Enraged, I whipped off a response to the Times that attempted to correct some of the mistakes that Mr. Bruni made in the article.  The article didn’t make it into the paper, but that’s the good news.  Apparently many people had the same reaction I did and there was a flood of objections to Bruni’s piece.  Here’s how I responded:

As someone who has spent much of his life promoting the humanities as a Professor of Philosophy at Molloy College on Long Island, I cannot help but be dismayed by Frank Bruni’s uninformed assault upon my discipline (“The Imperiled Promise of College”).  Mr. Bruni cities a report suggesting that philosophy and anthropology majors are “among the least likely to find jobs reflective of their educational level”  and then proceeds to make a snide insinuation that the best that philosophy graduates can hope for in life is a job at their local Starbucks.
What Mr. Bruni fails to realize is that while there is no specific career path for philosophy majors, the critical thinking and high-level communications skills provided by a philosophy degree at a reputable institution of higher education serves majors extremely well in whatever field they choose to enter—business, law, medicine, teaching, and government, and many others as well.   Perhaps that’s the reason why there has been a dramatic rise in the number of philosophy majors at some of the best colleges and universities all around the county.  At my own college, we’ve recently seen one of the largest increases in majors in the history of our institution and the vast majority of our graduates have gone on to rewarding careers where their philosophical training has proved to be an immense asset.   These students obviously know something that Mr. Bruni doesn’t. 
We keep hearing from business leaders that recent college graduates are ill-equipped to succeed in a highly competitive, global economy like the one in which we are living.  Perhaps the reason for this is that instead of promoting disciplines in the humanities, like philosophy, which train people in precisely the kinds of skills that we desperately need to reestablish our position as a leader in the world, we resort to simplistic stereotypes that serve only to discourage students from considering such majors.   That’s not only a loss for college students, but it’s a serious loss for our country as well. 


  1. That's a great letter, Mike. I couldn't have put it better myself. Thanks for writing it and posting it. Philosophers more generally need to do a better job of explaining exactly what sorts of skills they help students acquire. Perhaps it would help to spell out what critical thinking and high level communication skills are.

    1. Critical thinking requires mastery of logic, and generally the ability to detect the difference between good and bad reasoning. This is critical to any profession that requires reasoning (e.g., in the service of planning or decision-making). Logic is learned in philosophy departments.

    2. Philosophy involves discussion of hypothetical cases, often regarding conceptually abstract and challenging subject matter. Learning to think about abstract hypothetical cases is crucial to those who need the job-related ability to "think outside the box".

    3. Learning how to do philosophy is, in large part, learning how to write clear, concise, precise, well-organized, rigorous prose. Most professions require this ability.

    4. Most philosophy programs require exposure to ethics, which is in very short supply, to everyone's detriment, in the professional world. Businesspeople are taught to think like cost minimizers and benefit maximizers, ethics be damned. This is not the way to build a better society for all. Capitalism is designed to function as an efficient economic system, but it is not self-regulating with respect to ethical problems (global warming, pollution, exploitation, fairness in hiring and firing, executive compensation, just to mention a few).

    Bruni's basic mistake is to think that getting a job is largely a matter of what information you acquire in college. It isn't. Aside from information-heavy fields such as engineering and medicine, it's largely a matter of how well you can *think* about information, most of which is not acquired in college.

    1. Actually, you made the case better than I did. I should have had you write the letter! Thanks for the support!

  2. I think that you're deluding yourself. Disciplines like philosophy are dead, because no one in power wants an informed citenry that is capable of thinking critically. What they want are mindless robots that will keep voting in candidates from the two major political parties. Unfortunately, I think your discipline is doomed, because it represents too much of a treat to the power structure in this country.