Bad trends in higher education II

I joke about the uselessness of philosophy all the time. Even among academic disciplines, always mocked for irrelevance to the real world, locked away in ivory towers, philosophy is the discipline singled out for the absolute most ridicule.

(I and every philosopher I know absolutely dreads being asked by a stranger at social gatherings, "So, what do you do?" -- responses to hearing "I'm a philosopher" or "I teach philosophy" range from curiosity (rarely) to confusion (mostly) to outright hostility (not frequent, but more often than you would think).)

That said, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, if two worlds were exactly the same in every respect, but one world had philosophers and had made some progress on philosophical problems, and the other world did not, most would choose to live in the one with philosophy. Which indicates it has some value.

I have former students come up to me and tell them how excited they were by my classes, that it introduced this or that great philosopher to them, or taught them how to think clearly. I think some of them are even semi-sincere.

We teach people how to think more clearly, more consistently, and start to realize what's at stake with the fundamental questions of their lives (of course, it helps when they don't text in class).

If philosophy has a value, and I think it does, it is in a general sort of clear-headedness and enlightenment. Perhaps it is even an end in itself. But no, it will not usually make the trains run on time, or improve worker productivity, or create green jobs.

There has been a recent move afoot in England for academic funding to be disbursed based on "impact." I.e., measurable impact, ideally economic or social impact. Exactly what philosophy does not do. Prominent philosophers (with tenure!) are getting the axe to make way for such socially valuable utter nonsense as "Digital and Visual Culture." There's a nice article here on what practical things might be lost if we insist on funding only practical academics. And an interesting article here discussing how the recent drastic changes in English higher education have reversed the traditional positions of English and American higher education. While (whilst?) English higher education used to put greater emphasis on academics for their own sake, now we find more of that here. But if demanding "impact" from academia is appealing to the Brits, it's hard to see how it would not occur to people here.

Let's hope such pernicious moves don't happen here more than they already have. Due to the economy and state budget cuts, the philosophy job market has never been so terrible as this year. Talented philosophers are leaving the field. If we start insisting, as the British already have, on showing very immediate impact to justify academic funding, we may lose something very valuable in the long term.


  1. You'll forgive me, but this reminds me of the old joke about philosophers, mathematicians, and experimental physicists. The Dean was given the research budget from a promising young experimentalist, and she hit the roof. "Why can't you be more like the mathematicians," she demanded, "they only need paper, pencils, and a wastebasket. Or even better, be like the philosophers, who only need paper and pencils."

  2. I am pretty surprised that when you tell people you teach Philosophy in University people react negatively. Everyone who has been to College has to take Philosophy 101 and someone has to teach those classes (I am not saying you do, but also why not you). As to people who haven't been to College, there might be something else besides your teaching Philosophy with regard to their hostility. I have a friend who is an adjunct Professor of Philosophy in a host of NJ colleges (he is the one who teaches all the 101's). Now he might have some hostility towards you, but it is more of the Dr. Bishop variety (ok, I exaggerate, but he lives in adjunct hell).

    It is funny, because I have to listen to the things you mention. I don't know about you, but what bothers me about him is that since he is a Philosopher, he somehow thinks this extends towards the political realm, and he tries to use Philosophy to justify his political stances.
    (he does that with me, not with strangers) Now if you did that at cocktail parties, that might also explain where some hostility comes from.


  3. Epic, had we met at a social gathering, and you told me what you taught, I would never have thought it anything but worthwhile.

  4. Gadfly: cute!

    Aw, shucks, Brian (I feel oddly formal calling you Brian instead of Bone).

    Oh dear Lord, Charo, I'd rather cut off my pinkie than discuss philosophy in casual social circumstances. Only done if people are either actually philosophers, old friends and I know I can't alienate them (Hi Dan!), or if my conversation partner persists.

    So here are the kind of hostile responses (and really, these are infrequent) to the simple phrase, "I teach philosophy" (which is how I put it):

    "Oh God, I took that class and absolutely hated it. Waste of time." or, similarly,
    "I never took philosophy, because it seemed totally useless/boring" etc.
    "So what does that mean, you sit around all day talking about the meaning of life?" (Actually, not my area of specialization).
    Some version of "You don't live in the real world." (Does that mean I don't have to pay taxes?!)

    There's also a version where someone says, "Wow. You must be smart, then." But there's an edge, as if I'm going to start pointing out how everything they say is stupid.

  5. Elizabeth, I teach English so I never have to deal with those kind of statements. To be honest, I seldom mention that I teach in Uni since being a Professor feels like putting on airs, (I guess I feel guilty for loving what I do and having tenure) so normally I just say I teach English, or if I am being obnoxious I will say "I learn my students English good."


  6. I guess I have no problem writing about what I do because I feel like it's absolutely nothing to brag about!

    And you totally SHOULD feel guilty about having tenure.