Thursday, April 10, 2008

Philosophy majors increasing

This New York Times article is making the rounds among those in the philosophy profession. Nationally, enrollments in philosophy are increasing. This is good news for the profession. I hope it translates into increased enrollments at Rockford as well.

The article speculates that the increase is in large part due to students' increasing awareness and curiosity with the ethics involved in things like the Iraq war, political scandals, technological advances, and the environment. No doubt that's a factor, but I am skeptical if this is what it is really about. Maybe these things get the students initial attention, but I think there are other important factors. Of course this is purely anecdotal and speculation.

Some of this might just be a pendulum swing from more trendy and career-focused majors to the broader, more traditional majors in humanities. Students wanted very specific majors that tied directly to a job/career upon graduating. Possibly, now they are looking for majors that teach broad-based, more universal intellectual skills: critical thinking and writing, effective communication, and the ability to understand and deal with ideas in general. These skills give one wider opportunities in the future; as opposed to the training in a specific skill that may become obsolete or outsourced.

One factor in this might be the realization that what is needed in the student's search for a career is adaptability and flexibility. This requires a more broad-based ability to think and reason; not just some particular job skills. Philosophy teaches one how to critically and analytically read a text; how to pick out the important ideas; how to understand the ways these ideas connect; and how to communicate this. These skills are effective if you are reading Aristotle or the CEO's annual corporate plan.

Philosophy, of course, is not the only major to teach these skills. Ideally, all BA majors do this, but specifically humanities majors are good at this. I think philosophy does this the best because it is often primarily focused on doing just this. You don't read Descartes to find out about how the mind actually works. You read it to understand what Descartes is doing; how does he get from point A and to point B. As such, philosophy is focused on the process; not so much the results. (This is not to say the results aren't important: they are the goal, the point of all the work, but philosophy as a discipline is focused on the question and the how of answering it. The answer is left for the philosopher himself to figure out.)

In my experience, the students who become philosophy majors fall into three groups (these are not mutually exclusive nor jointly exhaustive). The first group are the geeks--like myself--who just love to discuss ideas no matter the context. They will gravitate to a philosophy major because in philosophy there are really no restrictions about what can be talked about. (The restrictions are in the manner--reason and logic, not in the content.).

The second group are those that see philosophy as great training for law school. Philosophy majors, as a group, are almost always near the top of the listing of majors that do the best on the LSAT (and other standardized tests).

The third group are late-comers to philosophy. They've tried other majors--this might even be there second BA--and are dissatisfied. The other majors were filled with classes that involved just memorization or the uncritical employment of formulas. These courses usually just required them to return back to the professor what was said in class or the text. Now this might have been just bad teaching and not the disciplines themselves, but for these students, philosophy was like a breathe of fresh air. It challenged them, for the first time, to think about the world, about themselves, and about their ideas. It is as if they have been using a computer for years just as a word processor, but suddenly discover that it can connect to the internet.

I think it is the latter group that might be a large factor in the swelling of philosophy enrollments. Most students come out of 12 years of school that is more and more just about standardized exams. There are force-fed all kinds of content, with little in the way of integration or explanation of the importance of the content. They are largely not taught to think as such, just to absorb the content and then provide that content on the exams. This in reinforced by a wide-spread cultural relativism that views anything other than brute facts as one's opinion and not subject to evaluation or criticism.

Then they take a philosophy course. The teacher, annoyingly I'm sure, keeps asking them "Why do you believe that?" or "Why do you think that is the case?" Their usual responses of "That's just my opinion" or "That's the way I was brought up to believe" are no longer enough. Many don't care. Others suddenly start to wonder, why do I believe that? And a philosopher is born.


Anonymous said...

There certainly are a lot of reasons why students might choose philosophy. Whether or not they are right or wrong can only be decided when we know what philosophy is and what it is supposed to do. I think we disagree about these things, or, I want to try and draw a distinction you haven't between two senses of what "philosophy" might be. You seem to think that philosophy is not different from critical thinking -- that is, philosophy, on your definition, is the application of logical reasoning to any subject. It is indifferent to subject matter and rigid with regard to form. Here is what I would claim: philosophy is distinct from other disciplines (is the Queen of the sciences) because it does not allow itself to take its method for granted either at the beginning or the end of its quest (either when it is being learned or practiced). This is so because philosophy is the discipline tasked with raising the issue of how things ought to be done, or, what they are, or, whether we have yet found the correct criteria for truth.
The philosopher who takes the current established practices within the academic field of philosophy as a ground of his thinking is... not a philosopher. To make the point, here is a quote from Thoreau in "Walden" in the form of a critique: "We have no philosophers, only professors of philosophy."
Here there is a distinction between "true" philosophers and "academic" philosophers. At first this distinction makes it look like I think academic philosophers really are what you have said philosophers are, so that a student pursuing philosophy in academia for the reasons you have given would make perfect sense, whatever other pretentious use of the word philosophy there might be.
But now here is the question: will it be a problem if academic philosophy ceases to recognize its basis in whatever Thoreau is talking about, as it seems like you may have done? And it certainly seems like those NYTimes students have done. Will it be a problem if, while ceasing to recognize its source, it continues to refer to itself as philosophy, potentially concealing behind rigidified disciplinary methodology ("logical reasoning") what is in philosophy to find? (This object of philosophy may be called "the good life," "meaning," "the unsaid" "an ethos" - but not "truth," not "worldview," not "knowledge," not "a good job.") If so many philosophy students have been allowed to forget that there even are two senses of what it might mean to be a philosopher -- (that sophistry is a sin against philosophy) at least to the extent that this distinction can be readily ignored in the way we discuss these issues, has anyone then "professed" philosophy at all?
If not, then we don't even have what Thoreau says -- in which case we really are poor.
I'd be glad for responses.

Shawn Klein said...

Thanks for your comments. I don't see a clear distinction between the two senses of philosophy. That is, they don't seem mutually exclusive. This may be because I'm not following what you are saying.

A fair reading of my post shows that I don't equate philosophy with critical thinking. But critical thinking is also different from saying that philosophy is "the application of logical reasoning to any subject." I don't define philosophy that way, contrary to your claim that I do, in the original post. I don't provide any definition of philosophy. Nonetheless, the idea of philosophy as the application of logical reasoning to any subject is appealing. I don't think philosophy has any specific content (in the way that chemistry has the study of molecules as its specific content). So in that respect, I agree with your characterization of my view.

I don't see this as distinct from your second proposal of philosophy. From what I understand from your comment, philosophy is primarily a study of methodology. I don't disagree; philosophy is primarily concerned with how one asks the questions they are seeking answers to, how those answers are to be discovered, and how the answers should be formulated. The subject matter (the question and the answer) is open.

After that, I am afraid, you lose me. I don't see the distinction you are trying to draw between so called real philosophers and academic philosophers (which is not to say that I am a fan of the current state of the profession).

Nor do I understand how philosophical method can be understood as being apart from logical reasoning, construed broadly. (In the broad sense, logical reasoning is redundant. This is not say that reasoning must always be linear and deductive--that surely would be mistaken.)

It's also quite surprising to read your comment that philosophy is not about the pursuit of truth or knowledge? That would come as quite a shock to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.