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In defense of philosophy

Written by Jeff Drake
7 · 22 · 17

Let’s face it. Many of us have been here before.

Your child has entered college and is figuring out what field of study they want to focus on for the next 4 years. So many subjects to choose! In your mind, you picture your child picking a field of study that will lead to a good career and eventually, a decent salary. Waiting for their decision can be like waiting at night for the person upstairs to drop their shoes on the floor before bed. The anticipation can be disconcerting.

The first shoe drops when your kid calls you up to tell you that he or she has decided to – gasp – pick a Liberal Arts field to major in. Doh! Immediately, alarm bells go off in your head! Dreams of a future lucrative income for your kid go up in smoke, because we all know that while a liberal arts education may be personally satisfying, it is not the path to wealth! It would be so much better if they entered into a “professional” field of some kind, become a business major, an engineer, a chemist, pre-med, etc. Right? Wrong, or at least, not necessarily correct as I shall soon point out.

This decision, of course, begs the question you are hesitant to ask your kid – “Uh, okay, so exactly which liberal art field are you considering?”

And that’s when the second shoe drops as they utter the words, “I’m going to major in philosophy!” Now you’re freaking out. Of all the liberal arts to choose, why philosophy? What the hell are they going to do with that? You think, “Well, there is only one thing they can do with philosophy – teach.” Right? Wrong again, as you shall see.

You then imagine your kid going on to get a PhD and joining the ranks of academia and hopefully landing a job with a good university and with this, a college professor salary. In your head, you are thinking that among the other professors, your kid will certainly be at the low end. After all, no one equates a philosophy degree with wealth. Why? Well, come on, it’s philosophy, a rather useless endeavor. Right? Nope. Wrong again.

Before I get into explaining why the above conclusions are not necessarily true, I should say that I can understand why some may come to these conclusions and I can appreciate the angst that one might feel when faced with this decision by their child.

You see, I was a philosophy major. In the late 1970s, there were no teaching jobs available for philosophy professors. None. Zero. I had graduate schools tell me that although they were happy to take my money, they were fairly certain I would be unemployed as a result. While in college I worked at a local bookstore. One of the owners had his PhD in Eastern philosophy. The movie theater across the street had a doorman who would come in to buy a paper every day and we would always pick a philosophy topic to argue about. Why? Because he had his philosophy PhD from Yale! No doubt many of us have met people like this or heard stories about how a philosophy degree has led nowhere, career-wise. It’s almost a joke in some circles. So, I can see how certain beliefs have come about regarding the study of philosophy with an eye on a future career. While common perhaps, such beliefs about studying philosophy are not correct, however, as I will explain.

Let me preface my explanation by saying that there are two perspectives on this issue. On the one hand, there are people who pursue an advanced philosophy degree (PhD) and land a professorship at a university. On the other hand, there are people who major in philosophy or perhaps go on to an advanced degree in it (MA or PhD) and then get a job in some other field entirely. Interestingly, the parental conclusions outlined above are still wrong in either case, especially the latter.

Take the case of someone with a philosophy PhD who has landed a job in a university. How poorly does the philosophy professor do against professors in more “professional” fields? The answer to this question will vary based on a variety of factors. My intention here is not to be nit-picky about it, but to speak in more general terms in response to this generally misguided belief about philosophy professors; and the data available via census records and studies demonstrates that a philosophy professor is actually not on the lowest end of the salary scale. That honor falls to the theology professor! Instead, what we find is that a philosophy professor is in the middle with professors in other fields when it comes to salaries, at least according to data as recent as 2016 (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/03/28/study-finds-continued-large-gaps-faculty-salaries-based-discipline). (Two notable exceptions to this are business and law professors, who lead the pack.)

For example, the average philosophy professor’s salary is (in public and private institutions) around $92- $93K, whereas an engineering professor’s salary is between $96-$106k, or a biomedical professor who makes between $94K – $102K. Here’s a look at data as recently as June, 2017: http://www1.salary.com/Professor-Philosophy-Salary.html.

Yeah, philosophy pays less, but the difference in salary is not big enough, in my opinion, to warrant the outright derision that is so often cast upon a philosophy degree. And I don’t care who you are, making $93K per year is a good salary. Thus, the image one has of a poor, hungry, philosophy professor is unfounded. Sure, you can find some examples of philosophy professors (probably in smaller schools) who don’t make much money, but let’s face it, none of the cited university salaries, regardless of the field of study, is going to make someone rich. This goes without saying perhaps, but most people don’t go on to be professors of any kind for the financial wealth that it will bring them. They are driven by other factors and benefits e.g., personal satisfaction, prestige, etc.

So, if your child decides on an academic career in philosophy, they should not be destitute upon landing such a job and you shouldn’t consume yourself worrying about it. Of course, the normal pressure you might apply on him or her to surpass their competition in their field still applies and has value regardless of the area of study. That’s just life in the academic fast lane.

But what about people who study philosophy and don’t go into an academic career teaching philosophy? It is assumed by many that if you study philosophy and don’t go on to be a professor, you’ve really wasted your education because the only thing you realistically can do with a philosophy education is teach. I’m here to tell you that nothing could be farther from the truth, and I’m a good example of this.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has been conducting surveys for years that repeatedly demonstrate “…that the skills employers value most in the new graduates they hire are not technical, job-specific skills, but written and oral communication, problem solving, and critical thinking—exactly the sort of “soft skills” humanities majors tend to excel in.”[1] Think on that for a moment. These are exactly the kind of skills one learns when one studies philosophy!

Speaking for myself, when I decided to look for gainful employment in the computer field and went to school to become a computer programmer, I derived maximum benefit from the logic classes I took while majoring in philosophy, because programming is all about the logic. This made me a very good programmer. But I also learned other skills studying philosophy that would eventually contribute greatly to my successful career as a consultant; for example, the ability to organize my thoughts and make a coherent argument for or against a specific course of action; the ability to analyze problems and formulate potential solutions; the ability to read fast and discern pertinent information; all skills that employers find highly useful and very desirable, and in my case – all greatly attributable to my studying philosophy.

Here is some more data for consideration when pondering whether studying philosophy has value:

I am not trying to imply that kids should give up their current educational pursuits and major in philosophy. That decision requires some thought. But I am of the belief that philosophy, at least an introductory year or so, would be beneficial to anyone regardless of what they major in, or perhaps even consider a Minor in philosophy.

I find it interesting, having seen something of the world, that other countries in South America and Europe teach philosophy in high school and in the case of Cuba and Peru, for example, in grade school. It makes sense.

 

[1] Nov. 12, 2015 Fortune Magazine article, “Why critics are wrong about liberal arts degrees”, by Wilson Peden.

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Author

Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.