Seriously, we’re not useless!

Arts grads sure can spice up a party


This past Wendnesday, the Telegraph-Journal ran a pair of articles profiling the philosophy department at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus. The department has grown 20 per cent since 2002 and is, apparently, a great choice for career-minded students. Unfortunately, the paper gives us nothing to decide whether this is the case.

The Living in Interesting Times blog, which is frequently critical of the editorial stance of the paper, describes the profile as “even handed.” I’m not sure those are the words I would use to describe it. There is nothing even-handed about the Telegraph-Journal’s look at the UNBSJ’s philosophy department. Free advertising is a more appropriate description.

The first article is a series of quotes from UNBSJ philosophy professors extolling the virtues of earning a degree in the world’s oldest subject. Murray Littlejohn, one of the profs, says employers are increasingly demanding skills developed by philosophy students:

“Organizations of all kindscompanies, governments, institutionsare increasingly valuing individuals who demonstrate creativity, flexibility of thought, an ability to improvise, the ability to speak and write clearly and convincingly, and the capacity for making critical distinctions.”

Yes. Philosophy students develop these skills, but so do students of literature, history, the social sciences, the natural and physical sciences, engineering, and pretty much any discipline you can think of.

The Telegraph-Journal gives us nothing to help in understanding how any of this matters beyond quoting platitudes about how the “cultural bottom line” is just as important as the economic one, and how the former can contribute to the latter. The only example of a successful philosophy grad provided is Alex Trebek, host of Jeopardy and University of Ottawa alumnus. I wonder what the demand for trivia hosts is in New Brunswick?

The second article looks at two students who studied philosophy, and how they are using it as a “launchpad” for their careers. However, one of the students is doing a PhD, while the other plans to be a lawyer. Not exactly typical of most graduating with a bachelors degree of any kind.

Far be it from me to mock another media outlet, but this is pure fluff!

I don’t deny that studying disciplines, where the direct instrumental value is far from obvious, is valuable. At the very least, it is valuable to those who study these fields. I could hardly argue otherwise, as I have a B.A. in political science, and if one more person asks me, “What are you going to do with that? Be a politician”? I am going to scream.

But, there seems to be this incessant need to justify disciplines such as philosophy in ways that policy makers, business people, and the general public can identify with. That is, what is it going to do for our economy, or for our culture, or for our democracy? Frankly, I’m not sure a degree in philosophy or the social sciences distinguishes graduates at all, beyond, perhaps, helping them to be interesting at parties.

For anyone looking for a more competent, and somewhat less puffy, treatment of this topic, the Guardian ran an interesting piece last year with the charming subheadline: “Philosophy graduates are suddenly all the rage with employers. What can they possibly have to offer?”

Click here to return to Carson Jerema`s blog index.

Filed under:

Seriously, we’re not useless!

  1. If more Philosophy students are going into doctoral programs in their subject, that is certainly a good sign. There are far too many master’s programs in Canada, in Political Science, for example. Much of the International Relations, Political Science, and Military work, in institutes as an instance, is performed by those with a master’s degree. The results are unimpressive. Note the intelligence fiasco at the prison in Afghanistan and the weak analysis afterwards. In IR, Political Science, and Journalism, many degrees at the master’s level should be eliminated in favor of working doctorates.

    The question of whether Philosophy has any practical effects is not well-formulated. Obviously, Philosophy has important practical effects. You will find in the Chapters on Robson in Vancouver a small Philosophy section, five little shelves compared to over one hundred for various types of fiction, but you could easily spend as much time during the year reading Philosophy as fiction. Unless you are absorbing Henry James or James Joyce repeatedly, “Ulysses” and “The Wings of the Dove,” as a professional reader, you will find far more content of value in the tiny Philosophy section. “Minima Moralia” is worth far more than 300 average novels.

    One feature of the Saint John stories we should think about is the somewhat uncritical acceptance of the state of high school Philosophy. Every high school should have a program: I suggest that they start with Ted Honderich’s “The Oxford Companion to Philosophy” and stay well away from IB Theory of Knowledge.

    The idea that Philosophy will prepare you for the LSAT is curious: Why haven’t Philosophy students consistently pointed out that, philosophically-speaking, the LSAT is an absurd test?

    Indirectly, Carson has a point: The practical implications of Philosophy can be called into question based on its own practices. If you sort through the indexes in the Philosophy section in a university bookstore, you will see that the favorite novelist of philosophers is Henry James. However, surprisingly, philosophers cannot read James: see Zizek’s essay on “The Wings of the Dove” in his “The Parallax View” for some remarkably distorted analysis.

    One of the most important aspects of the skill supposed to derive from Philosophy is language plasticity, yet no philosopher has yet responded here to Carson’s interesting article. They like to keep quiet about what they know, apparently.

    I used to attend Philosophy events at UBC, but the same people kept saying the same things in the same dull way to the extent that I lost interest. They even sounded as if they enjoyed being ritualistically dull. The rhetoric of Philosophy needs some attention.

  2. Well, since I started some of this with a certain insousiance in regards to some good, albeit fluffy, PR for the humanities in our local media, I feel compelled to respond–and agree with Carson Jerema’s assessment. No doubt feeling besieged by the newest non-contact sport in NB–belittling academics–I was relieved to read something minus the negative spin.
    That philosophy is experiencing a surge in interest both here and elsewhere is gratifying. I am aware of its allure from first-hand experience as my daughter recently graduated with a major in philosophy. Like Carson, she too has fielded the “what are you going to do with that?” She has come up with a solution. Just prior to travelling west for a family vacation she announced that she would respond to the inevitable question by saying she was going to be a teacher, and then added “don’t blow my cover.” But I digress.
    More to the point, however, is that philosophy is not alone in attracting students. At the institution where I work, 50% of the entire student body is in Arts, and of that group half are majoring in psychology. Yes, the numbers in philosophy are impressive, but apparently, the numbers in psychology are even better. Moreover, apparently psychology students represent more or less the same percentage of the student body in other Arts faculties–although I can’t swear to this as I’ve not crunched any numbers. If this is the case, why do students subscribe to this discipline so overwhelmingly?
    Yes, I agree, we need more research and less spin on this topic.

  3. Hi Debra,

    Yeah at the University of Manitoba, where I did my undergrad, psychology is by far the biggest department, and I have often wondered why this is the case.

    I can see why first year psychology is hugely popular as it is often a prerequisite for getting into any number of other departments, such as medicine but also business and a few others. Part of the reason psychology might be so popular as a major is that because so many students are exposed to it for other reasons, that after their first year they decide against going into a different faculty, or they didn’t get in, or they simply find that psychology is a preferable choice. Of course there are other factors at play, and it would be interesting if someone looked into it.

    As for the idea that philosophy students are finding work, I suspect the reason we might view this as news is that the field was so long excoriated as superflous, that we (as in the general public) are genuinely surprised to learn that philosophy grads actually are often successful. Whether this is any different from those who graduate from other fields in the humanities is something I doubt.

  4. “Organizations of all kinds—companies, governments, institutions—are increasingly valuing individuals who demonstrate creativity, flexibility of thought, an ability to improvise, the ability to speak and write clearly and convincingly, and the capacity for making critical distinctions.”

    Yes. Philosophy students develop these skills, but so do students of literature, history, the social sciences, the natural and physical sciences, engineering, and pretty much any discipline you can think of.

    As a former physics-mathematics student at the undergraduate level, I believe such things as critical thinking, creativity, etc. are underused in a undegraduate science degree compared to other fields, and compared to the real work done by scientists.

    Success in a physics degree, for example, is mostly based on learning from textbooks (which represent the knowledge on which there is a consensus), and knowing some mathematical tricks and “problem-solving recipes” to clearly defined problems with a non-ambiguous answer.

    However, when you get to research, you work in the advanced fields of science (where there is no consensus on which theory is best) and the problems are ill-defined, so you need to be critical of other people’s articles, be creative in finding new approaches for a certain problem, etc., which is never asked from you as an undergraduate student (compared with the humanities and social sciences undergraduates).

    Of course, this does not mean science grads don’t have these skills. But they are mostly acquired outside the traditional courses.

Sign in to comment.