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Seriously, we’re not useless!

Arts grads sure can spice up a party

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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?”

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