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Greek Philosophy Outside of Academia? Rubio, the APA, and an Alternative Approach

Late last week, presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL) made headlines in Inside Higher Ed for his repeated illustration of Greek philosophy as a major that leads to joblessness and debt. According to the sources cited in the IHE, Rubio’s complaint is that students enter academic programs at the cost of incurring massive debt without the schools being held responsible for informing students of the difficulties of obtaining a job with the degree and paying down the debt. Because Rubio appealed Greek philosophy at least three times, the IHE sought the opinion of the American Philosophical Association. Amy Ferrer, the APA’s executive director, responded that Rubio is misinformed: philosophers have skills that have market value such as critical thinking, problem solving skills, and communication skills; they have the highest wage increase from starting to mid-career; they have among the highest GRE and LSAT scores compared to other majors; and some philosophy majors have made a significant headway into the tech world. Unfortunately, this defense of philosophy writes off the significant challenge philosophy majors have in obtaining a job by overestimating its ability to yield careers for its students. As a result, critical attitudes toward philosophy’s market value will remain untouched.

Notice that I said the APA’s response is unfortunate rather than “mistaken”. It is unfortunate because while everything in the response may be true, the response will neither convince employers that they should start hiring philosophers because they are philosophers nor does it recognize the serious problem students with debt face when they leave their undergraduate or graduate alma mater to find employment. The really unfortunate thing is that there are things the APA can start doing to address the real problems.

Overestimating Philosophy’s Ability to Yield Careers

If philosophers are going to make an impact on the marketplace, they need to understand what is problematic about the above response. First, let me note that it is not surprising to me that philosophers do well in having high wage increases by mid-career. They can acquire new skills quickly. So this is not a point I will challenge, but that’s also because it is irrelevant. Rubio’s point is that philosophy majors (or the even smaller group of Greek philosophy majors!) won’t be able to land decent paying first jobs. The fact that of those philosophy majors who do have jobs get higher wage increases does not address Rubio’s point.

Of the remaining points, let’s start with the skills that are cultivated in philosophy programs: critical thinking, problem solving, and speaking and writing skills. Speaking from anecdotal evidence, having come from philosophy myself, philosophers are typically exceptional at all of these things. But not always. Sometimes students come to philosophy with lots of true beliefs and then read a famous philosopher (Descartes, Hume, Kant, pick your favorite enemy) and end up with lots of false beliefs. Sometimes they become enamored with certain philosophers (e.g., Hegel) and become less capable of expressing a proposition clearly than they could with obscure jargon. Whether a philosophy major is in a position to have any of these skills by the time he or she finishes the degree depends on a lot. Nevertheless, I think Ferrer is correct in identifying these skills as traits typically held by philosophy majors.

So what’s the problem with noting the skills above? The problem is that these are skills that can be acquired in other academic programs. Almost all, maybe even all, of the liberal arts programs claim these skills for themselves. But these skills can also be acquired by students in the sciences. I work with bioinformaticists and computer scientists, and there is no discernible difference between their critical thinking, problem solving, or speaking abilities than I have found among philosophers. It is true that when they occasionally make claims that have philosophical content (however that is to be demarcated), their claims are less clearly considered as when presented by philosophers – which is not to say that philosophers are incapable of unreflective remarks. But there is nothing surprising about their philosophical acumen in comparison to philosophers; and more importantly, it is irrelevant. It is irrelevant because for most of what they need to do in their jobs, they do not need to be good philosophers. For employers who see that they can get employees who have the above skills as well as skills which are more obviously relevant to the job (such as how to parse Javascript Object Notation), i.e., those skills not considered relevant to what philosophers do, the philosophers will typically lose the job to someone who has both skills sets.

Philosophy majors do exceptionally well at the GRE and LSAT. But employers want to know what a job candidate can do for the business; they do not care what one’s GRE scores are (although maybe law firms care about one’s LSAT scores, I cannot speak about that). It would be quite odd for a candidate to put GRE scores on one’s resume. Putting a high score on a resume is more likely to come off as pretentious and the sort of thing one might be shown by a colleague for a laugh.

It is true that some philosophy majors have been successful in the tech world. The IHE article points to Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield and Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO. Alright… that’s three. There is Damon Horowitz who left his tech job to obtain a PhD in philosophy. Four. Let me also note Thomas Bushnell who has a philosophy doctorate from UC Irvine and who works at Google, Inc. Five. Luciano Floridi. Six. Keep counting the number of philosophers you know about in the tech world. Did you get to ten? Twenty? Thirty? I doubt it. The number of philosophers who have “made it” in the tech world is a very small percentage given the number of people who graduate with philosophy degrees.

But for all those persons just noted, to what extent did philosophy put them in their positions? Horowitz is able to acquire a technology job because he already worked in the field and has relevant skills. But it is true that the unique education path he has taken will raise employers’ interests in his resume. Fiorina went on to acquire an MBA and, later, a Master of Science in management. Was it her background in philosophy that got her the CEO position at HP, or was it these other degrees? I am not asking the question whether her philosophy background helped her. You will get no quarrel from me that it probably did. The question can be put this way: to what extent, from the perspective of those hiring at HP, did the fact that Fiorina have a philosophy background motivate them to hire her? The answer, I think, is probably none. Butterfield, according to Wikipedia, had a four year gap between earning his Master of Philosophy from Cambridge, and starting the company that would eventually launch Flickr. Before Flickr, however, he developed an online role-playing game with two other entrepreneurs. Was it his philosophy degree that gave him the skills to do these things, or did he just happen to have a philosophy degree? Aside from Floridi, who was hired because he is a philosopher, all of the cases pointed to show people who happen to have philosophy degrees without ever making the case that philosophy distinctively played a role in making them into the successes that they are. And because of that, employers without a philosophy background will continue to look at philosophers as less relevant or completely irrelevant to jobs they might post.

So it does not appear that above defense is very strong evidence for why employers should start taking an interest in philosophers (or philosophy majors) because of their philosophical background alone. Rather, it is better evidence for the claim that philosophers have cultivated desirable skills companies seek if coupled with other skills directly relevant to the job.

Rubio’s View as Symptomatic of a More General Trend

It is no secret that philosophers have had their fair share of public critics in the last few years, especially among publicly high-profile scientists. There is Hawking’s pronouncement that “philosophy is dead”, the 2014 outcry to comments by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and then there’s Jerry Coyne, Lawrence Krauss, and others.  One of the claims they make is that philosophy just is not relevant to their work as scientists today, even if philosophy was useful to science in the past. There’s some debate about the extent to which philosophical assumptions play a role in the work of scientists. But these details don’t matter for our discussion.

The point is that they have the view that philosophy is not relevant because philosophers are not asking the same questions and not using the same tools to answer the questions. (That depends on what is meant by “same tools”, but again, we shall not enter that debate.) Now consider employers. It is not very often that you hear job creators talking particularly about the benefits of the liberal arts or philosophy (yes, Steve Jobs had a favorable view about the liberal arts). How many job resumes outside of academia list a philosophy degree? Of course, you can find some, where “some” is meant in the logical sense of “at least one.” OK. More than one. But not many. And this is explained by the fact that, whatever skills philosophy does give its practitioners, employers do not see how philosophy per se is relevant to their jobs. An employer might know that a philosopher can challenge knowledge as JTB, but what unique skills is philosophy going to offer toward getting this broken application fixed and in the App-Store? It is for that reason, I think, that Rubio remarks, “the market for Greek philosophers has been very tight for 2,000 years”. Philosophers require an additional defense of philosophy that goes beyond the above response, and which can be more effective in changing public opinion.

How to Defend Philosophy in the Marketplace

If the problem is that employers do not see how philosophy is directly connected to the jobs to which philosophers (leaving academia) might apply, philosophers should do better than showing that philosophy produces smart people with some valuable skills. They should start by recognizing that there is a real difficulty philosophy majors have in acquiring jobs; and then they should make connections that show how philosophy is directly relevant to those jobs.

There is an easy way to make the connection. A business makes lots of decisions that affect its employees and their families, other businesses, its customers and clients, the environment, and more. The easy connection is that some (all?) of these decisions have ethical implications. Then the importance of ethics gets raised. But many people believe themselves to have adequate ethical knowledge for their jobs, or that they themselves are adequately good and not in need of an ethical advisor. So this connection does not go deep enough to show the philosophers have been cultivating skills employers want to hire.

The deeper connection that needs to be made is that the concepts common to doing the job well overlap with the concepts that philosophers employ. Obviously, what overlap can exist will depend on the job and the type of philosophy one does. Showing the overlap in a substantial way will require having each foot firmly planted in two or more fields. Already, there are interdisciplinary programs that can yield jobs (e.g., philosophy and psychology, philosophy and cognitive science), but philosophers need to cast their interdisciplinary-net wider than the norm. Oxford, for instance, has a computer science and philosophy degree. Making these connections will be impossible for philosophers who know nothing else. Interdisciplinary philosophers are well-suited to take up this task; but anyone who works within the confines of only one department and with strong nonprofessional interests in other topics might make this case.

Finally, let me point you to an example of the type of connections one might make. In The Natural Transition from Philosophy to Programming, I made the case that the transition from philosophy to programming is a natural one, much like the transition from philosophy to law is natural (where “natural” means unsurprising to anyone who knows the relevant facts). I have actually used that argument in job interviews because the question about why a philosopher might have wanted to go into programming kept arising. My suggestion in this article is that if the APA wants to change views like Rubio’s, they need to make more arguments like this one. Teach them about philosophy’s deeper connections to the world outside of academia.

2015-08-26T01:06:03+00:00 August 26th, 2015|0 Comments

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