Ethical Realism

October 27, 2010

Philosophy Education is Under Threat

Filed under: outreach,philosophy — JW Gray @ 1:00 am

Will philosophy continue to progress in the future or could it die out? If how society values academic philosophy has any indication, then we might be in serious trouble. First, philosophy and logic were once taught in high schools (and perhaps they still are for the few elite rich people who wouldn’t stand for anything else). However, a college education without philosophy is an outrage. Additionally, a university without philosophy is beyond an outrage. And yet – this is the world we live in, and it is becoming increasingly normal. People who care nothing for philosophy get to decide the fate of academic philosophy, and often decide that philosophy is unprofitable. In a world where independent thought is becoming increasingly unimportant to people academic philosophy could someday either be reserved for the very few elites or it could die out entirely “because it’s so darn useless!”1

Yes, college education no longer “requires” philosophy to be taught for a degree. No surprise there.

Yes, many universities are cutting funding to philosophy departments because they aren’t profitable. The departments that get the most students to take their classes (and people majoring in the subject) are generally the departments that get money. That is an extraordinarily difficult task for philosophy departments considering that not only do people not know what philosophy is, but they will probably not want to major in philosophy even after they find out. You want want to take a look at “Corrupting the youth at freshman orientation” for a discussion of this issue.

Yes, many universities have deemed philosophy as entirely unnecessary. For example, the National University center in San Jose refuses to teach any philosophy classes and I see no evidence that National University teaches any philosophy classes anywhere else. I inquired about working there and was told “[W]e don’t seem to be able to offer philosophy or logic at our campus in San Jose. We’re just too small to [attract] enough students in those classes. It has been several years since either of those was offered in San Jose.” Ethics and rational thinking are deemed unimportant because it’s not going to make enough money.

You might think that National University is probably some strange college with questionable standards, but the fact is that philosophy is threatened where it is most at home. Philosophy departments are threatened at many universities, such as the University of Liverpool, King’s College London, and Howard University. Some of these philosophy departments are quite noteworthy. Perhaps the most disturbing news is that the University of Middlesex plans on closing its philosophy department despite being one of the most prominent philosophy departments in Britain – and the highest RAE-Rated program at the university:

Philosophy is the highest research-rated subject in the University. Building on its grade 5 rating in RAE2001, it was awarded a score of 2.8 on the new RAE scale in 2008, with 65% of its research activity judged ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. It is now widely recognised as one of the most important centres for the study of modern European philosophy anywhere in the English-speaking world. (sic.)2

Why would it be closed? I can only think that the department wasn’t making enough money. “In a meeting with Philosophy staff, the Dean acknowledged the excellent research reputation of Philosophy at Middlesex, but said that it made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the University” (ibid.). That is obviously a lie. Not only is philosophy the best form of reasoning, but it is essential for morality. Moral behavior doesn’t merely come from our conscience, but also from our ability to decide when our conscience is gravely in error due to prejudice or poor reasoning. Not to mention that the actual numbers above do show a clear measurable effect.

Should universities teach philosophy?

Yes, and it should be a requirement. One, it helps us achieve the highest levels of reasonableness. Two, it helps us make moral decisions.

Part of being a human being is to use our higher capacities of thought. You might think you are “logical” and are already perfectly reasonable, but you must admit that other people aren’t. Other people need some help with their rationality. The fact is that we have a tendency to be a bit arrogant about our personal ability to be reasonable, and everyone should take some classes in philosophy—which are designed to help people become as reasonable as possible. Classes in “critical thinking” usually don’t make the cut—they don’t tell you what “logic” and “good reasoning” really are.

Additionally, we all have moral decisions to make and ethics helps us make moral decisions. We tend to be overconfident about our personal ability to make moral decision and we tend to want other people to spend more time learning how to be moral. We should all learn a little about ethics to see what it has to offer and make sure we are personally morally rational.

Oh yeah, and philosophy is awesome.


1 Justifying the existence of “philosophy departments” is becoming increasingly important because they are unprofitable. See “What’s the Point of Having a Philosophy Department in an American University?” for this sort of discussion.

2 Jacob. “Middlesex University Shamefully Cuts Philosophy Department.” The Third State. 25 October 2010. <>. Originally published April 28, 2010.


  1. Indeed, a good dose of philosophy and history is beneficial to everyone. I think my devotion to philosophy is somewhat singular as others would consider it on a similar ‘BS’ scale as anthropology and other “uselss” classes they have to take.

    Comment by rambleandrant — November 5, 2010 @ 5:27 am | Reply

  2. It being early in the morning and me on painkillers, I’m not sure I can be totally coherent, but here’s some thoughts.

    Philosophy, as a subject, has some problems. Marketing is one of them. I suspect most people who have had little or no exposure to the subject think it is just a bunch of wooly brained nerds sitting around discussing the meaning of the word ‘is’. It’s entirely possible, and likely, to go through an entire public school education and never hear the word philosophy in context of it being a subject or a class. Ditto critical thinking. I’m fifty years out of high school, and I don’t remember it ever coming up, certainly not with any degree of seriousness.

    Philosophers are not selling philosophy as something useful, at least not in any organized public way that I’ve seen. There’s the occasional little book like William Irvine’s ‘A Guide to the Good LIfe’, delineating Stoicism as a practical philosophy for everyday living. I would think that’s the sort of thing that, introduced early in education, at least in high school, might get people interested in further study of philosophy.

    I suspect that a good many philosophy majors have found good jobs in the business world and other worlds, based on their ability to analyze and think clearly and so forth. Perhaps an effort on their part to speak out might help. “Hi! I’m a philosopher. I make a hundred and fifty thousand a year for thinking over at General Motors.” I doubt very many people consider a philosophy degree as a gateway to jobs in the non-academic economy. Enough people following that path might make philosophy departments viable again and support academic philosophy.

    Way too early in the morning.

    Comment by Ric — March 4, 2012 @ 12:21 pm | Reply

    • Ric, thanks for the comment. I have no main criticism to what you’re saying, but there is something to be said for philosophy for its own sake rather than just usefulness to other ends. Even so, philosophy can be very useful and that should be known. There’s a similar problem with science education. Scientists tend to want to do science for its own sake, not merely for technological reasons and so on.

      Comment by JW Gray — March 5, 2012 @ 12:30 am | Reply

      • Oh I totally agree about philosophy for its own sake. I think that there can be more of that if there are more people passing through philosophy departments on their way to jobs in the corporate world. I’m in favor of everything for its own sake, but haven’t quite been able to work that out yet. Or maybe I have… haven’t decided yet. Not enough information. Still early in the morning. Brain fuzz.🙂 (and age, too much age.)

        Comment by Ric — March 5, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

  3. Ric, my view is that there is something wrong with seeking money for its own sake because it exists purely to be used, but it’s right to seek certain things for their own sake (moral goodness, virtue, philosophy, pleasure, happiness, etc.) My view is a bit complicated, but it’s based somewhat on Aristotle’s idea of final ends.

    Comment by JW Gray — March 5, 2012 @ 9:09 pm | Reply

    • I agree pretty much with that. But given that there are any number of people all through time who will seek money and its attachments, I see nothing wrong in wishing them well as they pass by and make things possible for the rest of us, such as philosophy for its own sake. We can’t fix greed but we can keep it in check (although recent events would seem to contradict that idea) and let it pollinate, if you will, more intellectually interesting pursuits. (I saw a quote today that might fit here, analogically: You can’t fix stupid but you can numb it with a 2 x 4.)

      Comment by Ric — March 5, 2012 @ 9:23 pm | Reply

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