What’s the point of having a Philosophy department in an American University?

by Harry on March 10, 2010

This story (via Leiter) concerns the requirement in Pennsylvania that any university department within the PASSHE system that graduates fewer than 30 majors over five years justify its existence. A theater and dance department chair is quoted as follows:

“This is an insult to many of our faculty who feel what they do is central to the life of the university,” said Dr. Slavin, who also is vice president of the campus chapter of the faculty union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties. “Challenging them to justify their existence is really a slap in the face.”

It is odd that in “normal” times it is just assumed that the departmental units can carry on without ever having to justify or even reflect very much on their existence or what they are supposed to be doing? It is entirely un-obvious why many departments should continue to exist (and some of the most un-obvious graduate huge numbers of majors); and one might have thought that it was a good idea even in normal times to review the justifications of their existence. The fact that there is so little reflection on the missions of departments is down, in part, to a failure of management; a failure that is just made starker by the demand that departments picked out by some arbitrary feature which, until this moment, they have been given no reason to think was a problem.

The issue made it to Leiter because several of the Philosophy departments in those institutions fall into the low-major category. But is producing Philosophy majors the point of having a Philosophy department? In Our Underachieving Colleges (CT review still on its way: DD to blame if I never get round to it) Derek Bok claims that the standard assumptions within most departments in research universities is that the undergraduate curriculum is for attracting and then teaching majors, and, further, that our attention to the majors should be shaped by the aim of preparing them well for graduate school. This means that the curriculum is designed for a tiny minority of the students who take classes, and even many of them, probably, would be better off doing something other than going to graduate school (that’s me, not Bok, saying the last bit).

I don’t think of the curriculum, or the mission of my department in my institution, that way at all.

If I did I would campaign to remove our classes from the list of classes that meet breadth requirements and ask other majors not to require our classes. In most places, including in my department (even now, when we have a glut of majors, no doubt owing to the high quality instruction in my department and the newly found glamour in our field) most of the enrollments in Philosophy courses (as in most Humanities departments) come from non-majors trying to fulfill breadth, general ed, or other-major-specific requirements. If I were in the position of having to justify my own department’s existence, and was unconstrained by the comments of my colleagues, I would focus on the service we do to students for whom the course they take from us is the only Philosophy course they take. For many Business majors taking an ethics requirement, this is the only course in their upper years that they will write a paper, and for most it is one of very few courses in which retaining information will be less important than exercising higher order cognition, facing up to questions to which the answers are not known with certainty by anyone. We serve ethics requirements for many majors, and what we do in those courses is NOT tell them what they ought to think about ethical issues, but introduce them to intellectual resources which, when used by people of good will, will help them to get closer to the truth concerning the hard ethical questions they will face as citizens, professionals, and in their personal lives. Like most Philosophy departments we have an informal logic/critical reasoning course, which teaches students how to identify various kinds of fallacious reasoning, and targets instruction to contexts which the students are likely to find themselves in in the course of their lives. We teach aesthetics, environmental ethics, and philosophy of religion, all of which courses attract students with other majors who want to think at a higher level of abstraction than their regular courses allow about what they are doing in their major.

Of course, all these courses also contain potential and actual majors. Those people teaching the courses are not just teaching a mixed-ability group, but a mixed-interest group, in which students have a wide variety of levels of prior interest, and of other knowledge bases and interests. Ideally we’d be attempting to provide every single student with the experience and resources which will be most valuable. In practice, in large classes and deciding under uncertainty, we can’t do this; we design our syllabuses and instruction with the aim of providing quite specific things to particular groups of students. For myself, in the large lecture Contemporary Moral Issues course which is the course I teach most often, and which I have taught to many many more students than all my other courses put together, I have two main aims – one is to get the students thinking more carefully and in a richer way about moral issues that will affect their lives or about which they will be called to deliberate as citizens, by providing them with resources that our discipline has developed; and to give some of the students a realistic insight into what moral philosophy is and why it might be interesting to them. Both are, I hope, good for the majors, and I do try to ensure that students who either will major in, or are majoring in, Philosophy, will get a realistic sense of what one small corner of the discipline is like from my class — but that’s a secondary, not a primary, goal.

Don’t get me wrong. I like having students who are thrilled about doing Philosophy, and the handful that I have helped on their way to graduate school have been among the students I have valued teaching most. But so have students who became, or are becoming, social workers, nurses, teachers, and who took one of my classes simply to fulfill a requirement or on a whim or because some counselor strongly suggested it (the most insulting — because the student fancied the counselor who suggested it). When I think about justifying the existence of my department and what we should be doing, it is those students, and the value we can produce for them, that I think of first.



Glen Tomkins 03.10.10 at 1:08 pm

The example of Socrates

To be sure, these are matters where the answers are not known with certainty by anyone. But I think that the practical outcome of the Apology should reinforce the lesson that, when called upon to justify one’s philosophic practice, it is probably safest to avoid entirely the subject of half-asses.


Maurice Meilleur 03.10.10 at 1:29 pm

Harry: right on. But right now it’s so very difficult to make this argument institutionally because, especially in state schools, ‘having lots of majors’ is bureaucratic shorthand for ‘being useful to students who want to get a job when they graduate’. Having no majors must mean students don’t see any employment value added–at least to administrators who need to quantify outcomes to justify budget allocations.

Yet ironically, many of the same schools under budget pressure trying to reduce the value of a department to its worth in the marketplace also have some form of enrollment-based funding. So departments not only feel they need to have lots of majors, they also feel like they need to draw in as many non-majors to certain courses as they can. This effectively puts departments into competition with one another, not just for majors, but also for instructional units generally. And administrators often build this factor into their assessments as well: how many service courses does your department provide the school?

On this point Bok’s finding is therefore a bit questionable. What we really have in research universities is a two-tiered system: some courses for majors only (the ones with meat), and some courses that serve as gen eds or proficiency requirement courses for nonmajors. Some of these courses (like the sciences) are still substantive, but many of them are either taught at a level that should have been covered in high school, like composition and languages, or are mostly fluff, like the ‘Religion and Star Trek’ course a friend of mine in religious studies taught some years back while we were in grad school. And as it turns out, a department even with relatively few majors can hang on quite a while if their courses serve a large nonmajor population–like English/rhetoric, foreign languages again, and math.

But how many research universities require a substantial number of students to take a philosophy course as such? I don’t think our business students are required to take ethics in the philosophy department here at Illinois, and I think there is one ethics course for engineers there. I doubt that will suffice to protect them when our college starts to look for targeted reductions.


Zamfir 03.10.10 at 1:34 pm

(CT review still on its way: DD to blame if I never get round to it)
That’s a good excuse. And I can use it too?

An a more serious note: are all your classes, or at least all your lower-year/introductory classes dominated by non-majors? Usually departments have a few classes that attract a large foreign influx, and the other classes might fit the “prepare for graduate school” model a lot more.


Harry 03.10.10 at 1:40 pm

I think Bok would agree with your characterisation of a two-tier system (in fact, my read is that he thinks its a three-tier system, because we effectively discriminate among majors). And I agree completely that these arguments are of limited use in the arguments with administrators at non-research institutions.

Most research universities have breadth/gen ed requirements, and Philosophy usually has many courses that meet them: and departments should figure out how to fulfill them in ways that benefit students without simply being fluff. I don’t understand how English got a monopoly on teaching composition, and I do think Philosophy departments would do well to compete for that if they can. Some level of competition is inevitable, of course.


alex 03.10.10 at 1:49 pm

“(the most insulting—because the student fancied the counselor who suggested it).”

Is it just me getting old that makes me sigh wistfully at this suggestion?


Maurice Meilleur 03.10.10 at 1:53 pm

A number of philosophy courses meet general education requirements at Illinois, too–but they are options, because the way the school has written the requirement in question, courses in both history or philosophy can meet it. Many students spend four or more years here without ever taking a philosophy course. (Of course, I’m sure history loses seats from students who show up having taken the advanced-placement high-school exams in American and European history, just as political science loses seats because of the American Government AP exam. So there are not a few students who finish their degree without ever having taken a history or a philosophy course in college.)


ogmb 03.10.10 at 2:04 pm

and for most it is one of very few courses in which retaining information will be less important than exercising higher order cognition, facing up to questions to which the answers are not known with certainty by anyone.

I’m still trying to find an instructor (in any department) who claims the opposite.


dsquared 03.10.10 at 2:07 pm

It is entirely un-obvious why many departments should continue to exist (and some of the most un-obvious graduate huge numbers of majors)

Absolutely agree with this – there are sooooooo many terrible economics courses out there.


ogmb 03.10.10 at 2:10 pm

As an online discussion about academics grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Economics approaches 1.


dsquared 03.10.10 at 2:12 pm

I think I will also join ogmb’s slight harrumph on #7 – business degrees may cover such mucky matters as the optimal scheduling of hamburger deliveries and the psychology of buying pants, but we are absolutely chocker with questions whose answers are not known with certainty by anyone and unless “higher order cognition” is defined specifically so as to refer to the abstract (which I don’t think it can be since education is just as intrinsically practical a matter as business), I think we have that too.

(I’d also tentatively venture that in several subfields of philosophy, the problem appears to be that absolutely everyone knows with absolute certainty that they’re right and all the others are wrong).


dsquared 03.10.10 at 2:17 pm

In fact, I’d almost argue that comparatively few of the ethical questions which business people face in their everyday life are all that abstract or uncertain, certainly when compared to the difficulty of trying to match supply against an unknown public demand function. There are plenty of difficult ethical matters, but their difficulty usually rests on it being pretty obvious that the ethical answer is one which would be inconsistent with having a thing that you want, not on matters of abstract reasoning.

I can only think of “If I didn’t, someone else would” as being a common business-ethics question with a genuine philosophical controversy attached to it?


Harry 03.10.10 at 2:26 pm

What I can’t tell is whether daniel is making fun of me at 8.

Responding to 7 and 10 (not the parenthesis, the only problem with which is the use of “tentatively” which is either disingenuous or naive….): I think that’s fair enough, and I really should have been more careful. I will say, though, that the many business students I talk to complain i) that they never write papers and ii) that they are taught a lot of information which they are expected to spit back in exams and iii) that group-based work is organised in such a way that a large part of the work often falls on the more diligent students. Some business students hate the uncertainty in my course, others love it, but most that talk to me say it is novel. That said, I’ve explored with them the group work that they do, and it always seems more interesting to me than to them, and I’ve learned a fair bit from talking to them about how to introduce more opportunities for higher order cognition into my course. So, apologies about that.

I don’t know what is typical, but I recently did a rough calculation that over the past 8 years more than 80 percent of the students I have taught have not been actual or prospective philosophy majors. My review of my department’s enrollments a couple of years ago (making various plausible assumptions) yeilded about 60-70 percent non-majors.


alan 03.10.10 at 2:28 pm

As someone who teaching in the PA. system I can say that we do have to “justify our existence.” on a regular basis through 5-year reviews, although nobody seems to take these very seriously. This new set of cuts is just a panicked response to the budget problem, but it I would guess we will see things like this in other states as well. Everyone knows universities are full of fat. Lots of useless programs where nobody does anything of importance. But how can someone who has never paid much attention to the academic side of a university (in this case our trustees and the main office in Harrisburg) figure out what these are? Well, if what we produce is graduates, then the number of graduates a program produces must be the best way to judge them. This is going to lead to all sort of silliness, like some programs eliminating their tracks since none of them individually graduate enough people. I suspect over the next three years or so lots of state schools, especially in the second and third tier will see this kind of crazed hacking. Oddly, I am hearing about it in well-off private schools as well, since they can’t risk having to draw down the endowment. I would have thought the whole point of an endowment was to draw on it when times were bad, but apparently not.


Harry 03.10.10 at 2:29 pm

Well, I don’t teach business ethics (in fact hardly anyone does round here): they have an ethics requirement and can fulfill it in various ways: contemporary moral issues is much the most popular way of meeting it (causing my department lots of problems because demand is high, but we usually get no additional funding for expanding places to meet demand). One reason I don’t teach business ethics is my suspicion that that Daniel is right.


Marc 03.10.10 at 2:39 pm

On the higher order cognition bit: I’d read Harry differently. At one level a college course might be designed to, say, teach students about the geology of the Earth, Shakespeare, or Chinese history. Other courses might be intended to teach students about the scientific method, or logic, or how to write a paper. The latter family of subjects is valuable and different from the former family. In particular, the formal logic in philosophy classes – and the way that philosophers pose questions – is distinct from the sort of approach that most college students see in most of their classes, and it’s worth exposing them to it.

This ties into another area that’s been touched on in this thread. I think that general education courses (e.g. science for non-science majors, writing, ethics, and so on) are actually very important in the US educational system. There are a lot of departments which primarily serve this function. I’m an astronomer, for example, and astronomy is an extremely popular science elective for students nationwide. Students have to synthesize a surprising amount of information across the sciences (physics, chemistry, geology) to learn about the subject matter, so it’s hardly an easy class for most. There are fluff classes, but the solution is to root them out rather than dispense with the concept.


Tom RR 03.10.10 at 2:39 pm

Absolutely agree with this – there are sooooooo many terrible economics courses out there.

As someone with a graduate training in economics, I have to agree. First of all, undergraduate training in economics is of very little use in modern-day graduate school. Knowledge of economics at an undergraduate level is so superficial to produce any meaningful training or understanding of economics. Some of the worse “economic” reasonings come from those attracted to the field after having only introductory or intermediate level economics.


dsquared 03.10.10 at 2:40 pm

#8 certainly wasn’t a joke … I’ve just realised though that you’re talking about undergraduate business majors, is that right? I only really know anything about MBA level courses which I think are very different.


dsquared 03.10.10 at 2:43 pm

formal logic in philosophy classes

I had forgotten this, but a working knowledge of predicate calculus and the tableau method enables you to burn through the “critical thinking” section of the GMAT business school entrance exam, embarrassingly quickly (no exaggeration – it was an hour-long section, and forty minutes is a looong time to sit in silence because you weren’t allowed to leave early) and with 100% accuracy.


Harry 03.10.10 at 2:53 pm

good — I thought #8 shouldn’t have been a joke.

And yes, it is undergraduate business majors. In my experience they are very smart (it is a very competitive major), and many of them find the major quite frustrating. What I’ve read about business schools makes me think that, in fact, undergraduate education is quite a bit better than many of my students think it is, but there is no doubt that they have a good number of ‘learn the facts’ classes, and also that the quality control is not as well exercised as one might hope (but that is true throughout the university, I just hear the stories about the Business school because I teach their students disproportionately).


Chris Bertram 03.10.10 at 2:54 pm

Harry, shouldn’t the post be titled “What’s the point of having a Philosophy department [at an American] University?” since your explanation is so tied up with the major-minor system?


Harry 03.10.10 at 3:05 pm

Yes. Sorry about the lack of truth in advertising. Fixed…


bianca steele 03.10.10 at 3:11 pm

Hmm… second or third hand knowledge of business school ethics-related instruction sometimes makes it sound as if instructors occasionally say, “If you leave this class believing that the law says business people are required to shaft everyone they do business with, I will not have done my job,” and then proceed to characterize the law as requiring exactly that, in copious detail. Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t seem an adequate approach–it seems very confusing.


bianca steele 03.10.10 at 3:12 pm

But this wasn’t at the undergraduate level, rather for people with several years’ job experience–may not be relevant to the thread.


dana 03.10.10 at 3:19 pm

I’d be worried that there is a causal connection you might be missing. If your university did not permit students to major in philosophy, would you be able to offer mid-and-upper level courses, or would you be forced to offer only introductory level courses with no prerequisites? At most places, those mid-and-upper level courses are filled by interested non-majors (or minors), but the courses exist in part so majors can fulfill their requirements.

Understand, I don’t think the point of any major should be to prepare one for grad school, let alone philosophy. I guess I’m just saying that my reaction to this proposal differs based on whether I think the result is no philosophy major, but lots of students getting to take interesting 200-level and up class, or no philosophy major, and lots of survey courses designed to fill gen ed requirements. And I suspect the latter is more likely.


Harry 03.10.10 at 3:30 pm

Dana — your comment worries me a bit, because it responds to what is a genuine unclarity in the post. Sorry. I do see what you say, and wasn’t arguing that we shouldn’t have a major (in fact, I strongly agree with the people who think there should be a philosophy major); I hadn’t really thought about the causal connection, but it makes sense to me. No, I meant just that when we think about why we’re here, and what we should be doing, producing majors should only be one, and not the most important, consideration. So I think that the paucity of majors in a system that allows them is not much of a reason to close a department down.


Anderson 03.10.10 at 3:36 pm

Philosophy can be a good minor even for those who don’t want to major in it, and those students would still need upper-level classes.


dana 03.10.10 at 3:38 pm

Ah, fair enough. I wasn’t sure whether you were saying that, or saying that the elimination of a philosophy major was nothing to fear, since producing majors isn’t the point, etc. I think we’re in agreement.

My concern is that I can’t imagine a university going to all that trouble to eliminate a major without also changing the courses offered, and I think non-majors are horribly served by intro classes and what I’ve read about online learning doesn’t make me hopeful that this isn’t going to destroy philosophy at state schools in PA.


Rich Puchalsky 03.10.10 at 3:41 pm

“It is entirely un-obvious why many departments should continue to exist (and some of the most un-obvious graduate huge numbers of majors); and one might have thought that it was a good idea even in normal times to review the justifications of their existence.”

Why? For what possible reason, other than creeping managerialism, should a long-standing university department like Philosophy have to justify its existence?

To forestall some possible objections ad hom, I’m not a philosopher. I’m not even an academic. But that sentence is a lot like a worker at a factory saying “Well, you know, normally we get a living wage. But have we justified that? The bosses need us to justify our existence, and surely once we participate in the process in good faith, they’ll see how useful we are.”

I really don’t know where to start on this one, and based on previous interactions I suspect that this is one of those CT topics that results in threats of banning. But this described interaction is all wrong. The university has a Philosophy department because otherwise, rightly, the public does not consider it to be a real university, and only students who can’t afford anything else go there.


Harry 03.10.10 at 3:46 pm

Rich — if I thought the public were clamoring for Philosophy departments, I’d still want to know their reasons. They want us to provide professional football, but I don’t think that justifies us in doing so. And even if their demand for a Philosophy department were backed up by good reasons, there’d still be an issue of what our mission ought to be. I’m addressing that, and the justification issue, together.


Rich Puchalsky 03.10.10 at 4:00 pm

A mission statement is different — though talking about “our mission” is creeping managerialism too — because it might result in some change, within the department, of the balance between courses for majors and courses for non-majors. But combining it with calls for justification is wrong. In 21st century America, things are only justified if management is seeking an excuse for cutting them. The athletics department will never have to justify itself.

Having a Philosophy professor be willing to justify Philosophy departments fills me with the same sense of confidence that I get from having Democratic leadership willing to look for bipartisan solutions with Republicans. Certainly, as a politically active person, my response to that within the context of state budgetary politics would be “All right, burn down the Philosophy department, I don’t care. Let’s use the money for someone who really wants it.”


bianca steele 03.10.10 at 4:13 pm

What does a minor usually entail? The Ivies have something called a pre-med concentration (they call minors, concentrations), which for many departments involves a low number of credits and eliminates requirements for fundamental courses. (At some schools, pre-meds are 1/3 of undergraduates.) What do other universities require?


alex 03.10.10 at 4:18 pm

It’s one of those tricky catch-22s, isn’t it? Philosophy, after all, is supposed to be a guide to life. Much as the study of literature was supposed, when it was introduced not so very long ago [compared to the study of philosophy] to help people capture some essences of modern life.

Every humanities discipline has, somewhere in its origins, the claim to be what one needs to understand to operate well in life. Yet for so many of their practitioners, the idea of justifying themselves has become taboo, apparently? A hostile observer could take that as many things, including a literally unjustifiable sense of entitlement, a disconnection from the real lives and concerns of the people they are paid to teach, and a near-dictionary definition of the term ‘up themselves’.


engels 03.10.10 at 4:48 pm

Philosophy, after all, is supposed to be a guide to life.

I think you could be confusing philosophy (and perhaps the humanities in general) with Personal and Social Education or possibly ‘self-help’. Don’t worry: it’s a fairly easy mistake to make and one which quite a lot of other people, for example, Alain de Botton, have made.


ogmb 03.10.10 at 4:54 pm

#12 the many business students I talk to complain (…) that they are taught a lot of information which they are expected to spit back in exams

Like dsquared I’m a bit jaded about those claims by instructors that their classes do in fact challenge students to think on their feet rather than “spit back” pre-approved packages of knowledge because I spent a significant part of my life in business schools (on both sides of the fence). But I don’t think this kind of self-serving attitude is exclusive to business schools, that’s why I advise against using this kind of argument to bolster claims of academic relevance. It’s just simply a rather vacuous statement and more often than not false even if made in full sincerity. The Thompson’s violinist thread was just a point in case, where the ostensible claim was that it should teach students to question their beliefs, but the not-very-well-disguised goal was to get a certain political point across. The step from there to punishing students when they “don’t get the point” is often a very short one. Quite simply, any instructor teaches a certain set of accepted tools and expects their students to apply this toolset to practical problems, and the philosophy department doesn’t differ in kind from business, engineering or law school in that regard. It might differ in degree, depending on the instructor’s willingness to accept alternative approaches, but that’s often something that depends on the individual instructor and not on the institutional environment.

#18 a working knowledge of predicate calculus and the tableau method enables you to burn through the “critical thinking” section of the GMAT business school entrance exam, embarrassingly quickly

Actually, the GMAT is still more demanding than the GRE, which largely depends on vocabulary testing for its verbal part.


Rich Puchalsky 03.10.10 at 5:02 pm

I have no idea who alex is talking about with “Yet for so many of their practitioners, the idea of justifying themselves has become taboo, apparently?” since the only person I’ve seen so far who outright rejected the idea of justification is me, and I was careful to say that I’m not a practitioner. But the attitude that alex goes into, with the whole stereotyped bit about entitlement, is one that’s encouraged by a right-wing media manufactory. It’s not going to go away whether you take pains to justify yourselves or not. Instead, the justification is just going to be mined for reasons to do what the interests in question wanted to do anyways.


Tim O'Keefe 03.10.10 at 5:06 pm

What does a minor usually entail?

It varies a fair amount, but typically it involves about 5 philosophy classes or so total (as opposed to about 10 for a major). Some minors also have some sort of distribution requirements, e.g., you have to have a certain number of upper-division classes, or at least one ethics and one metaphysics/epistemology class. Most philosophy departments try to make the minor quite flexible so that students can easily opt for doing one around their major requirements.


Doug K 03.10.10 at 5:15 pm

in support of #18 in re formal logic in philosophy classes, I’ve similarly found predicate calculus and truth tables of great value in my programming career. Comp Sci didn’t teach it nearly as well. The calculus was however a considerable shock to the arts students who took Philosophy 101 hoping to be able to discuss ‘what is lurve ?’

It is odd that one of the features of creeping managerialism in universities is exactly the failure of management that you point out – installing arbitrary metrics of performance that don’t seem to correspond to any useful goal.


Derek Bowman 03.10.10 at 5:53 pm


While I agree with much of what you say, I think your presentation elides an important distinction between different kinds, and different contexts, of demands for justification. As someone who’s taken a long and somewhat indirect path through graduate school, I’ve had numerous occasions to reflect on what is worthwhile about philosophy as an academic institution – both for myself and for those who are asked to pay to maintain it (esp students and taxpayers). To the extent that we altogether fail to reflect on such matters, we’re falling short both as educators and as philosophers.

But the attacks on the humanities (or academia more generally), exemplified by the developments in PASSHE you start with, are not requests for this sort of considered reflection. You gave only the last part of Dr. Slavin’s comment in the linked article. The prior paragraph provides the context – part of what makes the demand for justification such a slap in the face is that it is based on an arbitrary numeric criteria. Those who fall on the upper side of the criterion need not justify their existence, nor, apparently, do the administrators making such demands.

Such invidious distinctions change the question from, “Education is important business, so let us discuss together the what, how, and for whom we should be focusing our efforts,” to “Money is tight, and it doesn’t look like what you do is all that important – show me I’m wrong or hit the unemployment line.”


harry b 03.10.10 at 6:12 pm

omgb, what was the political point that it was attempting to get across? I don’t know what it is, but no doubt manage to get it across anyway.


Mario 03.10.10 at 6:24 pm

engels @33–

I believe Aaron Preston fairly demolished that view–the view that philosophy is completely otherwise to the fundamental question of “how should I live my life?”–in Analytic Philosophy: History of an Illusion. Questions of right living have been tied up with philosophy from the get-go: after all, what else was Socrates talking to Euthyphro about? (See also: Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, and so forth.)


engels 03.10.10 at 6:38 pm

Aaron, where do you think I said that ‘philosophy is completely otherwise to the fundamental question of “how should I live my life?”’?


engels 03.10.10 at 6:39 pm

(s/b Mario)


dsquared 03.10.10 at 6:40 pm

ogmb is right in #34, GRE not GMAT. I took the GRE but keep having this hallucination that I did GMAT. I hope I never make the mistake on a CV.


dsquared 03.10.10 at 6:43 pm

The other big thing I found from philosophy classes was that after doing a year of moral philosophy, you become pretty good at inventing colourful but ultimately sophistic and tendentious analogies aimed at presenting a previously-decided conclusion to other people in as favourable a light as possible. Which is an amazingly useful skill in a management career.


kid bitzer 03.10.10 at 7:08 pm


well, right; etymologically speaking, “philosophy” means “the love of sophistry”, innit?


Jim Harrison 03.10.10 at 7:30 pm

Whatever else they are, colleges and universities are a means by which civilizations reproduce themselves in each new generation. From this perspective, the question becomes whether philosophy should be part of our cultural capital. Perhaps we would like to dispense with it. After all, philosophy probably doesn’t make people better workers, and it certainly doesn’t make them more tractable inmates of this minimum-security prison of a country. It encourages the belief that justice is something different than administration and that business and medical ethics might be something besides public relations, i.e. something obligatory rather than profitable. Along with the other liberal arts, it subverts the dominant value system by providing a non-economic basis for self-respect. You probably don’t wind up with Stoics immune to fate, but you may get people who simply don’t feel an imperative need to be rich.


ben 03.10.10 at 8:07 pm

I think you could be confusing philosophy (and perhaps the humanities in general) with Personal and Social Education or possibly ‘self-help’.

I prefer the self-help books aimed at answering the question what I may hope to those answering the questions what I can know or what I must do.


ben 03.10.10 at 8:10 pm

I can only think of “If I didn’t, someone else would” as being a common business-ethics question with a genuine philosophical controversy attached to it?

Even ethical, non-corporate, flesh and blood persons often spend the best part of their days working to satisfy corporate needs, and can only behave ethically after work as a sort of hobby.


bianca steele 03.10.10 at 8:20 pm

A few thoughts while the baby is still asleep:

Off the top of my head, philosophy is the only humanities subject that has always been academic, exclusively.

I have run into more than one person whose takeaway from, say, philosophy of science (they identified philosophy courses as having taught them this), was more or less that they now possessed substantive truths, facts about the world, of the sort that could be used to predict large-scale events or for making personal decisions. My impression has been that this was not a confirmation of what they already knew, but new information. I have no problem with philosophy, or Hegelianism, or critical theory (I wish I knew more about them), but I don’t see clarity about questions like: Do philosophy and, for example, sociology agree? Right now, or ideally? Is this what “the elite” believe right now? Which elite–rich people, as Chomsky would have it, and actual business managers? Or a traditional cultural elite?

I assume the problem is students’ preconceptions not being addressed or even recognized, and their picking up strange ideas as a result of outside influences. I also have to assume many people would benefit from knowledge of philosophy. But…

From what little I know about ethics in philosophy, I’m having a hard time imagining how it can help professionals, including businessmen. With undergraduates, I suppose, you try to get them to realize that ethical judgments aren’t shared by everybody, and that some judgments aren’t ethical. What is the takeaway from this kind of pedagogy with thirty-year-olds from diverse backgrounds? (I can easily imagine a slightly bigoted person becoming rather more bigoted than before.) Some of the commenters here appear to be asserting that academic ethics in philosophy departments preaches to students that all they need to know is profit-taking is immoral.

(I hate Wednesdays. I apologize in advance for typos.)


ben 03.10.10 at 8:29 pm


Jim Harrison 03.10.10 at 8:36 pm

It’s a bit ironic to claim “philosophy is the only humanities subject that has always been academic,” not only because a great many if not most of the important philosophers weren’t school teachers, but because philosophers created the academy in the first place. Literally.


bianca steele 03.10.10 at 8:54 pm

I’m not sure what your point is. I meant that arguably philosophy should be “owned” by academic philosophers–I’m less sure that literature or even history is best owned within academia, and for that matter it isn’t obvious that the total capture of science by universities would promote its advance.


Rich Puchalsky 03.10.10 at 9:23 pm

ogmb: “But I don’t think this kind of self-serving attitude is exclusive to business schools, that’s why I advise against using this kind of argument to bolster claims of academic relevance. It’s just simply a rather vacuous statement and more often than not false even if made in full sincerity. ”

Yes, this too. I often wonder, reading these kinds of defenses, what their writers think that people who teach other fields actually do, or whether they have just had little exposure to other fields. If students took every type of course but never had a math course, what would that do to their thinking? Probably a lot more than if they missed philosophy. What if they never had a science course? I’ve seen a lot of students be genuinely broadened by Astronomy 100. What if the student is interested in other kinds of intelligence than those typically tested for, and wants that theater or dance course from the department whose professor is quoted in the original article?

The answer is that a university is supposed to expose people to a broad range of kinds of learning. This is more true of some majors than others, of course, but it’s generally part of makes a university a university rather than some kind of vocational prep school. The people who take the bait and launch a particularist defense of their subject, especially on the grounds that in some sense it teaches students how to think, are making a big mistake.


Steve LaBonne 03.10.10 at 9:37 pm

The answer is that a university is supposed to expose people to a broad range of kinds of learning

I’ll play devil’s advocate here. I can get that by reading, say, the NY Review of Books. What (in most fields) I largely can’t get outside of the academy is at least the beginning of real mastery of a particular field of intellectual inquiry. The latter builds intellectual “muscles” that aren’t exercised at all by mile-wide-inch-deep “exposure”. And I believe those muscles can be of permanent value even for students who don’t go on to graduate study in their major. Therefore in my view the major IS by far the most valuable part of a university education, the most useful aspect of “exposure” coming in the freshman year as an aid to deciding what to major in.


engels 03.10.10 at 9:44 pm

Also worth noting that in many places outside US (eg UK) students don’t study a range of subjects at university, only one. If Rich is right then we’re all screwed. (Of course this doesn’t prove he isn’t…)


Sargon 03.10.10 at 9:48 pm

In my state, Texas, we just revised the thresholds and the consequences for low-producing programs:
Associates and Bachelors levels: at least 5 graduates per year
Master’s: at least 3 graduates per year
Doctoral: at least 2 graduates per year

Consequences for being labeled “low-producing” include program consolidation and closure, as well as a chance to revise and improve the program, depending on circumstances and what the institution decides is the best course.

Given the budget cuts Texas is facing in the next biennium, it’s no surprise that there is a renewed interest in production standards. Gives everyone a reason to look closely at programs that have been on the books a long time, but produce little.


Rich Puchalsky 03.10.10 at 10:35 pm

UK university students don’t study a range of subjects when they’re 18-20 years old? I did not know that. Or did you mean what is labelled in the US “postgraduate” rather than “undergraduate” education?

In any case, defense of philosophy as producing mastery / majors is the exact opposite of what Harry set out to do in this post. (He writes the mostly rhetorical question: “But is producing Philosophy majors the point of having a Philosophy department?” and answers no.) If you do consider producing majors to be point of higher education, then I don’t see any defense for small departments. In the vast majority of cases, they are small because they are poorly funded, not because they are elite, and the person setting out to achieve mastery would do better elsewhere. So yes, if that is what someone thinks that a university education is all about, by all means close down the departments that don’t produce many majors.

Of course, I don’t think that. To answer Steve’s devil’s advocacy, I don’t think that you can get that “by reading, say, the NY Review of Books” on average. Sure, there are a few autodidacts who can. But for most people, if they aren’t given a basic exposure to a wide range of subjects as part of higher education, they don’t want to read the NY Review of Books, and don’t get much out of it if they do. Yes, mastery gives its own kind of benefits, but in the US at least, people don’t really look to an undergraduate degree for mastery.

The rhetoric that Sargon refers to is just annoying. Who knows that these are “programs that have been on the books a long time, but produce little”? Well, if production is defined as number of majors, then you have a nice closed loop, suitable for all kinds of measurement of educational outcomes beloved by managerialists. But all in all that sounds like the kind of thinking that has made Texas such a leader in education and in intellectuality in general. Wait a minute.


Harry 03.10.10 at 10:46 pm

ogmb — I think my policy from now on will be that accusations and insinuations of bad faith are fine, but only when done non-anonymously.

engels is right.

I don’t have time to explain what I do in my course in great detail; but regular readers will have a flavour of it. We cover issues in the ethics of parenting, the ethics of education, the ethics of the gendered division of labour, abortion, all with readings and discussions that are aimed at getting students to think about trade offs in situations where something of value willl have to be sacrificed, both at the personal level and at the level of social choices.

I agree that some of the language I’ve used is sub-optimal, unnecessarily rude to other disciplines, and that I have limited evidence about what goes on in other disciplines. I am grateful to those of you who have pointed that out politely and without impuning my integrity (that’s aimed at you, ogmb).

I’m perplexed by what I take to be the implication that the state owes us a living just because we do philosophy (or literary criticism, or history, or whatever). I think that we have to serve some social purpose, and that in a society which has chosen to make university attendance more or less essential for getting to have an interesting and well-paid job, and in which one’s social origins have a huge impact on whether one gets to go to university, those of us involved in the enterprise (who profit from it — academics complain about their pay and working conditions, but most of us in flagship state universities have extraordinarily good working conditions, and incomes that many other people would be glad of) should be able to say something about why our jobs are worth paying for.


Rich Puchalsky 03.10.10 at 11:08 pm

“I’m perplexed by what I take to be the implication that the state owes us a living”

I’m a leftist. In a sense, I believe that the state owes everyone a living, or at least should do what it can to set up social situations that are conducive to everyone getting as good a living as possible. The rhetoric that says that university departments must justify themselves is the same rhetoric that says that if a factory closes down, the factory workers are out of luck, and there’s nothing to do be done for them now that they are “unproductive”. Of course, university professors do not like to think of themselves as workers, they like to think of themselves as professionals or some such.


Harry 03.10.10 at 11:48 pm

Well, there’s a sense in which I’m a worker. But if I couldn’t recognise the difference between my situation and that of a factory worker, I’m sure they could.


Jake 03.11.10 at 12:23 am

It’s one thing to think that the state owes everyone a living, but surely you don’t think that the state owes everyone a living as a philosophy professor (or actor, rock star, motorcycle racer, or any other high-status job). Or maybe you do…


engels 03.11.10 at 12:53 am

Everyone is owed a living at the average wage. Noone is owed a living above that.


lgm 03.11.10 at 1:07 am

University departments should have to justify themselves not only in light of course enrollments, but in light of the correctness, interest, and usefulness of the stuff they teach. Having read Russel’s “History of Western Philosophy”, my opinion is that not one of the philosophers discussed is worth discussing.

But, agreeing with ben (50). Philosophy departments are beyond useless, they are dangerous. Every minute a college kid wastes studying Hagel could have been better spent basket weaving, or reading Shakespeare, or organizing campus Republicans (or campus Democrats or whatever).


Rich Puchalsky 03.11.10 at 1:14 am

I don’t want to derail the whole thread into what my personal conception of leftism is. The fact remains that I don’t think a narrow defense of one particular academic field as being broadening — or whatever you want to call it — can succeed. It either has to be a general defense of the university, or you might as well just give up and let people judge by number of majors. Particularist defenses of fields as being good for teaching people thinking, or as the only place where students get to write essays, or whatever always have to fail because every field can make similar claims.

And, more importantly, the discussion that you’re being drawn into when you’re asked to justify your field is not a good faith one. You can’t treat the question as if it just appeared out of nowhere, addressed to you by some ideal interlocutor and unconnected to what’s going on politically. Or well, maybe you can, but nothing good will come of it.


Harry 03.11.10 at 1:15 am

Engels is right, except for those workers whose jobs give them spectacular amounts of selfrealisation, for whom the owed wage seems to me to be lower than average.


Rich Puchalsky 03.11.10 at 1:47 am

Engels is right? Well… OK, if we’re going to say more about this, I’ll say more. Thinking of yourself as a privileged person is an individualist view, within the U.S. academic system. In fact, fewer and fewer people are tenured, and more and more work is done by untenured lecturers, temporary teachers of various kinds, and grad students. If you average in those people, you’ll find all of a sudden that the academic life does not appear so lucrative. And of course they depend on the existence of “unproductive” departments just as much as professors do.

What I referred to previously as creeping managerialism is well along. Increasingly, what tenured professors are going to be asked to be is, in effect, middle management, supervising the people who do the bulk of the teaching and even in some cases the research, or managing the department in various ways. When you say that factory workers could recognize the difference between their situation and yours, you’re right — but perhaps not for the reason that you’re thinking of.

And the whole idea of “average wage” seems to me to fail spectacularly once the state intervenes to any significant extent. Once it does, it will naturally drive up the average. Then what?

I’m not saying that everyone has the right to a high-status job. That leads straight into _Social Limits To Growth_ territory. Most status is social status and consists of being “higher up” in some sense than someone else, so not everyone can have it — though people can be high up on different trees from each other, and you can try to maximize the number of trees. But the state could, in this specific example, 1) act to protect the university against stupid and destructive measures like making departments justify their existence locally as fields of knowledge against their number of majors, 2) act to reverse the trend towards de-tenurization, so that a greater percentage of the jobs in academia were good jobs, 3) make sure that the remaining lower-status ones were at least livable, which some of them are decidedly not over any long term.


Harry 03.11.10 at 2:15 am

Rich — I agree that the key thing is to justify the university. Having justified it we have to figure out what our discipline does or can contribute to the realisation of whatever it is that justifies the institution. In the humaninities I think teaching has to be at the core of our contibution, and I think that Philosophy has a distinctive contribution to make (though I completely agree that I mangled the articulation of what is distinctive about it). But the production of majors is not the core contribution; if we had no majors I still think that we would be contributing something distinctively valuable. If I didn’t think so, then I’d think there was no justification. What I misheard you saying much earlier was that somehow Philosophy doesn’t need to be justified. Your most recent post makes me think we’ve been talking past each other a bit (or, perhaps more accurately, that I haven’t really been listening right).

Yes, academia is not homogenous. I’m a well-paid middle-aged tenured professor in a research university with a good wage, a great deal of control over what happens to me in the course of the working day, and I enjoy many unearned priveleges. This puts me in a very different class position than most factory workers and most of the people who would benefit materially if engels’s law were put into effect (as it should be). If I posed as a “worker” most people would find that pretentious and slightly disgusting.

You can go to youtube and watch me being beaten by LA cops with a bunch of real workers if you want; but even then, when I was young, I had many advantages that my comrades didn’t, and both they and I recognised that (which is one reason that in that particular piece of misfortune it made sense for me to be in the frontlines).


Rich Puchalsky 03.11.10 at 3:00 am

“In the humaninities I think teaching has to be at the core of our contibution,”

As opposed to … math? science? business? What academic field does not have teaching as a core part of its contribution?

And does that mean that research, in the humanities, is a sort of non-essential frill? Isn’t it the responsibility of an intellectual to defend research in every field?

I don’t think that Philosophy needs to be justified. Given the general conception of what a university is, and philosophy’s history within it, entering into an argument that justifies philosophy as a part of every university is like making a public policy argument that torture is bad. At the end of the argument, all that you’ve done is taken a formerly barbaric position and legitimized it by making it one of two argumentative camps.

“If I posed as a “worker” most people would find that pretentious and slightly disgusting.”

Well… OK. But consider what the effect of that emotion is. It’s to separate you, isn’t it? Yes, you are white collar rather than blue collar. You are in a field that contains the remnant of various guild privileges. You are, in fact, a lot like many of the white collar government workers who remain once of the largest unionized populations in the U.S. If some government public works engineer referred to being in a union and said proudly that he was a worker, you wouldn’t find that pretentious and slightly disgusting, I hope.

I don’t think it’s an accident or an individual quirk that you feel this way. Actually, I think there’s been a deliberate campaign to make people feel this way. See up above, to comment 32, where alex unreeled some of the “pretentious academics” buzzwords — think they’re better than everyone else — entitled — disconnected from real life — he didn’t put in elitist, but some of the basic tropes of Nixonland are there.

Sure, you aren’t personally going to be hurt — maybe. But as the most visible and public part of the academic system, you have a responsibility to, to some extent, speak for the other people in it as well. And many of them are workers by any sense of the term.


piglet 03.11.10 at 3:06 am

“UK university students don’t study a range of subjects when they’re 18-20 years old? I did not know that. Or did you mean what is labelled in the US “postgraduate” rather than “undergraduate” education?”

In some education systems, in particular in Germany (and I don’t know enough about the UK), University education is in fact highly specialized and aimed at mastering two, at most three (usually related) disciplines. Or should I say this used to be the case, because recent reforms have introduced some version of the American bachelor system throughout Europe, mostly for reasons of (supposed) economic expediency. My own University education back in the 1990s had little in common with the American undergraduate experience. The breadth of learning that is commonly regarded as a goal of US college is in Germany expected to be satisfied by Gymnasium, and it usually is. Gymnasium graduates should have learned 2 foreign languages, been exposed to some calculus and statistics, etc. The best US high schools provide comparable education but the bulk clearly do not and that’s why colleges spend a lot of time trying to bring their students up to speed.

Since the GRE has been mentioned, which is used as graduate school entry exam, it is rather weird that there is nothing in it that requires more than about 10th grade high school level proficiency, at least in my experience. It also appears weird for us non-natives that the GRE would even come up as a topic in a discussion about philosophy and its usefulness. I am just making these observations to point out how specifically American this discussion thread has been, which probably doesn’t surprise anybody.


novakant 03.11.10 at 3:25 am

Well, it’s always a nice touch if people reflect on what it is exactly they’re being paid for, but it seems incredibly naive to think that any “justification” one might come up with could withstand the brutal logic of capitalists (or sozialists for that matter) obsessed with “efficiency” and “usefulness”. I’ve seen McKinsey et al leave behind scorched earth so many times, that I think trying to beat them at their own language game is utterly futile and the only answer is to do your job well and tell them to eff off, because some things just cannot and should not be measured and quantified.


magistra 03.11.10 at 7:52 am

The UK university system is traditionally very specialist. I did my first degree in mathematics at Oxford and in three years I studied nothing but maths. Single subject degrees are the norms and joint honours options (in two subjects) are uneasy anomalies. Some less traditional universities give you a chance to study one or two other subjects in the first year, but there is nothing like a US liberal arts course.

In fact, the specialism starts even earlier in English schools: between 16-18 most students going to university study 3-5 A levels, which are subject specific. It’s entirely possible to do no science or no arts subjects after the age of 16. There’s a reason that the idea of the two cultures was developed by a British writer. Whether all this means, however, that university-educated Britons are substantially less intellectually rounded than university-educated Americans I’m not sure, especially since it’s so easy to forget most of you what you’ve learned at university anyhow.


GW 03.11.10 at 8:56 am

Piglet: The new Bachelor’s degrees in Germany are usually three-year degrees and are very narrowly focused, not only typically requiring course only within a single department but often concentrating entirely on one sub-field of a tradition area of study. The coupling of these narrow three-year terminal degrees with the reduction of the Abitur (award at end of Gymnasium) from 13 to 12 years means, in many cases, that German students with Bachelors will have both a less broad and less intensive preparation. It’s true that the foreign language training in Gymnasium is good, and math is often at a high level, but students typically have plans with 12 to 14 subjects, most of which are limited to two lessons a week, so that by the end of Gymnasium, with all the required review from year-to-year, a student may have had five years of Physics, say, but it is hardly, in sum, the equivalent of a year-long course in the US. Moreover, because Gymnasium is still mostly a class- rather than course-system, the expectation that entire classes move forward with the same schedule creates considerable drag on the overall achievement; and with the Gymnasium now the preferred school form for the majority of students (rather than the elite form as it was in the past, with the majority going to Haupt- and Realschulen), the overall level of expectations has also sunk.

As for the general thread here, there have got to be some universities in which the value of “service” courses to non-majors and the importance of limited-or-non-major-generating departments in insuring the “universal” aspect of a university education receives appropriate value in curricular and personnel planning. Deep Springs College aside, which universities do a good job of this calculation?


engels 03.11.10 at 9:56 am

Rich, just out of interest what does your concept of a ‘white-collar worker’, which includes university professors, extend to? Lawyers? Surgeons? Managers of large corporations?


Sam C 03.11.10 at 10:42 am

A pedantic addition to Magistra’s 71: the system she describes is the English, not the UK university system; undergraduates in Scotland do a 4-year degree of which the first 2 years are rather less specialised, before choosing a major. And some English universities have broader first-years: at Lancaster, where I teach, first-year undergrads take 3 equally-weighted subjects; I believe Sheffield has a similar system.


Hidari 03.11.10 at 10:49 am

‘Rich, just out of interest what does your concept of a ‘white-collar worker’, which includes university professors, extend to? Lawyers? Surgeons? Managers of large corporations?’

Managers of large corporations own, as they say, the means of production. No one is denying that…er…owners or CEO’s of large corporations are…well….members of the capitalist class. Indeed, they are the capitalist class, ‘classically’ defined.

There’s no doubt that some ‘white collar’ workers are doing extremely well indeed, financially, although (and this is a highly important point) unless they actually run the hospitals/law firms themselves, ultimately they are workers, not owners.

But then, back in the day (not so much now) many blue collar workers were also paid extremely well. And in the case of these people and (in the UK) medical practitioners, this was mainly because of strong unions. But again, ultimately although these people deluded themselves that they had ‘arrived’ and had joined the middle classes, when Thatcher arrived and shut down British manufacturing (a process completed by Blair and Brown) they found they had little real power.

The dwindling number of tenured University Professors are, to a certain extent sui generis (although I have known many Professors who get regularly treated like shit by their bosses). But University lecturers in the UK are without question workers: increasingly badly paid, treated like dirt, overworked, de-skilled, tenureless with dwindling prospects of promotion.

And of course in the long run, it is the plan of the real owners of our society that eventually this will be the lot of all University staff.


Hidari 03.11.10 at 11:20 am

Incidentally: again I don’t know about the situation in the States, but in the UK, tenure is a myth. All it means is that you don’t have a ‘short term’ contract (like the majority of researchers, de facto). But make no mistake you can still be hired and fired, even if you are a ‘top Professor’.

The point is not whatever trinkets and glass beads you get thrown by the bosses. The point is to do with power, control and autonomy. And looked at from this position, the vast majority of people on Earth are workers (and even the richest college professor or surgeon is still dirt poor compared to the real money made by the capitalist class: the Bill Gates’s, etc.).

Of course there is a lot of ‘false consciousness’ about this especially from those who like to imagine that they have ‘worked their way out’ of the working classes and have now ‘made it’ and are now clever and classless and free.

But as the song says, you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.


ogmb 03.11.10 at 11:27 am

ogmb—I think my policy from now on will be that accusations and insinuations of bad faith are fine, but only when done non-anonymously.

Harry, I’m not sure which of my comments you read as an insinuation of bad faith (actually I was trying to make exactly the opposite point, that even when made in good faith–i.e. self-believed–the claim is often wrong because instructors inadvertently introduce bias into their curricula and grading), but I added a link to an old profile of mine. I hope it’s ok if I don’t disclose my current occupation (non-academic btw).

I also don’t want to come across as appearing to discourage the idea that business and other career-minded majors should take classes in the philosophy department to fulfill their ethics requirement, but I don’t think your claim which I quoted in #7 is the reason why. One simple reason is that business schools et al. hire their own faculty to teach ethics classes, quite frequently from other departments with the lure of a cushier office and a much fatter salary. The reason why I encourage students to take philosophy classes are 1. the philosophy department is simply an outsider to the often very closed world of b-schools; 2. even if the instructors themselves are often well-intended, I can never shake the feeling that the core impetus of requiring business ethics classes is less to give the student a moral compass than to be able to say “It wasn’t us!” when of their graduates fucks up in a very spectacular and news-headline-y way; and 3. because business schools, by history and design, are fundamentally “how” schools, while philosophy departments are “why” schools, and the risk is high that an ethics class, when taken out of the philosophy environment and transferred into the b-school environment will quickly morph from a “why” class to a “how” class no matter the intention of the instructor. I believe the last point comes close to what you were trying to get across.

Apologies for the run-on sentence — I’m German…


alex 03.11.10 at 11:41 am

I haven’t fucked a peasant in simply ages

Thanks, Hidari, for reminding us that Capitalism is Bad, I don’t know what I’d do without that valuable information.

I do know that entry-level salaries for UK university lecturers are more than double what they were 15 years ago. The trick, of course, is getting an actual job and not just an hourly-paid gig.


ogmb 03.11.10 at 11:53 am

#39 omgb, what was the political point that it was attempting to get across? I don’t know what it is, but no doubt manage to get it across anyway.

harry B (same as Harry B?), please don’t make me re-read the whole thread, but 1. the Thompson essay itself is not covert at all about the point it is trying to get across, it’s called “A Defense of Abortion” after all. And 2. the original post already asserts that:

The second thing that the example establishes is that for many opponents of abortion (all those who say it is ok to unplug oneself from the violinist) the right to life of the fetus plays only a small background role in their justification of abortion’s impermissibility. [Emphasis added]

There isn’t anything wrong with using an advocacy piece as a teaching tool, in fact it’s standard practice. But as a teaching tool it is already used in a pre-conceived manner if the instructor goes into the class believing that it actually establishes rather than simply advocates something.


Hidari 03.11.10 at 12:30 pm

‘I do know that entry-level salaries for UK university lecturers are more than double what they were 15 years ago. ‘

You have a source for that?


Rich Puchalsky 03.11.10 at 1:05 pm

engels, Hidari has pretty much already answered your question to me — do I really need to go on to someone whose screen name is engels about owning the means of production? But I’ll add a few things. Professors are anomalous in a number of ways, yes. But you then go on to “lawyers”. Well, yes, lawyers can be workers. Yes, doctors can be workers. Managers of large firms are management.

Why should that be surprising? Well, from both the right and the left, you get a kind of worker fetishism. Workers are supposed to work with their hands, be “salt of the earth”, not have to think much as part of their job, all of that nonsense. And people on the left are embarrassed to say they are workers because they aren’t tough enough, or something, while people on the right claim to speak for workers and their version of “working-class values” — their version, within the U.S., largely comes down to hating gay people. Other than casting leftists as bottoms and rightists as tops, I’m not really sure what this accomplishes.


Chris Brooke 03.11.10 at 1:05 pm

I don’t know if they’ve more than doubled, but they’ve gone up a lot. When I first looked at academic employment in the UK around ten years ago, entry-level full-time teaching posts tended to pay around £18K, and if I glance at jobs.ac.uk today I see that it’s fairly common to find posts with minimum starting salaries of around £36K (though there are some lectureships in my field that start at, say, £28K). And this isn’t mostly an effect of inflation (it’s been a low-inflation decade); it’s a product of the way the pay-scales have developed over time, with the unions making quite a big deal out of poor pay rates for younger and less experienced staff.


alex 03.11.10 at 1:14 pm

Yes, me. When I got my first post in 1994, my first year’s salary was c. £13K. The lowest point on the nationally-agreed ‘lecturer’ scale, as of September 2009, was £31,671.

You are free to call me a liar about the first point, but the second one is public information: point 32 on this rather confusing scale, whicb covers everyone from cleaners to professors:


engels 03.11.10 at 1:24 pm

‘Managers of large corporations own, as they say, the means of production.’

Er, no, they don’t. Anyway you really think that anyone who draws a salary, whether a brain surgeon, investment banker or a high court judge, is working class? That’s… interesting. It would kind of be more interesting to know what Rich thinks, though, since he was the one I asked.


Richard J 03.11.10 at 1:27 pm

That’s interesting Alex – where does the typical lecturer payscale end?


engels 03.11.10 at 1:45 pm

Rich, to be clear, you would say that all the occupations I listed are working class (not ‘can be’ — ‘are’) on the grounds that they don’t own their means of production?


Hidari 03.11.10 at 1:47 pm

Ha ha! Yeah nice try. ‘Anyway you really think that anyone who draws a salary, whether a brain surgeon, investment banker or a high court judge, is working class?’

That is self-evidently and obviously not what I said. As I said, nice try though.


Rich Puchalsky 03.11.10 at 1:52 pm

I’m denying that one’s occupation, by itself, is the determinant of whether one is a worker or not. Some doctors own their own practice (and are not effectively controlled by some insurance company). They are small businesspeople. Some don’t. They are workers, pretty much.

You added “high court judge” to your incredulity list. Are immigration judges good enough? This thread is in an American context, made explicit by the change in the post title, and in America, your means of defining work status by occupation would exclude a large part of the actual union organizing that occurs. It’s not some theoretical issue, it’s an issue with large consequences for the salaries and work conditions of actual white-collar workers.


alex 03.11.10 at 1:58 pm

@85 – ‘lecturer’ goes up another 5 points, then promotion is usually automatic to the next scale, which goes up about another 8 or 9 points, generally by annual seniority increments. After that, promotions are merit-based, and start to come with more impressive job-titles.


engels 03.11.10 at 2:04 pm

Okay, then I didn’t really understand what you did say, I’m afraid. You said that ‘ultimately’ lawyers and surgeons are workers. You also said that CEOs ‘own the means of production’ which I don’t think is generally true. Other than this I thought you were answering ‘yes’ to my questions in #73 and #86.


engels 03.11.10 at 2:14 pm

Also, Rich, I don’t have the best memory for these things but didn’t we have a little argument here a couple of years ago when you claimed that the whole idea of ‘class struggle’ is obsolete?


engels 03.11.10 at 2:15 pm

(#90 was addressed to Hidari.)


Rich Puchalsky 03.11.10 at 2:17 pm

I’m not really sure where people are going with the UK-lecturer-salary-has-doubled bit, but if, as Chris Brooke writes, it’s due to union advocacy, I’m going to take that as an additional confirmation of what I’ve been claiming. In at least that one additional case, academics who weren’t embarrassed to collectively bargain as workers (or “staff”, in this case) seem to have avoided the increasingly bad working conditions for untenured labor that are taking place in the U.S.


harry b 03.11.10 at 2:25 pm

Thanks for the lesson in false consciousness, Rich, I’ll bear it in mind. You seem to be attributing to me a sense of social superiority that I have not displayed and do not feel, but that’s your business. I agree with you that I have an obligation to use the advantages I enjoy to try and benefit others, and I think other academics do, too. I think Humanities research is all very well, and some of it genuinely contributes to the social good, but mostly through the teaching function (with teaching broadly conceived to include various forms of outreach). Research in social sciences and sciences can contribute more directly (and some of it does).
ogmb – well, I am clear in the post that the article doesn’t establish the permissibility of abortion. It does, interestingly, establish that the right to life plays only a small role in arguments that have any hope of showing abortion is impermissible. Read the article, and you’ll see that that is what the discussions of the violinist, Henry Fonda, and rape establish. That is not a political point (as far as I can see); but the introduction to the normative conceptual space in which the permissibility/impermissibility of abortion actually gets interesting.
I suppose you could say that the right to life is properly understood in such a way that it does, contrary to Thomson, include the right never to be killed by anyone and the right to whatever intervention is needed to maintain and sustain life. Of course, I discuss that option in class (there is no literature that defends that view, so I have to discuss it without the benefit of literature). In the spirit of reflective equilibrium we look at what the consequences of such a view would be, and nobody finds them palatable. I do not reject the option, and in fact I try to get them to take seriously a slightly weaker and more plausible view that we have very extensive obligations to aid needy others, which some of them do find plausible, and which does the job. Even if you take this tack, in which the right to life (or something like it) does play a big role, Thomson has established that you need to theorize, not just assert, the right to life. The assumption that I have not thought this stuff out and/or do not explain it to/elicit it from the students is what struck me as an insinuation of bad faith. But maybe it was an insinuation of incompetence. Anyway, you can see why I was irritated.
Our business school requires its students to take an ethics course, but does not offer an ethics course, so they only take what we offer. I think this is quite a good arrangement for the reasons you give; but a good bit of the thinking in the post is animated by facing the challenge of what good we can be doing in teaching these students and other non-majors who take our courses for breadth purposes. There is a view, which I have not in fact encountered in my own department, but in others, that these large lecture breadth courses should be introducing the discipline (as we conceive it) to the students for them to decide whether they want to go further. I guess the courses should do that, but it is a small part of what they should do – we should be thinking about what else they should be doing, for students who are not considering this as a potential major, or are taking it as part of a quite different course of study. I want people to think more than I see them thinking about what they are, and ought to be, doing with these classes — maybe they are already doing that thinking, in which case I want to hear and learn from what they are thinking. Mostly I conduct these discussions with students, because there is space to do that.


Rich Puchalsky 03.11.10 at 2:31 pm

engels, yes, I think that the idea of class struggle is obsolete, but the reason why has even less to do with this subject than “are academics workers?” does.

To get back to it, I think that my initial comparison — imagining a factory worker who calls for a good-faith effort to justify the jobs at the factory to the boss, and says that after all the people at the factory aren’t owed a living — was a good one. Perhaps in some abstract sense no one is “owed” anything, but people who aren’t willing to defend what they have against obvious political traps soon lose it.


Rich Puchalsky 03.11.10 at 2:52 pm

” I think Humanities research is all very well, and some of it genuinely contributes to the social good, but mostly through the teaching function (with teaching broadly conceived to include various forms of outreach). Research in social sciences and sciences can contribute more directly (and some of it does).”

I just think that this view is completely wrong-headed. I considered becoming an astrophysicist at one time (and have an ABD), so I know something about what scientists do. Is astrophysics only supposed to be contribute to the social good insofar as it (very rarely) produces technological developments? Insofar as it produces marketable job skills? Insofar as it produces popularizations that give ordinary readers a sense of their place in the universe, or something? Insofar as it teaches people basic things about the visible sky?

When someone writes an astrophysics paper with a null detection (there is even a convention in the literature for saying that you looked and found no X, you title the paper “In Search Of X”), or when a humanities professor writes about some obscure author, and in either case no one reads it except a few other specialists, the social good has been served. Believing otherwise leaves academia with no ground to stand on, once you follow it through. And it leads to the kind of society that I don’t want to live in, and that historically has not worked very well.


Zamfir 03.11.10 at 3:05 pm

Rich, I don’t see your point about the justification of factory workers. Most of them can very easily justify their work to management: without installing components A, B and C, the product doesn’t work and can’t be sold. They’re good at installing components A, B and C. What else is needed?

Justifying the exact wage level for that activity is a trickier job, but that’s not what this post was about. I think it’s completely fair to ask from both philosophy departments and factory workers to be able to list which activities they do that justify their funding.


Hidari 03.11.10 at 3:11 pm

‘In at least that one additional case, academics who weren’t embarrassed to collectively bargain as workers (or “staff”, in this case) seem to have avoided the increasingly bad working conditions for untenured labor that are taking place in the U.S.’

Precisely. In any case it’s difficult to compare salaries of lecturers now and lecturers 15 or 20 years ago, not just because of inflation, but also because lecturers have to do so much more work now than they did 15 years ago (and also because the job is much worse in other ways than it was then: far greater job insecurity, far more bullying from management, lower possibilities of promotion: etc.). However insofar as it is a job that is ‘better paid’ that’s because of strong unions and collective action…and what’s wrong with that?

Likewise a lot of people on this threat seem to be living under the misapprehension that there is a largeclass of people (possibly the majority) who are living in some sort of paradise on earth, while a tiny minority of ‘workers’ slave and sweat and till the earth.

The reality is the opposite. There is a tiny minority of people at the ‘top’ who are doing pretty well (this is between 1 and 5% of the population depending on where you live). And the rest of us (and yes, it is ‘us’) face the pressures of work in a capitalist society common to the majority: de-skilling in our jobs, lower job security, more bullying, less possibilities of promotion, harder (in the sense of ‘tougher’) work, posts that need more and more years in education (hence, not earning) to obtain…and so on.

Moreover, even insofar as it is the casethat, for example, academics and doctors and lawyers constitute a ‘privileged’ caste….this is only in the ‘West’. There are many many many doctors and academics in Africa and South East Asia and Eastern Europe and Russia who ‘we’ would not hesitate to describe as poor…and yet the majority of people on Earth live in these places, not in the ‘west’.

And even in the West it’s just not like that. I know plenty of lawyers and doctors and academics, who are in a position to compare these jobs to what they were 40 years ago, and I know scarcely one who would say that the job has improved (and none of them are living la vida loca in any case). Yeah it’s true that back in the 50s and 60s being an academic, say, was a pretty cushy number. But the numbers of people who did it were tiny, and that was a long time ago.


ogmb 03.11.10 at 3:18 pm

well, I am clear in the post that the article doesn’t establish the permissibility of abortion.

Sorry, the “emphasis added” in the quote that was un-added by the script was on “establishes”. For this discussion I’m much less interested in what you think it establishes than that you believe it establishes something, and that you walk into the classroom with this belief. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but it goes against your own claim that “what we do in those courses is NOT tell them what they ought to think about ethical issues”. By using the Thompson essay for the discussion you already make the students accept a framework that might put them at a considerable disadvantage in defending their view, even more so if you consider some of its claims “established”. And students tend to respond to this kind of uneven playing field, oftentimes quite opportunistically so. This isn’t to say, why oh why do philosophy professors force their student to accept a certain viewpoint??, but that as instructors we always bring our biases into the classroom, and philosophy isn’t shielded from that, nor does it derive its raison d’etre from it.


Rich Puchalsky 03.11.10 at 3:20 pm

Zamfir, I think that you (like Harry B) are confusing the explicit and implicit meaning of the call for justification.

In fact, factory workers don’t justify their work to management. Management hires them because management needs work done. Management, in effect, supplies its own justification. Yes, each individual worker may have an entrance interview, where they say that they personally can do the job, but the workforce as a whole, when it is formed, is “justified” by management’s plans.

The only time in which calls for justification from workers appear is when management wants to fire people wholesale. In countries where the workers have no right to organize or anything else, management just fires them. But in countries where they do, management calls on them to participate willingly in their own destruction. If they can be diverted into each individually writing up why they should be one of the people who stays, instead of organizing communally, it’s no effort to fire them.

The whole departmental-justification bit is the same thing on a larger scale, complicated by the U.S. right-wing-propaganda-encouraged attitude towards anything that smacks of public funding. Yes, the public can choose to defund a university — just as management can, in the end, choose to close a factory. But that’s not really what’s being talked about here, because politicians understand that U.S. states that do close their universities, effectively, are poor places and become poorer. So they want to get rid what they see as the non-productive people and keep only the productive ones. Well, they have to be told that the university is as organic unit and can’t be pared away down to a business and technology school without losing what makes it a university.


novakant 03.11.10 at 3:28 pm

Why on earth should the humanities have to justify their usefulness, when capitalism is built on the principle of selling large amounts of useless tat to as many people as possible? Do you think the people making real money are interested in benefiting society? They’re interested solely in making money and in gaining and maintaining power, both of which are pretty useless to society. The value of the humanities on the other hand is self-evident.


alex 03.11.10 at 3:34 pm

Useless but desirable tat. If only we could make critical thinking and clarity of self-expression somehow things that people actually wanted. But instead we get Sarah Palin. And BoJo, for us Brits [who is at least a classically-educated inarticulate buffoon, let it be noted].


Harry 03.11.10 at 3:41 pm

Well, if you expect professors to teach articles that they do not believe establish anything, you’re expecting us only to teach 3rd rate stuff.

If I didn’t also use two articles (one of which I admire as much as the Thomson article, and the other of which is an interesting counterpoint) which argue, in different ways (one more powerfully than the other) that abortion is deeply immoral, then the students might well think that the playing field was uneven. I don’t know of anyone who teaches Thomson’s article without also teaching high quality pieces which take a contrary view. I wouldn’t teach an issue in which I couldn’t do that (I taught about same-sex marriage once, and found the best anti-same sex marriage literature so bad that it was embarrassing to try and give it its due, with the exception of one very good piece by a colleague of mine who argues against marriage altogether, and having that be the counterpoint distorts things even more — so I don’t teach it). Again, you are making false and unwarranted assumptions about what I do — and about what other people in philosophy departments do — that are, frankly, insulting.

By the way, it also seems that you assume that I believe there is a (moral) right to abortion. I don’t, but I don’t tell the students that, and I do make it very clear that my classroom is a space in which all reasons are to be explored and agreeing with me about any substantive issues is 100% irrelevant to whether they will receive good grades, praise, etc. There are other issues I teach on which a bit of googling would enable students to figure out pretty quickly roughly what my views are: but,they come later in the course precisely so that the environment I want to create is well-established.

FWIW the best student evaluation comment in my tenure packet (long ago now) was “I am a Rush Limbaugh listening conservative Christian, and I expected this to be just another class in which a liberal professor would tell em what I ought to think about the issues — and it wasn’t like that at all, even though I found out that Brighouse is a socialist, in the class the views that I and other conservative students expressed were encouraged and treated respectfully so that other students had to think about them”. I knew immediately who the student was — she spent a considerable part of the subsequent few years in the MP in Bosnia and Afghanistan. She, and her best friend (who subsequently, I strongly suspect, became an intelligence agent of some sort for the US in Africa) were the first students to contrast my class favourably with their business classes.

Another student in a different class (an evangelical Christian who reads CT) told me that until I made a comment about being an atheist (the context is one in which I am trying to challenge both the religious and non-religious students to question their common assumptions about what the separation of church and state requires) she had thought I was “one of us”.

Just anecdotes, but ones that tell you something about the class atmosphere and what I am trying to achieve for the students, and why your assumptions to the contrary seem insulting to me. Oh, and I’m not telling you this stuff because I think I’m unusual — quite the contrary, the standards I apply to my teaching of these issues are not plucked out of the air, but are norms in the discipline, as a perusal os textbooks, syllabuses, etc, and some time in the relevant classes, would reveal.


engels 03.11.10 at 3:56 pm

I don’t believe that the working class is a ‘tiny minority’. I don’t believe that one’s class (or ‘work status’, whatever that means) is determined purely by one’s job title. And I don’t really understand why anyone would infer I believe these things from anything I did say or imply, which is just that I don’t believe that university professors (or company directors, surgeons, judges, etc) are working class.

But, as always, it’s been fun. And I leave you with Raymond Geuss on the purpose of academic philosophy:

I have what I have always held to be a mildly discreditable day job, that of teaching philosophy at a university. I take it to be discreditable because about 85 percent of my time and energy is devoted to training aspiring young members of the commercial, administrative or governmental elite in the glib manipulation of words, theories and arguments. I thereby help to turn out the pliable, efficient, self-satisfied cadres that our economic and political system uses to produce the ideological carapace which protects it against criticism and change. I take my job to be only mildly discreditable, partly because I don’t think, finally, that this realm of words is in most cases much more than an epiphenomenon secreted by power relations which would otherwise express themselves with even greater and more dramatic directness. Partly, too, because 10 percent of the job is an open area within which it is possible that some of these young people might become minimally reflective about the world they live in and their place in it; in the best of cases they might come to be able and willing to work for some minimal mitigation of the cruder excesses of the pervading system of oppression under which we live. The remaining 5 percent of my job, by the way, what I would call the actual “philosophical” part, is almost invisible from the outside, totally unclassifiable in any schema known to me—and quantitatively, in any case, so insignificant that it can more or less be ignored.


Rich Puchalsky 03.11.10 at 4:03 pm

“I don’t believe that university professors (or company directors, surgeons, judges, etc) are working class”

Engels, I realize that you’re answering Hidari there, and not me — or I think so, anyways — but what does it matter what “class” they are? The whole idea of class, as you are in the process of illustrating, has become bound up with a lot of stuff about presumed social status of occupations. But I’ve supplied three actual links now to actual members of these occupations who are organizing as workers, in unions. They don’t really care what “class” you think all surgeons are in. They’re workers.


John Alexander 03.11.10 at 4:33 pm

This may have been mentioned earlier, but in case it has not, it is important to remember that many colleges/universities have adopted a business model of how to operate an organization and are now attempting to remake their academic institutions into ones the represent good business practices. To accomplish this means that questions of efficiency and cost/benefit are going to be determinators in what will be offered, hence the need to justify ones position – a common practice in business. I also suspect that this means that in the future we will see an erosion of what has been traditionally referred to as a ‘liberal arts’ componet to eductaion as more and more students will simply want courses that enable them to gather skills to be successful in some ecomonic function – hence the increase in busiess schools and ‘universities like DeVries, Phoenix, Baker, etc. -over the years – in the quickest and least expensive format possible. Even though I spent thirty five years in business, I see this as a disaster, but it is a social/economic movement that is taking place and we are now only observingf the ‘tip of the iceberg.’


lindsey 03.11.10 at 5:39 pm

To vouch for Harry, your average student really won’t be able to tell what he thinks about most of the issues he covers unless they explicitly ask him about it outside of class. That’s what happened to me. Or maybe I was just below average and blind to the obvious bias seeping through in the lectures ;)

At least he manages to appear unbiased with also appearing too pessimistic about the matter. I’m pretty sure all I’ve convinced my students of is that I don’t think anyone has gotten it right ( in a political philosophy class).


lindsey 03.11.10 at 5:40 pm

*without also appearing…


Michael McCollough 03.11.10 at 5:48 pm

I’d like to point out something that hasn’t been mentioned yet. Once these departments are eliminated there’s no way to get them back: A department that doesn’t exist is never going to have more than five majors.


Eric 03.11.10 at 6:04 pm

“The fact that there is so little reflection on the missions of departments is down, in part, to a failure of management; a failure that is just made starker by the demand that departments picked out by some arbitrary feature which, until this moment, they have been given no reason to think was a problem.”

I honestly cannot make any sense of the second long clause in this sentence–the one after the semicolon. Can “to pick out” be intransitive? Is it being demanded that the departments pick out (i.e. select) an arbitrary feature, etc.? Is there a missing subjunctive verb that would describe what the departments are demanded to do?


Harry 03.11.10 at 6:17 pm

I didn’t pay Lindsey to say that….

A friend wrote to me the following:

As Harry knows, I’m currently in a management position in my university. It would actually be rather hard for me to ask a subject to justify its existence without being radically misunderstood. Both those above and those below would understand the question as (a) rather aggressive and probably part of an “agenda” and (b) mainly financial in nature. If I were to persist, and stress that, no, really, I’m interested in an
_intellectual_ justification, I think I’d be regarded as some kind of oddball who wants to have a conversation appropriate for the pub or seminar in the boardroom. Not that I’m saying that such conversations shouldn’t take place, but you risk exposing yourself as some kind of quaint relic for trying.

I have three responses. First, I completely agree that managers suddenly inviting this discussion will seem weird at best, and it highlights what many have perceived as the cack-handed way I’ve introduced this. But it doesn’t seem so weird to think there should be regular discussions of what the point is of having the disciplines and departments we have. They grew up in a particular era, and there’s no reason to believe that continuing in exactly the way we are is the best way of continuing.

Second, the dynamic seems different when someone from within the discipline offers a justification for discussion than when it is demanded (the Leiter thread on the Pennsylvania situation makes it clear that various quite creepy things are going on, but that’s not a reason for the rest of us not to have a discussion).

Third point is this: I’ve been paid in some form to do Philosophy for nearly 25 years and until it was prompted in a recent meeting, have never had a formal discussion of how we should think of ourselves as contributing to the mission of the university or of what our own mission is (with regard either to our majors or students from other majors who take our classes). According to Bok my experience is far from unique. This is a discussion I want to have because the outcomes will affect choices I make about what and how I teach. I’d love to find out that I am wrong, but I suspect that a good deal of “service lecture class” teaching is done without much reflection on what its purposes are, and I’m sure that much of what reflection is done is private (as mine has been until recently), and is therefore not as good as it would be if it were conducted in forums in which we could learn from each other (faculty meetings, blog posts, even pubs, though I wouldn’t be in those discussions).


Harry 03.11.10 at 6:17 pm

Oh, and obviously I am more than happy to be perceived as a quaint relic.


brad 03.11.10 at 6:36 pm

Just a clarification. PASSHE isn’t asking departments to justify their existence. They’re asking departments with “low-enrolled” programs to justify the existence of those programs. So, as far as I know, there is no talk of eliminating philosophy departments. There is talk of eliminating the majors programs in those departments.


Sebastian 03.11.10 at 6:42 pm

Engels: “Everyone is owed a living at the average wage. Noone is owed a living above that.”

Considering the amount of agreement this statement has received on the thread, it argues greatly for the teaching of basic mathematical principles in the university for humanities types who want to make wholesale changes in the economy.
Either you are arguing for the rather surprising idea that every single person in a state should get paid exactly the same amount, or the phrase ‘average wage’ when expressed as a floor makes no sense at all. ;)

More seriously Harry, could you point to the pro-life pieces you use? I’m curious about them.

On topic, I’m a conservative, so I have no trouble whatsoever with the idea that Philosophy departments are a well established part of university structures. As such, if you want to question their ‘justification’, a manager should have an excellent explanation for why they have been there in the past, and why those reasons no longer apply before he should be permitted to take the fence down.


alex 03.11.10 at 6:57 pm

I was wondering who I could apply to for the living I’m owed. I presume it doesn’t involve any actual work, and look forward to living in a society where people can please themselves about what they do, and still get paid for it. I for one will take up competitive olive-pip spitting, [but purely pour le sport you understand], I think it will suit my essentially Mediterranean outlook on life.

IOW, you can put that one in the well-known category of “too silly to be worth arguing against, especially as, despite its silliness, it is held as a belief sufficiently sacred to generate vituperation when called into question”.


Mark Lovas 03.11.10 at 7:40 pm

Perhaps it is true that most philosophy departments believe that they are preparing students for graduate school. However, I was a Philosophy major at the University of Texas-Austin from 1972-1976, and then went on to get a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and I believe that UT did a very poor job of preparing me for graduate school.
Although I can think of individuals at UT who inspired me and gave me an opportunity to improve my writing, I received precious little feed-back during my undergraduate days. And, when I did go on to graduate school, I was less well-prepared than my classmates.
This caused me more than a little discomfort, and even today when I receive letters asking me to donate money to UT–let alone any sort of survey from the Department of Philosophy–I am prone to utter words which embarrass anyone within earshot.


Rich Puchalsky 03.11.10 at 7:45 pm

alex, society is already productive enough so that we could provide the basic necessities of life to everyone without even asking whether they’re employed or not. As productivity (presumably) continues to increase, we’ll approach closer and closer to post-scarcity conditions in some areas, which may well have the effect of heightening competition for positional, social goods. I’ve already mentioned _Social Limits To Growth_. Have you read it? Have you, in fact, read anything on the subject? I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting to see what a vaguely British version of a Dirty Hippies sneer is like.


tired of blogs 03.11.10 at 7:47 pm

Re the GRE, sadly it no longer has an analytic section. The GRE now tests only verbal and math skills, and the math skills required are no harder than those on the SAT (which has the effect of severely skewing the scores on the math section, since all the engineering/math/etc. students ace it).

I miss the logic games and argument analyses. At least there’s still the LSAT and GMAT.


Salient 03.11.10 at 9:11 pm

Either you are arguing for the rather surprising idea that every single person in a state should get paid exactly the same amount, or the phrase ‘average wage’ when expressed as a floor makes no sense at all. ;)

Apparently somebody’s never heard of Garrison Keillor. You’re missing out, man.

Of course, to be reverse-barrel-turn pedantic, the statement makes perfect sense for mean-floor-mean, for median, and for mode, just not for the simple mean average, so your comment doesn’t make sense unless your goal is to harangue people for not using the obtuse but perhaps more formally correct phrase ‘measure of central tendency’ for ‘average,’ …in which case your comment is awesome.


engels 03.11.10 at 9:26 pm

Well actually I was suggesting that everybody should be paid the same. And Rich if there was no class struggle then it wouldn’t matter to me what class people are either.


Sebastian 03.11.10 at 10:20 pm

Actually it makes no sense for the median either except for really weird distributions. And it is unlikely for the mode as well except in a some sort of tautological “most of the people made what most of the people made” kind of way.

But engels clarified to the radical “all people should be paid the same” definition. Which is correct usage, though borderline crazy.


bianca steele 03.12.10 at 12:13 am

Looking at the thread at Brian Leiter’s blog, it sounds as if the management theory being used to justify the reductions is something like “core competences.” The idea isn’t that, for example, email apps are a waste of time. The idea is more along the lines that Microsoft Outlook is sure to be the winner, and we are not, so we are throwing money away in the email app business. Or, a firm might determine “what we do really well is coming up with neat ideas and selling things, but as far as we know we’re no better than anybody else at implementing the ideas and making the things, so we will pay other people to do the latter, and repurpose manufacturing to vendor management,” I’m not sure how this could apply to academia, but it may make more sense together with @113 than otherwise.


alex 03.12.10 at 8:28 am

@117: Rich, you may think that, but I have my doubts. I would further point out that producing a society in which everyone accepts that everyone is entitled to have the same, and only the same, as everyone else, will require a cultural upheaval so vast as to surely require either divine intervention, or coercion on a scale going beyond even the Stalinist terror, to achieve. I am willing to entertain any and all evidence-based arguments to the contrary, as I would quite like to be able to believe them myself, as it happens: I just find it impossible to do so and retain a grip on reality.


Chris Bertram 03.12.10 at 8:55 am

Rather agree with engels on equal pay, modulo the points made by Harry at 65 and a corresponding positive allowance for people in shitty jobs. Sebastian, alex (et al?) … whatever your “grip on reality”, the claim that there are _pro tanto_ reasons to pay everyone the same shouldn’t be taken to mean that we should immediately pursue equal payment at the expense of all other values.


alex 03.12.10 at 9:21 am

But there are pro tanto reasons for saying it would be nice if every day was a sunny day, so what?

I note also you say “to pay everyone the same” – who does the “paying”? Do you mean to divide all the world’s economic resources equally – in which case, what force do you intend to use to keep them that way? – or do you only want to have a command-economy within a single state – in which case, who died and made you Stalin?

You may think this is a trivial right-wing snark, but I am entirely serious; because if anyone could provide answers to these questions that didn’t appear to me to be simply silly, I would be happy to go along with them. I am an instinctive egalitarian, it just looks to me like most people aren’t, and I don’t see how you’re going to make them be different just to suit your view of how things ought to be.


Chris Bertram 03.12.10 at 9:38 am

_there are pro tanto reasons for saying it would be nice if every day was a sunny day_

You think? Really?


harry b 03.12.10 at 1:33 pm

ogmb — you’re welcome to re-post the deleted email, but please do so under your real name. (I’ve kept it and will repost myself under your real name if you ask me to).


alex 03.12.10 at 1:39 pm

Well, as far as it goes, wouldn’t it be nice to see the sun every day? Occasional showers are good too, as far as it goes; but, as far as it goes, what’s your answer to my substantive question? Right now I’m reading between the lines that it’s something like “I’m a socialist and that makes me better than you, so nyah.” And frankly, I’m not finding that very persuasive, so if you’ve got a better one, pony up.


Salient 03.12.10 at 2:04 pm

Actually it makes no sense for the median either except for really weird distributions.

Wait. Does it really make no sense for, say, more than half of the population to be making a given “floor” living wage, and the remaining slightly-less-than-half to be making more? I mean, that kind of distribution doesn’t guarantee that the wage received by the first half would be a fair living wage, etc, but it’s not a theoretically impossible / incomprehensible distribution. (On the other hand, there’s only so much time it’s worth investing in hashing this out, and I’ve probably passed that, especially since engels has already clarified. Sorry…)


harry b 03.12.10 at 2:12 pm

I’m with CB on the weather. Both engels and CB (and I) could give arguments in favour of a much more egalitarian wage rate but that would be very far off topic from this thread. None of us are Stalinists in any sense — we do not believe that we have legitimate authority to impose egalitarian wage rates even if we had the power and know-how. This is something we think we have to argue and struggle over in a democratic framework. All of us (sorry to speak for you engels, and you can correct me if you want) think that there are good reasons to depart somewhat from an egalitarian baseline (dangerous, or crappy jobs, etc). And it is wage rate, not income, that we think should be equal.


harry b 03.12.10 at 2:14 pm

Here is something CB and I wrote together containing some arguments:


Rich Puchalsky 03.12.10 at 2:20 pm

“I would further point out that producing a society in which everyone accepts that everyone is entitled to have the same, and only the same, as everyone else,”

alex, you wrote that as if it was a response to me. That really makes no sense, as I had just written that social competition for positional goods would be heightened, not lowered or eliminated. I don’t agree with engels, and answering as if everyone to the left of you was the same person doesn’t get you anywhere if you expect an actual answer.

No, I don’t expect a society in which everyone is “entitled to the same”. I expect one in which everyone is entitled to, as I already wrote, the necessities of life. That’s hardly science fiction. The National Assistance Act, for example, started to be implemented in Britain in 1948. As it becomes cheaper to provide the necessities of life, I expect the conditionality of this kind of support on proving that one is seeking employment to be dropped, especially as people will want less competition for the high-status jobs in any case.

But people should organize and intervene beyond that, in areas where other interests in society have created structures that aren’t good for people to live in. For instance, industries that, under the profit motive, want to thoroughly deskill and temp-ify their labor force. Which is really what this move to make departments justify their existence or become teachers of non-majors only is all about.


Bloix 03.12.10 at 5:03 pm

Wow, has this moved off target.
I would think that the underlying issue here is that the concept of a “real university” no longer has much content.

At one time, universities had a “core curriculum” that required every student to master certain material that was considered essential to the life of an educated person. Those days are gone. As far as I know, there are only two schools in the US that still have core curricula – Columbia College of Columbia University, and Reed College.

The rest have some sort of mushy distribution requirement scheme that results in virtually no commonality of education, or nothing at all. So you can get a degree from a university without having read a word of Plato, Augustine, Rousseau, Marx, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or Locke. You don’t have to know when the Crusades were or what happened during the French Revolution. You can be entirely ignorant of the periodic table, the role of DNA, the structure of the atom, the theory of relativity. And you certainly don’t have to be able to comprehend a complex abstract argument and to judge whether its reasoning is sound or fallacious.

In a world without core curricula, who is to say that philosophy is more important or central to the role of the university or otherwise more “privileged” than, say, recreation management? No one would say that every single school in the U.S. has to grant a bachelor’s degree in recreation management. So why does every single school have to offer a degree in philosophy? Because if they don’t, there won’t be any philosophers wearing floppy hats in the commencement parade?


Mike Austin 03.12.10 at 5:09 pm

The situation in Pennsylvania makes me a little bit nervous, given that the department I teach in wouldn’t meet such a requirement regarding majors. However, our existence could be justified along the lines discussed in the original post. The introductory courses we teach are full, and we sometimes are asked to add sections when the demand is high. While enrollment alone is not a sufficient justification, the experiences and opportunities provided by our department to students who will teach, go into law enforcement or health care or business, is very valuable. I would add that other faculty can benefit from having philosophers around for a variety of reasons, just as we benefit from them.


Wendy Lynne Lee 03.12.10 at 5:38 pm

What I find interesting about much of this discussion–and I readily admit that I haven’t read all of it as carefully as I might–is that to whatever extent we’re looking to justify philosophy programs, we are in fact engaged in a philosophical project. Note, I am not suggesting that philosophy programs at colleges and universities (research or otherwise) are necessarily self-justifying–but I am suggesting that any department whose faculty has the wherewithal to critically evaluate whether their program ought to continue is probably one that ought to continue.

I also don’t for a minute deny that there are difficult and thorny questions to be addressed about the particular aims of specific departments–and that answering these questions depends on a number of variables. But I want stalwartly to resist the claim that any institution of higher learning without a philosophy department can call itself an institution of higher learning. For whatever else a philosophy department is, it is a reminder of the vital value of both conceptual connection among the disciplines and the critical thinking with which to evaluate what they do. Indeed, I would argue that to query the existence of any program demands its institution’s philosophers because it demands the attention of those whose profession it is to see the ethical, conceptual, aesthetic, and epistemological linkages between the programs in question and the rest of the university’s mission.


Rich Puchalsky 03.12.10 at 5:41 pm

“I would think that the underlying issue here is that the concept of a “real university” no longer has much content.”

I pretty much have to agree with Bloix. In particular, I don’t think that the philosophy professors who have commented here (or posted, in Harry’s case) seem to have the concepts that I’d recognize about what a real university is. Mostly what I’ve seen is “I would focus on the service we do to students for whom the course they take from us is the only Philosophy course they take” and “I think Humanities research is all very well, and some of it genuinely contributes to the social good, but mostly through the teaching function […]”. (Those are both direct quotes, but feel free to correct me if they are not representative.) That’s not an argument for anything resembling a university, with courses taught by professors. You could perfectly well bring in someone who was interested in Philosophy as an undergraduate, or maybe even a grad student, and get them to be a temporary lecturer to teach those courses. And that’s exactly what’s going to happen.


Harry 03.12.10 at 6:32 pm

Well, Rich, I think this is my last comment to you. I wasn’t trying to argue for anything resembling a university — I was taking the university for granted, and making a case that a substantial part of the role of a Philosophy department (but by no means the entire role) should be as I describe. I agree with you that there is more to it than that. If universities were the way that some people (eg Stanley Fish) seem to think they should be — that is, places which focus solely on specialized research and finding those students whose lives can be devoted to that in turn, then they would be much fewer and smaller, and much of the education of most of the most-advantaged quarter of the cohort (that’s who we’re talking about) would go on elsewhere. But our society has made university attendance a sine qua non for most of the more advantaged positions in our society, and because I agree with you that that society is radically unjust, I believe that we have a duty to do more than just attend to our specialisms and communicate them to the elite that has been socialized to appreciate them.

If you think it takes no expertise to teach the kind of things I’m talking about well then, yes, you could just have it done by people who are at the beginning of their careers and have no kind of career structure. I know that some very smart people who are excellent teachers and would be excellent scholars if given the right circumstances teach as adjuncts, and I know (only too well) that some of our graduate students are both more talented and more accomplished teachers than I am. But that’s the exception, and in general this is a more skilled task, requiring wider experience than the leaders of these institutions and you seem to think.

Wendy — thanks for coming over here to comment. Your comment made me laugh because it is absolutely right. That’s why I think philosophers have an important intellectual and political role to play in the resistance to these moves. Tell us if there is anything practically useful that we can do.


Rich Puchalsky 03.12.10 at 6:52 pm

Harry, you were taking the university for granted while discussing a political proposal whose entire purpose is to destroy what was traditionally thought of as a university.

Do I agree that professors should teach people who take one Philosophy class, as well as people who major in Philosophy? Yes, of course I do. I think it’s quite valuable for students who aren’t majoring in philosophy to take a course in it — just as I think that students should have at least one math class, one science class, etc.

But no, you really don’t need a Ph.D. to teach that kind of class. A Ph.D., and the whole apparatus of professorship, is only justifiable if the person teaching is: a) expected to do research, b) expected to teach future experts.

And b) above depends on a), because there is no point in having experts in something if you don’t value research in that field for its own sake. That’s why I think that the entire academic humanities ends up collapsing if one takes the attitude towards research that your comment above takes.


Wendy Lynne Lee 03.12.10 at 7:15 pm

Lovely to “meet” you Harry, and since you risked asking so loaded a question as whether there is anything practically useful you can do, I am happy to suggest some things:

1. Rich is mistaken. I think we–as philosophers and other academics–have a perfectly good idea of what a university is, namely, that essential social institution whose mission it is to engage in the production, dissemination, and ongoing critique of knowledge; to query regularly and meaningfully what counts as knowledge for a given discipline, to advocate for the value of knowledge in all its forms–scientific, sociological, psychological, philosophical, literary, aesthetic, etc.–and to instill in our students as well as encourage in our colleagues that value.

If we have failed/are failing to achieve something here, it’s that we are not making clear enough to our STUDENTS–regardless whether they are majors, our majors, or whatever–this mission. Part of what we therefore MUST do, in my view, is enlist students to this mission, recruit them to the values of higher education–not just to psychology, sociology, the sciences, or philosophy, but to the value of contributing to knowledge as a citizen thinker. In other words, what I think we need to do much more is not merely teach students the desiderata of our disciplines, but teach them why they should CARE. If they cannot be persuaded to care, we are left with little more that Fish’s destitute and elitist vision of not just education–but knowledge production more generally–and we we all be diminished by that thin vision.

2. We need to solicit our institutions administrators–especially presidents and provosts– for unequivocal, publicly accessible, commitments to the humanities and the social sciences. We need to get them on record in support of a REAL university’s mission.

3. We need to speak out publicly in venues that reach people more generally–not just on philosophy Blogs–about the value of what we do. I know the refrain–it’s just too much work to make them understand (or it’s their job to do so)–especially in the current anti-intellectual neo-conservative ideological climate. But I am more and more convinced that once we concede to this–once we concede to the notion that the Glen Beckian masses just can’t be made to understand–we have already lost. We MUST make ourselves more clearly heard–not because the public at large should get to decide whether the university any longer has a place in the society, and not because we do or do not owe that public an explanation of what we do, but because they’re young adults are our allies.

So, here are a few of my suggestions. Each of them involves work beyond what’s in any of our contracts. each of them is potentially risky, and probably requires a tenured professor to carry out. But tenure’s not just a recognition of what we have accomplished; it’s a responsibility for what we represent if the idea of the university is to be meaningful in the future. it takes significant expertise to teach and teach well, but it takes even something more to see that TEACHING–regardless discipline–cannot be replaced by the technologies, the on-lines, the distance-eds that some might regard as adequate substitute. Nothing can replace the value of the spontaneous in a classroom, and that in itself involves a kind of expertise.


Clod Levi-Strauss 03.12.10 at 9:48 pm

A few points:
Regarding the desperate attempt to turn the humanities into pseudo-sciences in an attempt to preserve their importance in a world dominated by short term instrumentalism and “can-do” optimism. Following that logic the time has come to put up or shut up: either political philosophy has a direct practical use or not. Ditto political and economic “science” and “naturalized” epistemology. All of these are formalized systems of box-building that pose as sciences of the present. But they aren’t. Even the author of this post does a piss-poor job of defending the humanities, the job of which is specifically to produce morally conscious adults not technically proficient eternal adolescents. And again: proficient at what?

“No one would say that every single school in the U.S. has to grant a bachelor’s degree in recreation management. So why does every single school have to offer a degree in philosophy? ”

Many agree it would be better to for universities to extricate themselves from their partnerships with semi-pro athletic leagues, but maybe it’s time to do the same with marketing and business schools and schools of recreation management. Call MIT what it is: a technical school not a university.

The purpose of the humanities is and as always been to remind us of how stupid we are, how slim our imaginations, how subject to greed and cheap desire; and then to remind us to laugh at our stupidity as we try and mostly fail to be better. It’s the humanities not the optimistic sciences that teach us that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I don’t have much sense of that understanding on this page.


Zamfir 03.13.10 at 10:15 am

Call MIT what it is: a technical school not a university.
Isn’t MIT exactly the wrong example for you? MIT calls itself already a technical school in its very name, but in fact resembles a general university, including a philosophy department.


engels 03.15.10 at 3:57 pm

The income of thousands of the most senior British academics has soared over the past decade, far outstripping growth in average lecturers’ pay, according to a Guardian inquiry. More than 80 university heads, generally known as vice-chancellors, now earn more than the prime minister, and some have seen their annual earnings double or even triple in 10 years. Some got 15% or 20% pay rises last year alone, compared with a 45.7% rise over 10 years for average higher education teaching professionals. The hightest-paid VC gets £474,000, and 19 get more than £300,000, including employer pension contributions. By contrast, the prime minister, Gordon Brown, gets £197,000 plus a pension.

Salaries of more, sometimes much more, than £100,000 are paid to almost 4,000 other academic administrators, consultants and scientists in Britain’s 150 university institutions, compared with only a handful at that level a decade ago. The Guardian has identified eight universities at the head of a league table based on a combination of chief executive pay and the proportion of high-earning staff. In order of vice-chancellor income they are: the London Business School; UCL; Liverpool; Imperial College; Nottingham; Oxford; Kings, London; and Bristol.

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