Friday, 5 March 2010

How to Market Philosophy

This post on the Brazen Careerist, and it's link to a New York Times article, got me thinking about how philosophy is viewed by the public at large, and more specifically about how students think a degree in it will affect their career prospects. When people think of philosophy they probably think of a man (gender stereotypes being what they are) thinking deep thoughts about the nature of life and reality. While this image may hold some appeal, I suspect it's very damaging to philosophy departments.

Consider a student trying to decide what to major in, or what degree programme to apply for- she wants to do something interesting, but useful to her career prospects. She may have done some philosophy, either in lectures or on her own, but she still has the image of the man pondering reality stuck in her head. To her, it seems that it is not particularly employable or practical degree- who wants to hire a pretentious introvert? But philosophy teaches you much more than philosophy itself- the very core of it is that it teaches you how to communicate and criticise complex ideas. From the NY Times article:
There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”
When I read this I thought about how ironic it was that the begining of the article mentioned universities cutting their philosophy departments, only to later conclude that employers are mainly looking for skills that are precisely what a degree in philosophy gives you. "Communicating effectively" is a large part of any assessment of philosophical work, ever- you can't get a good mark if you're unable to make yourself understood. As far as critical thinking, well, we kind of invented it. The innovative and creative part is trickier- it isn't at the core of any programme, but to be a good philosopher you need original ideas (which is why I find it quite hard to get over a 70% in my philosophy modules- note that I study in the UK- above 70% is pretty much an A in the American system). In short, philosophy gives you exactly the sort of skills employers are looking for- in my view, the problem with jobs and philosophers is mainly PR.

The issue is that the stereotype of a philosopher isn't an effective communicator with excellent original and innovative critical thinking. You have to convince employers of this, i.e. you have to sell yourself. What I mean is that if you have a degree in physics, that automatically advertises that you're smart and good with numbers, whereas philosophy only really widely known for the critical thinking bit. There's a perception gap about the utility of a philosophy degree.

Part of the problem is that many teachers of philosophy seem to still be wedded to the metaphors and examples of the texts and philosophers they're teaching. This isn't much of a problem if you're talking about Popper, but if you're teaching a course on Locke and you don't expand beyond his metaphors you'll have trouble communicating the ideas to the students, on top of simply being boring. Creating new metaphors will not only make lectures more interesting, but also tackle the issue of poor PR.

I've always found the intersection between pop culture and philosophy to be fascinating (I think of an analysis I once did of "Fuck tha Police") but I haven't found there to be much, or any, talk of this it in my course so far. Of course, part of this can be attributed to ineffective lecturers, but even the best ones don't really push through to show students how universally applicable the discipline is. The implicit thought seems to be that if you're already studying philosophy then you should be happy to read Locke without needing it to be somewhat modernised. But really, this is false- metaphors and examples are a stylistic contraption used to communicate ideas to an audience, to put things into everyday terms. The only problem is that 'everyday terms' is very different today than it was in the 17th century (or earlier centuries, for that matter). If departments are seeing declining enrolment then they should seek to modernise- to show how they still very relevant in today's world. The alternative seems to be extinction.

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