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Lewis Powell

Is this a point about philosophy in particular, or academia in general?

Moti Mizrahi

It's meant to be a point about Philosophy (the profession).


The question, then, is what makes philosophy special in this regard? Is seems to be an issue of academia. Are philoshers more likely to come from wealthy families than medical doctors, engineers, physicists lawyers and historians (etc.)? Because of pedigree playing more of a role in hiring decisions in philosophy (than medicine, physics, law, history, etc)? I do not see any clear evidence for this in the above post.

Now, it is still an important issue and can be significant even if it is about philosophy because about academia more generally, and it would be good to get clearer on th topic. There are many reasons why having an abundance of cash makes it easier to find funds for risky career paths, makes many tasks faster (having a car, well located housing, etc.), accessing better teachers, and so on — but its not clear what to make of it in philosophy specifically.

Gary Williams

Rich by what standard? Anecdotally, very few of my fellow grad students strike me as "rich" (which really just means coming from a rich family I guess). Everyone seems more like middle-class, but that seems normal for academia, and nothing to feel guilty about. Of course, middle-class is still "rich" compared to the lowest levels of income, but it seems unlikely that philosophers are somehow systematically excluding the poor at a rate greater than any other academic department (which I take it was Lewis Powell's point).

Justin Caouette

Great post.

I agree, I think folks are being systematically excluded. Another point worth noting is that lower-income folks tend to take out much more debt (25k-100k+) to get their undergrad degree since their families cannot afford to cover their college expenses. I think this exacerbates the problem of not having lower-income folks in the discipline. The decision to undertake grad school to study Philosophy seems even more unreasonable when staring at debt that would be very difficult to pay on a Philosopher's salary.

Also, and this is merely anecdotal, I have not come across many in the profession that have grown up in poverty or near poverty. I have had discussions with others about this, given that I grew up in a very low-income household myself, and they shared similar observations.

This last point/question may sound a bit radical but I'd like to know what you think. If this is true, that lower-income folks are being systematically excluded from the discipline, should hiring committees take this information into consideration when making their decision. There has been a move to incorporate other minorities (a worthwhile and important move IMO), should those who overcame poverty to get their PhD's be among those minorities being actively incorporated into the discipline? Or, is there a salient difference that should keep race and sex on the table as considerations for hiring committees but low income considerations off the table?


Moti, I think your hypothesis is absolutely on target. Some days, the profession of philosophy strikes me as incredibly *bourgeois*, especially when I venture into the outer reaches of metaphysics. (I hope to write on this in the book I'm currently outlining. The Ethics of Metaphysics, or some such thing.)

Of course, this is a slightly different issue than diversity; this issue is more about whether the resources used for (at least some) metaphysics research is well-spent.

But there is probably a notable connection between the two issues. I suspect that economic diversity is a problem, partly because philosophical concerns often seem relatively unimportant to someone dealing with more concrete, economic hardships. (Although somewhat outdated, Maslow's hierarchy of needs seems to confirm this.) So the problem with economic diversity may reflect not just the expense of prestigious schools. It may also reflect that philosophy itself often appears relatively unimportant (and understandably so).

If this is right, one would expect economic diversity to be a problem. Correlatively, we may need to ask whether philosophy deserves all the resources it is allocated.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Let me clarify a few things:

1. My hypothesis is not that Philosophy is the only academic profession that systematically excludes low-income folks. Rather, my hypothesis is that Philosophy is an academic profession that systematically excludes low-income folks. This hypothesis is consistent with economic discrimination being a problem in other academic professions as well. In the post, I talk about philosophy, rather than other academic professions, because Philosophy is the academic profession I know best. I have some evidence (see links in the post) that pedigree plays a major role in admissions and hiring decisions in Philosophy. I have no idea if that is the case in other academic professions as well. Please do not interpret absence of evidence in the post as evidence of absence.

2. Even if economic discrimination is a problem in other academic professions as well, it doesn’t follow that Philosophy should not be singled out for having this problem. If economic discrimination is a problem in Philosophy, then it should be addressed regardless of what goes on in other academic professions. To argue that Philosophy should not be singled out because other academic professions have the same problem is a form of tu quoque. It would be like arguing that the US cannot reprimand Israel for building settlements in the occupied territories and robbing the Palestinians of their lands because it, too, robbed the Native Americans of their lands. You'd be surprised how many people in my native country find this argument convincing.

3. The hypothesis that Philosophy is a rich man’s game is based on statistical evidence and should be interpreted as such. That is why anecdotal evidence to the effect that your grad school friends are not rich is irrelevant unless we have some reason to believe that your grad school friends are representative of the profession as a whole. Maybe so. I don’t know.


Very good points Moti, but I do think there is something worth disambiguating further, and it has to do with causation. This is meant to be constructive, not a criticism of anything.

Generally speaking the value of knowing causes rests in knowing how to appropriately intervene in some causal system, and vice versa I suppose. If we could find out the causes, we would be in a better position to intervene effectively. The first post raises the issue of how pedigree works in hiring and is accompanied by high school to university application rates, the link between the two being clear. There is also the undergraduate to graduate jump, which is where one finds that the share of women decreases substantially (I think this is in a recent issue of Hypatia).

On the face of it, this gives us 2 obvious points where problems might be attenuated. (1a) Increase rates at which high school graduates from low income families apply for university, (1b) deal with a similar problem from undergraduate to graduate, (2) reduce the perceived value of pedigree in hiring decisions (etc). Pedigree on its own would be fine in this context if it didn't effectively amplify the problems caused by differential applications or acceptances into those programs. Philosophy, by relying on pedigree more, amplifies the problem more.

If the prior application distribution biases are a problem, and this is not due to anything in philosophy per se but rather is caused by some factors affecting all programs, it seems that the best place to look for successful interventions would be to find out why people are not applying to such universities in general, rather than patching over that cause with something targeted to getting more people into just philosophy. Not the only place, but the most effective place, on the face of it.

This is why I think that the causes matter, and why it matters whether it is just about philosophy or rather higher education and academia in general (and only indirectly philosophy). I guess this mitigates some of the reason for philosophers to act, since it is not *just* up to philosophers to address inequality issues affecting all higher education and academia. But I should say this, too: philosophers are more able to effectively intervene on their own practices than those of others, so for this reason it would be a mistake to draw too much focus on the large overarching causes instead what philosophers can do within the profession.

Dan Dennis

I agree: low income folks are less likely to encounter philosophy before going to university and so less likely to think of applying to study it. When deciding what to study they will be encouraged to do what will give them a good career rather than what they enjoy (that’s why I ended up studying Electrical and Electronic Engineering for my first degree). When deciding whether to take a risky career path they will imagine the worst case scenario – which will be worse for them than for rich or middle class folks – and this may sway their decision. In the UK we at least have a comprehensive and generous welfare safety net, so the worst that can happen is not too bad (which was a factor in my having the courage to switch to philosophy for my postgrad studies).

And it is quite wrong the way that going to a highly ranked university makes you more likely to be hired for a TT job. There was a post at NewApps decrying this last year...


On why not to make socio-economic class growing up a factor in hiring: Effectively, because it's invisible. One of the (in fact, in my opinion THE) best reason to make sex, race, and disability a factor in hiring is that folks who have made it to the hiring stage have already faced an enormous amount of bias and *are still going to face more in the hiring process itself.* Implicit bias will rear its ugly head and hiring committees will look at these candidates differently whether they mean to or not. Socio-economic status growing up doesn't show on your face in the same way that your race or gender or some disabilities might.

A better solution seems to me to be to use our role as teachers to encourage our lower-socio-economic-class students to keep going in philosophy when they show talent. This doesn't help to get poorer students into university in the first place, but it might help to get them into philosophy once they're already there.

How do we get less wealthy students into university in the first place? I don't know how much this can be extended, but here is how I got there: I grew up in a family at the much lower end of the socio-economic scale, and I went to an inner city high school. I somehow got invited to apply to a summer program at Harvard that was targeted at students in low socio-economic circumstances. (I'm not sure how I got on the list - perhaps PSAT scores plus my school district?) I didn't end up getting into the program, but I did get to the interview stage. As part of that, they brought perhaps 150 of us to Harvard, and while we were there, they explained to us that college might actually be more affordable for us than for wealthier students, since the best colleges and universities were all moving towards a need-blind system, and many were exclsuively giving out grants instead of loans. I had no idea that this might be the case and previously hadn't even planned on going to college because of my parents' economic circumstances. But in large part thanks to being at Harvard that day, I went to a very good private liberal arts school and paid $8,000 in total for four years, including loans.

I know that story was a bit long-winded, but maybe we can do similar things as a profession. Maybe we don't have the money to fly people to Harvard, but perhaps we could still do something. Doesn't Penn State run an ethics workshop for highschool students from minority groups? Maybe this kind of thing could be done for students from low-socio-economic households as well.

Justin Caouette

@ R.T:

To claim that lower socio-economic status folks in Philosophy (or in general) have not faced an enormous amount of bias is a bit too fast. The hypothesis that the way one talks (dialect), presents (the way one walks, sits, dresses), and writes (lower socio-economic folks tend to get a weaker education)might play a role during interviews, during the grad school process (which effects letters of rec), and while trying to secure tenure does not seem that crazy to me. If it is playing a role then it is in fact ‘visible’ in important respects.

Such folks can often be looked at as "rough around the edges" and may not give off the intellectual vibe when speaking at their interview or in front of the class. Higher socio-economic folks tend to be more polished as many of them have had years of training on how to present well before they entered their more privileged educational institutions (at both the k-8 and high-school levels). Now, one could claim that they could learn how to "walk the walk" so to speak. But it is not as easy as some may think and near impossible for some who are late to the game.

Your claim that "Socio-economic status growing up doesn't show on your face in the same way that your race or gender or some disabilities might" is contentious. It might not show up on your face per say, but there may be an implicit bias at work for some of the reasons I noted above. Though, there is a void in the research (as far as I can tell) on the implicit bias of lower socio-economic folks this does not mean that such biases are not at work. If there is research that one could suggest I would love to dig into it. This is not an area I actively research so any suggestions on where I have gone wrong here would be helpful to me.

Also, you said yourself that sex, race, and some disabilities “might” be visible. This is important. In many cases, the latter two categories are not any more visible than one’s dialect (by dialect I am referring to a lower socio-economic use of a language distinguished by improper pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary). If this is true, then your suggestion of “invisibility” or that those in lower socio-economic groups do not face implicit bias is, as I claimed, a bit too fast. It is surely visible to the budding philosopher (who grew up in a lower socio-economic household)who is spending time catching up on and practicing basic pronunciations rather than doing philosophy.

Admittedly, I am being a bit dramatic, but all jokes aside I do think lower socio-economic folks do face implicit bias. Not always, but to a degree that negatively effects their chances at good tenure track jobs. Failing to bring this into hiring considerations might exacerbate the injustices already faced by this class of folks.

Moti Mizrahi

I agree with Justin that low-income folks can "give away" their socioeconomic status in all sorts of subtle ways, and thus give "club members" the impression that they are outsiders.

T.M., you are making some very good points. I am trying to point to a problem. As for what to do about it, I haven't got a clue. It's not an easy one, to say the least.

Jason Chen

I can't say much about the pedigree part because I'm not knowledgeable of the hiring process, but I can speak about the other half of the problem, which seems to be that people from poor backgrounds do not choose to go into philosophy. Regarding the problem of self-selection, I would like to make a few points.

1. A disproportionally low representation of lower class people in the field is definitely not a problem that only philosophy encounters. Rather, I suspect that most academic fields that are not perceived to be "practical" are ignored by people coming from poor backgrounds. This echoes the previous commentator's mention of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

2. Self-selection is not necessarily due to one's socio-economic background, though I think there is a correlation. For example, many Asian Americans are pretty well off and yet you barely see any of them in philosophy. Why is that? I have thought long and hard about this problem (being Asian American myself) and I have concluded that it's a vestige of "the poor man's" mentality that their ancestors had. Although many Asian Americans are pretty well off, wealth is still probably quite new to their family and so they still think and behave as if they're poor because that mentality has been passed down.

What I dislike about this is that this mentality continues well beyond it's usefulness. When one is poor, one has to worry about the basic necessities, and there's nothing wrong with that. But once financial stability is attained, one should encourage one's children to pursue their dreams. Although I think this will slowly happen in the Asian American community, I'm afraid that it'll simply become part of the culture to encourage your children to pursue "practical" fields.

3. I can't speak to the best way to diversify the field of philosophy, but I suspect one way is to include a diversity of philosophers in your class curriculum. Even if 99% of philosophers are white, just include a couple of non-white ones to show your students that they exist. I believe doing this will not only change the perception that your students will have of the field, but also perhaps encourage them to pursue philosophy because they might encounter a philosopher that comes from a similar background.

Moti Mizrahi

Interesting points, Jason. As an immigrant, I think that "the poor man's mentality" may be something that other immigrants to America share (and perhaps immigrants in general). This ties in with what Justin said about subtle cues that signal to the insiders that one is an outsider.


Expressing a common view, R.T. wrote:

"One of the (in fact, in my opinion THE) best reason to make sex, race, and disability a factor in hiring is that folks who have made it to the hiring stage have already faced an enormous amount of bias and *are still going to face more in the hiring process itself.* Implicit bias will rear its ugly head"

In reality, however, poor white able-bodied men have already been subjected to discrimination at every stage of their academic careers. Non-whites and women have been the subjects of affirmative action in one form or another throughout their whole careers. At least this is extremely likely given that our whole society is now officially organized on AA principles, given that there have been billions spent on Head Start programs and the like for many decades. It's just extremely likely that any non-white, female or disabled person applying for an academic job has faced "an enormous amount of bias". Just the opposite, if we go by the official, explicit policies and laws that govern the US (for example). It's puzzling to me that we are supposed to entirely ignore all of that official, explicit systematic discrimination from kindergarten to tenure, while at the same time keeping faith that there exists this mysterious form of "implicit bias" that can only be identified by its alleged effects -- i.e., low numbers of non-white or female philosophers, or whatever. And which is supposed to operate despite massive legal and political efforts to promote the "preferred" classes of people for decades. Bottom line: if you care about people who are badly off, care about even the ones who are white, male, not gay, etc. (These do seem, by the way, to be just the kinds of people that are actually being referred to in the study reported in NYT, if you look at the figures. They're the ones who are truly left behind, ignored, marginalized...)


i'm not sure how exactly philosophy is marginalising low income folks - through high college admission fees? forgive me if i don't quite follow...panpsychist

Moti Mizrahi

Panpsychist: In Philosophy, pedigree plays a major role in admissions and hiring decisions. That suggests that candidates for PhD programs and jobs in philosophy are selected from elite colleges and universities for the most part. Since most qualified low-income folks don’t even apply to elite colleges and universities, as the cited study shows, it follows that they are being systematically excluded from the profession.

In other words, in Philosophy, low-income folks don’t even make it to the applicant pool, for the most part, since they lack the right kind of pedigree as a result of not even applying to the elite colleges and universities from which Philosophy (the profession) selects its candidates for PhD programs and jobs.


aha - thank you. i agree that high college admissions are the worst obstacle to a true 'meritocracy' - panpsychist

elisa freschi

@Justin: I wonder whether the problem is just economic (as highlighted in the last answer by Moti to Panpsychist) or not primarily social, in the sense that one's wealth is not immediately visible, but one's social confidence is and this is very much dependent on one's background. In other words, you can avoid being rich to enroll in a very good PhD program (e.g., if you are ready to move to Europe), but you will probably take long to overcome the feeling that you do not really "belong" to the middle/intellectual class which typically frequents universities. And yes, it could be a good point to make committees aware of this while taking decisions. Even if one does not want them to positively favour people coming from a "lower" social milieu, one might want to make them aware of the fact that they might be negatively impressioned by things which have nothing to do with philosophy (e.g., the candidate's lack of social confidence).


i am not sure about that - it seems like a rather ad hoc explanation - it is also worth looking at the precise rates of underrepresentation - is underrepresentation worse for low income people in highly verbal fields of study where underconfidence would be significant? - panpsychist

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