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Correlation does not imply causation! Especially when there's loads of self-selection going on! We should not stop carefully examining our arguments just because we are involved...


Do you know of any research supporting your claim that (C) is false that controls for undergraduate institution?

I find it pretty unsurprising that stereotypically "practical" majors don't earn as much as stereotypically "useless" majors, because "practical" majors are much less likely to offered at prestigious universities where students are more likely (regardless of what they major in) to go on to make more money. Given that, I find lists of average salary by major pretty useless for sussing out causal relations between major choices and earnings. Though if I saw lists that controlled for undergraduate institution (e.g., e.g., by ranking majors by the average difference between earnings of the majors and the earnings of the average student at the institution hosting the major), then I'd be interested.

Marcus Arvan

I don't think I assumed that correlation implies causation. Causation is hard to pin down with all of this stuff. What we do have is some good statistics on our side, and -- or so I say -- good reasons to sell our discipline using them.

Marcus Arvan

Daniel: no doubt sussing out causal relations is difficult. Yet, as we suss them out, we are losing jobs, funding, and in some cases even philosophy departments. We need not wait to suss out causal relationships before we draw positive looking statistics to greater public attention.

Michel X.

I'm still just a grad student, so I don't necessarily know that much about the university's innermost workings, but I always find it a little strange that the focus is on major enrolment rather than major and minor combined. It looks like it makes it very hard for disciplines to position themselves in service roles, for example. I have no doubt that philosophy could very, very easily sell itself as one of the best minor options in the entire university system--especially since our sub-disciplines touch (and not insignificantly!) upon so many other fields.

Instead, everyone's efforts have to focus on attracting majors, and that seems to change the tone of the conversation pretty fundamentally. For one thing, if everyone's hunting majors, it pits all the disciplines against one another in one big brawl rather than looking for synergies and complementary fields of inquiry. The students end up worse off, the university ends up worse off, and the rest of our society ends up worse off.

Or am I way off base?

Marcus Arvan

Michel: great point. My department tends to focus on pushing our degree as a second/double major for that reason. Our message is: we don't want to steal majors from other departments, but rather share them. For my part, I think this makes everyone better off: it's good for students to double-major, good for departments, and good for universities. At the same time, when it comes down to it, it is -- as you say -- a competitive situation. To that extent, it is an unfortunate situation. But it is the way it is. Universities are increasingly money-driven, and departments with more majors (and more donors) bring in more money. The end result is that departments do compete for majors, and those who get more majors get more faculty...and the way things are going (ever lower enrollments in the humanities), it is humanities departments like philosophy that end up getting the short end of the stick. Finally, if (like me!) you actually think philosophy is important and provides students with important skills and information, the diminution of the humanities is unfortunate, and in need of rectification. Hence my post. ;)


FYIzzle: you can reach that snazzy "Why Study Philosophy?" site via whystudyphilosophy.com

And that's easier to pass along to undergrads, verbally, when you're giving them the hard sell over the next few weeks.

elisa freschi

Thanks for raising the issue, Marcus. Just a few thoughts, which might be entirely wrong:

1) I wonder whether the fact that philosophy majors earn more does not chiefly depend on the fact that philosophy is chosen by bright, curious and intellectually engaged people, who are, therefore, more likely to be successful in life. In this sense, studying philosophy would just be another output of the real cause, i.e., being intelligent (see Daniel's comment above).

2) Even if there could be a sound correlation, I would agree with Michel X. and suggest that the only possibility would be to suggest to study philosophy for one's BA (compare the fact that many British lawyers/economists/and so on have studied history or theology in Cambridge or Oxford for their BA).

3) I wonder whether we should really try to compete with Business, etc. If people look for safe jobs, philosophy will never win. Should not we try to address people who are *interested* in what they are doing? For instance, if I were in charge of an institute (something which will most probably never be the case) I would advertise my philosophy classes even for people who are older than 30 and are reframing their life. I have had two excellent students who were, respectively 35 and 52 when they started. The former decided to work at night in a hotel, so that he could attend philosophy classes during the day, whereas the latter retired well in advance for the same purpose. They were engaged, interested, excited (and a pleasure to work with).

elisa freschi

On second thought, I might add:

4) We may try to make it clear that, although "philosophy" is not a skill that can be immediately converted into a remunerated job, it teaches one to think in a broad way, a capacity which might be helpful in many professions (think of: Richard Price at Academia.edu or Roberto Saviano as a journalist/writer). (Beside making you into, hopefully, a better person.)

Marcus Arvan

Elisa: thanks for your comments. A few thoughts in reply:

(1) I don't know what the data is across institutions, but my experience at several different institutions is that philosophy doesn't tend to attract *uncommonly* bright, engaged students.

(2) Yep - good point!

(3) Maybe - but I'm not convinced. I've had a number of students get a bachelors in philosophy and go on to be very successful in business -- and the data seem to bear out the fact that philosophy isn't any less "safe" than other business-y majors.

(4) Yep, I've read several articles recently in which employers speak very highly of philosophy majors on precisely these grounds. Clear, innovative, persuasive thinking, speaking, and writing serve one well in almost any high-powered field. See e.g. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/10224324/Website/Be%20Employable%2C%20Study%20Philosophy.pdf and http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/07/10/abandon-classics-humanities-good-job-oxford_n_3572536.html?utm_hp_ref=uk and


Then there's ths: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/08/12/study-finds-choice-major-most-influenced-quality-intro-professor
Which suggests that the hope of a good job may not be the highest motivator after all.


I am a grad student in Ontario, where (I am told by profs who have taught elsewhere) the number of undergrads who enter already wanting to major in philosophy is rather high. As I understand it, my department is not looking to get students to take philosophy courses, but rather to be selective in which students they allow as philosophy majors.

Here is a hypothesis for why this might be so in Ontario, but not in most the US: Ontario public high schools offer philosophy as an elective (largely thanks to Prof. David Jopling). Ontario also makes it easy for BAs in philosophy to become high school teachers (I can give the details if anyone is interested). Many of my students in intro classes say that they are taking the course or majoring in philosophy because already took a philosophy course in high school.

Recruiting undergrads to major in philosophy is great, but I think we need to push for philosophy in high schools as well!

Marcus Arvan

jmugg: an insightful point. I am all about pushing for philosophy in high school. But of course there's a chicken and egg problem. How do we get philosophy in high schools? A possible answer: by general public outreach, more college majors, and bigger philosophy departments...


Re: the second point -- few incoming students declaring philosophy immediately may not be that big an issue. Most of the philosophy majors I knew in college had intended to major in something different (mostly polisci, but polisci was one of the largest departments there and the law side had some overlap with philosophy) but ended up finding it unsatisfying and switching. That's just anecdotal, of course, but how many seniors does your department have as majors?

If my experience isn't so far out of the ordinary, it suggests a strategy of focusing on outreach within college. One way to do that is applied classes that can work toward more than one major: philosophy of law for polisci, bioethics for biology, something for English... maybe even something with the foreign language departments, but given that that would require students to already have some competence with another language, that would be harder to pull off. History would be easy to tie in; economics could be tied in either through the approach of economics as practical philosophy, covering the philosophical history of economics as a discipline, how it emerged, and so on, or by covering the speculative economics coming out of philosophy, accelerationism and all that. (Then again, maybe economics majors ought not to be made familiar with Nick Land...) Even something as apparently distant as computer science can be linked to philosophy: the most obvious link is AI, but I'm sure there are others.

I know nothing about the teaching side of academia, so this may be a stupid question, but might using that vast potential for classes that can fall under more than one major make philosophy a more attractive discipline to colleges?

It's also important to have outreach for winning the parents over; they're the ones paying, they may still subscribe to the job skills-oriented idea of college even after their children abandon it, and their children may not be able to talk them out of it without help from the college.

Michel X.

thitherward: That's where I'd see philosophy coming in as a minor, and I think it's an easy sell to make on that level. It's the leap from minor to major that's harder to sell.

Justin Caouette

Interesting thoughts on your post at BHL, Marcus. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. I have a few of my own as well.


Marcus Arvan

Thanks for drawing my attention to JB's post, Justin. A bit bizarre in my opinion to see a libertarian take issue with putting information in front of people's eyes and letting them make up their own minds. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought libertarians like JB tend to subscribe to a "buyer beware" approach to business ethics...It's also strange, I think, to see JB insist that we don't know whether philosophy gives students marketable skills. To which I say, I routinely see many of my own students go from being unable to string a sentence together their freshman year to being able to read, think, write, and speak critically and effectively by the time they graduate...and apparently many employers agree (see my links in my above comment, e.g. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/10224324/Website/Be%20Employable%2C%20Study%20Philosophy.pdf).

Justin Caouette

Ya, that pretty much sums it up - "bizarre".


I didn't find anything bizarre in Brennan's response. More generally, I don't find anything bizarre in separating out questions of ethics from questions of legality--which is all I take it he was doing. It's one thing to say that businesses that engage in certain sorts of misleading advertising that don't rise to the level of outright lying should be prosecuted, e.g., for fraud. It's another thing to say that, while they should not be subject to legal sanctions, what they do is nevertheless immoral.

This is a completely familiar distinction to make (especially, though not exclusively, for libertarians). E.g., except for hardcore Randian types, libertarians are typically happy to say that it may be quite virtuous to engage in voluntary charity, even though they do not support legally mandating charity via redistributive taxation.

Everybody supports some instances of this distinction. There are lots of lies that most of us would condemn as immoral, without thinking that they should be illegal. I can see how this post might sound totally pedantic, but I don't see how Brennan's position requires anything more than this pretty familiar distinction. Nothing bizarre about it.

Marcus Arvan

Daniel: I'll grant you that -- good point. I still don't find the ethical argument persuasive, however, for reasons I explain over at NewAPPS.

Jason Brennan

Regarding this:

"To which I say, I routinely see many of my own students go from being unable to string a sentence together their freshman year to being able to read, think, write, and speak critically and effectively by the time they graduate...and apparently many employers agree."

I don't doubt that teaching students the three R's is really valuable, nor do I doubt that such instruction tends to work. But the way you describe it, your school apparently gets a lot of students who don't know the three R's when they get there, and the university ends up doing remedial work to get them that by the time they leave. (Note that this is not my personal criticism of Tampa, but just the way it sounds to me when you wrote this.) So, sure, if your school is getting them by the time the graduate the skills they should have had by the time they entered, great.

Marcus Arvan

Jason: thanks, I think we do accomplish that. But anyway, I wonder what you make of the evidence Jon Cogburn provides over at NewAPPS indicating that philosophy is one of the few majors that *has* been measured to lead to genuine and sustained gains in useful real-world skills. I suspect you'll chalk that up to possible selection effects, but still, as several other people have pointed out over at NewAPPS, it's not clear why this should make a difference. If the students we do produce show genuine gains, and we do not "mis-sell" the discipline -- pretending that anyone who seeks a philosophy degree can expect those gains, or particular salaries, etc. -- how have we done anything unethical?

Jason Brennan

I read Academically Adrift a few years ago. My take on it is this:

1. First, the liberal arts majors do see significantly larger gains, but they don't see very impressive gains, especially in light of the expense of generating those gains. $200,000 for marginal improvements is way better than $200,000 for no improvements (or for getting worse), but it's not a good deal.

2. Second, here's how selection would affect this. An analogy meant to illustrate: My wife and I both took the same number of years of music lessons. She was forced to take piano. I wanted to take guitar. She didn't learn much and forgot what she learned. I soaked it up, learned a bunch, and remember most of it.

Selection affects receptivity. Students who choose hard majors tend to be conscientious, curious, etc.. It means they will be inclined to learn more, and they do in fact learn more. Awesome! But then what happens if we try to draw in more majors who are the sorts of people who tend now to major in business and communications?

The kind of stuff you're advocating here for sales tactics is, I think, okay on the marginal student who says, "I really want to major in philosophy, but I worry I'll be poor forever." I'm fine with that. I'd respond to that student the way you would. But many philosophy departments are advertising philosophy in a way that makes it seem like it would be good, career-wise, for just about anybody. And that's where I get worried.

Marcus Arvan

Jason: thanks for the comment. Since you cross-posted this over at NewAPPS, I'm going to cross-post here the responses I posted there.

fair enough. But why think selection is so problematic? Look, there are a lot of selection effects for students who get into Harvard versus, say, my university -- but so what? The fact is -- perhaps in part due to selection effects -- Harvard's students fare *better* on average in the world than graduate from universities like mine. Is it unethical for Harvard to advertise that fact? I don't see how. So, I don't see how selection effects raise a problem. On the contrary, such a selection effect may be due to the fact that we *require* a lot of our students, so it's mostly the conscientious, bright, etc., who sign up for the major. Okay, but in that case it's something that *we've* done by having high standards -- standards which lead us to educate mostly conscientious students who go on to succeed. I realize you're worried about "over-selling" the major, and I'm sympathetic with that worry. But I doubt this is done nearly as much as you suspect. For I expect that many of us give out the information (e.g. on test scores, salaries, etc.), and then scare away lazy students with our material and teaching/grading standards...

Addendum: on further reflection, it seems to me that the facts support the picture I just drew. As a few people above have pointed out, philosophy departments have been advertising themselves like this for years (in some cases, for 20 years or so). And yet we're *still* evidently drawing bright, conscientious students into the major. Why? Here's the answer I want to suggest: because even after we point to the statistics (e.g. salaries, test scores, etc.), students in our classes see very quickly that they can't do philosophy well -- and do well in the major -- if they are not bright, conscientious, etc. Consequently, I don't think many philosophers or departments can be rightly accused of "over-selling" -- not if we *show* our students how much intelligence and conscientiousness it takes to do well and complete the degree. Which I think most of us do. Actions, they say, speak louder than words. And to suppose that students can't make rational decisions on the major on the basis of statistics *plus* our actions -- our teaching and grading standards -- is, I think, as a matter of experience, not to give our students enough credit. The lazy and dimwitted avoid us like the plague *because* our courses are difficult.

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