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Guy Crain

In these cases, have the schools in question also stopped offering any philosophy courses? Or are they simply eliminating it as a degree program?

I have tried to get philosophy courses onto other degree program's degree sheets not just as a gen ed but as a "support and related" course. Having been successful in two cases, this increased my enrollment. I figure if I can get onto a couple more degree sheets in this way, it makes philosophy more difficult to "extract."


I think there are things that "can," conceptually, logically, and metaphysically speaking, be done. However, I see absolutely no indication that there is the right type of motivation in the philosophical community and honestly I see no chance of it happening. All philosophers, but especially those at non-elite liberal arts colleges or anywhere facing known budget issues should seriously think about alternative careers. I don't mean to be so doom and gloom but I really think this is the pragmatic choice. I am at a pretty safe school but I still am envisioning alternatives if it comes to that.

Guy - from what I've heard some have kept intro classes and some try to keep on a few tenured faculty members in other positions if they can. But obviously that doesn't always work out and philosophers do lose their jobs.


We can remodel our programs so that we are getting external funding from grant agencies and plug ourselves into partnerships with the outside world (for-profit industry, nonprofit organizations, the government, etc) that make us valuable.

I don't mean to sound like I'm promoting the neoliberalization of the university (I guess I am?), but, being realistic, I don't think any actions predicated on propping up the current model of us teaching dusty old dead dudes while doing part-hole mereology research paid by tuition dollars from students who see us as an annoying GenEd requirement is going to work.

I share Amanda's pessimism. Even with radical change, there probably isn't enough of a "market" to support the same number of philosophers as we have now. But I'm also optimistic, since I see more and more philosophers engaging in the kinds of radical rethinking (for funding, research, collaborations, etc) that are needed (e.g., witness all the "ethics in AI" jobs that were up this past year). My guess is that, in 10 years, the traditional philosophy model will contract greatly, some of the loss will be made up by innovative philosophers reinventing themselves, but, overall, numbers will still be down significantly.


To support Guy's suggestion:

My department has done a very good job of getting of tentacles into many different program and majors. At present, we fulfill one college-wide requirement, but also five or six requirements for a subset of students throughout the college (some subsets quite large). We also have a number of electives that fulfill requirements for other departments even if other classes do too. Contrary to what Amanda suggested, it *is* possible to make this happen. It takes hard work, open-minded faculty in other departments, and a lot of luck, but I feel relatively secure despite COVID. I wouldn't if we were just one more major.

Assistant Professor

It seems to me that there is a way for philosophy departments/programs to entirely remove the possibility of elimination: teach really well.

None of these universities are getting rid of their computer science departments. That's because lots of students are registering for computer science courses and majoring in computer science. Of course, unlike computer science, philosophy cannot rely on undergraduates coming to college with a desire to major in philosophy. So we have to do it by attracting students to our courses and majors via being really good teachers.

The lowest hanging fruit here is to assign the best teachers in the department (we all know who they are, the ones who get spectacular student evals, who captivate students in lectures and classroom discussions, who have natural or cultivated charisma, who make the subject matter come alive, who make the students want to go back to their dorm rooms and talk about Descartes late into the night) to the introductory level courses and hide the bad teachers (we all know who they are, the ones who assign punishing readings, who lecture in monotone, who can't seem to avoid pitching their undergraduate courses at a a level appropriate for a top graduate program, who are boring) in the upper level courses where they can do less damage teaching upper-class majors who have already developed some ability to see through the poor presentation to the underlying, interesting philosophical ideas. Faculty don't like having their teaching schedules shuffled around. But they will like program elimination a lot less.

And there is a of good advice on the internet about how to attract more majors (encouraging students who do well in introductory courses to pick up the major, explaining to them and their parents that philosophy might make them smart and rich, etc.).

And then there is the hardest, but most effective way to improve teaching and guarantee program safely: hire amazing teachers. Hiring committees now want teaching portfolios and make job candidates do teaching demos, but my belief from having served on several search committees and having discussed this with many colleagues at other colleges and universities, is that even at R2s, R3s, and liberal arts colleges research is often given more weight than teaching. For individual departments, this seems shortsighted.


TT -I didn't mean to suggest it was impossible. My predication about it not happening was meant to be at the "profession as a whole" level. I am glad there are some schools like yours doing that work and and I hope it will continue. I'm sure some other schools will do what you are doing, and that will help keep philosophy alive and philosophers employed. I just think that, on the whole (as Mike suggested), philosophy is going to decline in the decades to come - decline in terms of number of departments, number of employed philosophers, and in it's reputation in comparison to other disciplines in universities.


Assistant Professor, while I am all in favor of great teaching, in my experience, philosophers are really well-respected teachers compared to most other subjects. Maybe my experience has been unrepresentative, but at my 4 universities, philosophers have always held some of the highest teaching evals and seemed to have great respect from the students. But still, many students who enjoyed their phil course would never major in philosophy because they see college as career training, and they are not convinced that a BA in philosophy will be a wise choice re employment. Of course, it pains many of us that universities are so commonly seen as career training technical schools. On the other hand, with the crazy amount of money students are paying, you can't blame them much for wanting to undergo a path that has a high return on investment.


I'm also skeptical that good teaching is going to have a real effect. I think external/instrumental incentives (e.g., required course, vocational major) *far* outweigh any internal/intrinsic incentives (cool class, good teacher) when it comes to students picking majors and courses.

This chart suggests that the scale of the problem is that philosophy has 10x (well, 7x-40x) fewer majors than in-demand majors like business, computer science, health professions, engineering, and psych.


And since the chart rolls together philosophy and religion, the 9k majors is probably over counting a lot (think of all the religious schools out there, like Liberty, with a lot of religious studies majors).

I think we'd all agree that a campaign to teach really well would be *wildly successful* if it ended up doubling philosophy majors and course enrolments, but doubling those numbers would still leave philosophy like 5x fewer majors than in-demand majors.

Of course, I'm not against a campaign to improve teaching. Doubling majors/enrolments probably would have an affect and save a few departments over the next 10 years. But I don't think that it would "entirely remove the possibility of elimination". That seems wrong. The structural forces in play are far, far too big. I think they call for structural changes within philosophy, so that we're more integrated into high-value positions.

Assistant Professor

Mike, fair enough. A significant improvement in teaching, one that resulted in a doubling of the number of majors, would not "entirely remove the possibility of elimination" on a national, discipline-wide scale. But I suspect that it would significantly reduce the likelihood of elimination at most individual departments. We don't need as many majors as business or computer science. If we attained that many majors, we would end up growing the number of faculty in philosophy departments by a great deal. The goal, I take it, is just to make it so that administrators don't cut programs altogether. If a given department doubled their number of majors in the span of, say, a decade, that would make it much harder to eliminate the program at that particular school.

Amanda, I agree that in at least some places philosophers are regarded as excellent teachers. I went to a liberal arts college where the philosophy professors were regarded by their colleagues as excellent teachers. As a student, however, I could see that about 50% of the philosophy faculty were indeed excellent teachers and the other 50% were quite poor teachers. One of my first philosophy courses ever was taught by one of the poor teachers. I was the only one in that class who went on to major in philosophy. And I had already fallen in love with the subject. The excellent teachers, though, regularly attracted several majors out of their intro-level courses.

That was a long time ago, though. Having studied and taught at several larger universities, I have found, and this is only my experience, that even though philosophers were occasionally seen by other faculty as excellent teachers, they were not, in fact, very good at getting students excited about the material. My own opinion, is that the quality of undergraduate philosophy teaching is much lower than it could be.

A massive improvement in the quality of teaching doesn't have to turn philosophy into business or computer science in terms of number of majors, it doesn't even have to prevent the slow shrinking of philosophy departments by attrition, it just has to prevent full-blown program elimination. I think it could do that. And, frankly, it has rarely, if ever, been tried.

Guy Crain


Can you give an example of what you mean here:

"I think they call for structural changes within philosophy, so that we're more integrated into high-value positions."



@Guy Crain, I mean stuff like funding our work (in part) through external grants, and establishing research partnerships with external entities, especially high-visibility ones (e.g., a research partnership with a nearby hospital that explores the ethics of COVID-19 triage, or a collaboration with a tech company like Google on the ethics of big data). The current model is something like: we do research on esoteric stuff with no obvious connection to real-world problems, and we get funded purely through internal sources (student tuition, plus whatever state funding the school gets). We should, instead, be looking for grants and other external funding sources which will at least pick up part of our costs, and integrate ourselves into high-visibility projects that attract students, provide even more funding, generate good PR, and make our value manifest.

These thoughts are mostly directed at research schools, but those in departments at small teaching schools can get creative as well. For example, there's likely going to be *some* sort of industry or local issue the faculty there could be plugged into, generating (say) internships or hands-on projects for their students.

For the most part I'm just brainstorming. I know more and more philosophers are going for these kinds of things, e.g. all the recent grants being won by philosophers for various research projects, or I've seen practical programs like a department with connections at a local prison (doing philosophy in the prison). So, I know some people are getting creative and innovating.

I just think that shrinking tuition dollars and shrinking state funding will make the current model more and more unworkable, so that survival will largely come down to finding alternative ways to fund our programs.

@Assistant Professor: Fair enough. I'm still concerned, so let me push back a little more, in friendly spirit. If the funding model isn't changed, most departments will still (in the next decade) find themselves at a university that simply must cut costs. If that means cutting faculty (or programs), those faculty/programs will probably be cut mostly based on enrollment --- e.g., the lowest enrolment departments will be hit. If (say) 5 departments need to be cut and philosophy (even after doubling enrolment/majors) is still one of those 5 smallest departments, it's going to still get cut.

I mean, a lot of philosophy departments, even at medium-sized schools (10-20k), have only like 15-30 majors. A very health philosophy department (growing enrolments, etc), if still tiny, seems likely to be cut if fixed costs need to go down.


I think we shouldn’t see this as an either/or thing when it comes to philosophy surviving. Yes it seems like philosophy and other humanities are going to be cut. That’s pretty obvious.

But a lot of people forget that having a minor in philosophy can be helpful. As well, dual degree options exist in many universities. Students can do philosophy and business; philosophy and PR; philosophy and political science; philosophy and education; philosophy and journalism; philosophy and criminology, etc.

As I have already argued before in other posts, the many knowledges gained in philosophy e.g. know-how, know-that are portable and can be applied in varies industries and jobs. For example, things like ethics and critical thinking can help them in their careers if they ever need to negotiate or write contracts. It may even teach them to be humble and fair minded people when they get into positions of power. If they truly love and value philosophy, then I would encourage them to minor or double major in philosophy if they can.

The struggle in this case is convincing them why minoring or double majoring in philosophy would be fruitful to their lives or future career.


Add a PPE major. It allows those interested in philosophy to also have a 'marketable' degree (the economics part) while being able to take a bunch of philosophy classes.


PPE, that’s very fascinating. I never knew that. It seems that it has been around since the 1920s when I researched it.

From this (historical) example, I predict that the survival of philosophy would result from the evolution of the single subject major model into a “hybrid” major model. It seems possible to create a “Philosophy, Biology, and Economics” major (PBE). Survival of philosophy would also depend on its evolution.

c glymour

Bright young student tries an introductory philosophy course. What does she get? Plato's Apology, which she quickly recognizes as pretty lame legal strategy. Descartes Meditations, which she finds an appalling collection of bad arguments. Pascal's Wager, which she (loudly) says is a super dumb argument based on excluding alternatives. She decides to major in computer science.

The dull fellows stick around. Every now and then there is an exception.

Chris Stephens

If only more people used Thinking Things Through to teach intro, philosophy could be saved from elimination.

non-tt faculty

I believe that c glymour has a point. Whether teaching intro courses in the traditional/stereotypical way is best for students' training and interest in philosophy requires more evidence.

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