An important shift in academic philosophy? Updated

[See update at the end.]

At a time in which many feminist philosopers are very worried that the percentage of women in philosophy is at best static, the New York Times tells us, “In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined.”  And that means many more philosophy majors.

Once scoffed at as a luxury major, philosophy is being embraced at Rutgers and other universities by a new generation of college students who are drawing modern-day lessons from the age-old discipline as they try to make sense of their world, from the morality of the war in Iraq to the latest political scandal. The economic downturn has done little, if anything, to dampen this enthusiasm among students, who say that what they learn in class can translate into practical skills and careers. On many campuses, debate over modern issues like war and technology is emphasized over the study of classic ancient texts.

The impact on the demographics of the profession appear potentially extremely important:

Nationwide, there are more colleges offering undergraduate philosophy programs today than a decade ago (817, up from 765), according to the College Board. Some schools with established programs like Texas A&M, Notre Dame, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, now have twice as many philosophy majors as they did in the 1990s.

“WHAT!?!” a philosophy professor might be tempted to ask. But as the first quote might indicate, what we may be seeing is at least as much a shift in philosophy as in the students:

Barry Loewer, the department chairman, said that Rutgers started building its philosophy program in the late 1980s, when the field was branching into new research areas like cognitive science and becoming more interdisciplinary. He said that many students have double-majored in philosophy and, say, psychology or economics, in recent years, and go on to become doctors, lawyers, writers, investment bankers and even commodities traders.

As the approach has changed, philosophy has attracted students with little interest in contemplating the classical texts, or what is known as armchair philosophy. … Other students said that studying philosophy, with its emphasis on the big questions and alternative points of view, provided good training for looking at larger societal questions, like globalization and technology.

“All of these things make the world a smaller place and force us to look beyond the bubble we grow up in,” said Christine Bullman, 20, a junior, who said art majors and others routinely took philosophy classes. “I think philosophy is a good base to look at a lot of issues.”

Do notice that what is going on here is not some simple matter of “If you give them applied, trendy philosophy, then they’ll take the courses.”  Cognitive Science at Rutgers is hardly that.

And in yet another case, feminist philosophy has been an important and unacknowledge pioneer.

[Update:  O, bother!  Questions about reality intrude again.  See the acute Noumena’s comments.  Can you contribute to our understanding?]

6 thoughts on “An important shift in academic philosophy? Updated

  1. I can attest first-hand to the large number of Notre Dame undergrads majoring in philosophy. I didn’t know it was a recent thing, though — all the undergrads here are required to take two philosophy classes, which is two more than almost all non-Catholic schools require, and I thought that was why it was so popular.

    I was annoyed that the article didn’t really go into causal hypotheses. The two they mentioned — a more interdisciplinary approach, and the LSAT benefit — sound right. We have a lot of political science/philosophy majors (thanks to a special joint major), and send an enormous percentage of majors on to law school. (The fact that many of them move 200 yards away to Notre Dame’s own law school might be a factor here.)

    But they’re not enough. The joint polisci/philosophy major has got to be 15 years old, and it’s not like the good-lawyer-making aspects of Analytic methodology have changed in that time either. Indeed, right now we’re going through a wave of retirements, losing 1 or 2 senior faculty every year. And while feminist philosophy might play a role at other institutions, it certainly doesn’t at Notre Dame. (We’re not exactly a feminist stronghold.)

    Very puzzling.

  2. Okay, it’s actually not puzzling at all in the case of Notre Dame. Our Office of Institutional Research publishes an annual set of statistics, which unfortunately appear to only be available online to people with a Notre Dame account.

    In AY94/95, Philosophy awarded 20 BAs, and the school of Arts and Letters (our parent school) awarded 813 BAs total. That’s about 2.5%. In AY06/07, Philosophy awarded 36 BAs and 28 `supplementary’ Bachelor’s degrees, out of 1,422 total within Arts and Letters. If you count just the degrees within the major, that’s still 2.5% — no real increase. So where we’re seeing the increase mentioned in the NYT article is with this thing called the `supplementary’ major.

    I hadn’t heard of this, but it’s right there on our department website. (In the undergraduate section where, of course, I never bother to go.) Basically, a Notre Dame undergraduate can get a second major in Philosophy with eight total philosophy classes instead of the usual ten or twelve (for the Honors major). We don’t have a distinct Philosophy minor, but a number of interdisciplinary minors that each require a total of seven classes.

  3. Noumena,

    Thanks so much for following through on this. Given what you’ve uncovered, it seems the increase in students’ self-reflective studies could be partly or largely an increase in the availability of double majors and the ease of having one. See the update in the post.

    What the facts and figures are about majors can have very important implications for departments. The fact that women’s studies at South Florida may lose its status as a free-standing department because of statistics like these illustrates the point. (See our

    In fact, I do know that some very clever people in Rutgers’ philosophy dept gave some thought in the 1980’s to the question of how to strengthen the prestige of the department in the university. Perhaps the possibilities made available by the double major have given other departments some ideas about increasing status.

    In the meantime, I’m wondering whether Rutgers is taking their campaign to increase philosophy’s prestige onto the NY Times. Hmmmmmmmm.

  4. Ironically and tragically we are also seeing a huge upsurge in a kind of fundamentalism of the old ways which expresses a nostalgic desire to recreate a retro world that long ago ceased to exist.

    The rise of no-nothing “closed book” religious fundamentalism which urges its adherents to “strenghten” (read rigidify) their minds.

  5. Perhaps the interest in The Social Construction of Reality is a promising sign.

    After all everybody knows that there is something profoundly wrong with the way things are, and that the old answers aint necessarily so—and are in fact killing everything.

    That havent been said please check out this reference which describes the origins & consequences of the cognitive straight-jacket in which we are well and truly trapped.

    And more importantly a way of waking up from the collective trance/spell.

    It is profoundly feminist in its sensitivity.


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