A philosophy graduate student on why she’s leaving the discipline

Udoka Okafor writes,

When I began university at sixteen years old, I was very young and naive. I practically grew up in a very abusive catholic boarding school in Nigeria, as I was sent there at the age of nine and didn’t leave until I was fifteen. The one year of highschool that I did in Canada was also severely distressing. Needless to say, up until the time I got into university, my only instinct had been to survive life, never to fully live it, experience it, and indulge in its many diversions. But, when I got into McMaster University, the world felt more open than ever before. I left the sciences behind and I fell in love with philosophy, and ultimately ended up doing my undergraduate degree in “Justice, Political Philosophy, and Law”, which I enjoyed thoroughly; so much so that I decided to put off plans for going to law school in order to do my Masters in Philosophy.

. . . For my Masters program, I had to take six philosophy courses, but this time the courses just felt tiring. It felt as though we were recycling the same philosophers and the same canons of knowledge. I learnt about Hume, Kant, Aristotle, and it all felt so exhausting; not just for me, but for some of my friends in the program as well. We had to sit through these classes where we were told that of course these philosophers were racist and sexist, of course Aristotle believed in natural slaves, but none of that was to be taken as salient when interpreting their works. I took a Social and Political Philosophy class on our duties to the poor were we talked in great lengths about Thomas Pogge, and not once did we talk about his sexual harassment scandals, because it wasn’t deemed salient to his philosophy. That is how we protect these “great” philosophers, we separate their personal life and actions from their philosophical legacy. We excuse too much, and we concede too much.

. . . Philosophy helped me at a time in my life when I needed the help the most. But, I have lost faith in its ability to answer the questions that are most pressing to me, I have lost faith in its ability to help me understand the world.

Her full piece is here.

Okafor cites a broader set of issues, but her piece reminded me of a post at Daily Nous awhile back on the intellectual costs of misconduct to the discipline:

[W]hile I love philosophy and thoroughly enjoy teaching, there are times where I am deeply conflicted about whether or not I genuinely want to continue after I finish my degree. There are certainly many features of my experiences with philosophers to recommend such a career. I have found some wonderful friends, intelligent and creative colleagues, a place where I can pursue my interests, and mentors who give me hope that I might, someday, feel at home in the profession.

All the same, what should I think about my place in a discipline that sometimes feels like an episode of Mad Men, only with less well-tailored clothing? How am I supposed to feel about the worth of my welfare when I can no longer count the number of people I know who have been sexually assaulted by fellow philosophers on one hand? How should I respond when I am told that I ought to keep silent about such things until I have tenure? Why would I want to adapt to a professional culture where this is normal? Will it be possible to succeed without becoming part of the problem along the way?

I know folks tire of having conversations about misconduct, exclusion, and diversity in the profession. These conversations are hard. But this is exactly why we need to keep having them —  it isn’t just a matter of justice (though it is this too), or for that matter, moralizing. It’s that we lose talent. It’s that we miss out on important insights and intellectual developments. It’s that we cannot make the most of our intellectual community when it functions such that systematically, people with certain social identities do not feel welcome within it, and people are regularly discouraged from pursuing swaths of legitimate areas of study.