Philosophers are in the news these days. By what I can tell from the media, un-and-underemployed philosophy majors are sprouting from the sidewalks, infesting Occupy America movements, and crowding the lines for openings in the barista business. I am reminded of the line in T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland where he witnesses the hordes of urbanites crossing London Bridge and imagines them as an original infestation of the walking dead:
Philosophers, so many, I had not realized unemployment had undone so many.
The proliferation is further astonishing since my own Department of Philosophy begs borrows and steals students from other departments to make a living. From what I can gauge in the news media they are not looking the right places because every news reporter living seems to find them easy pickin’s right at hand at every street corner.
A few days ago I posted on a peculiar opinion piece from Frank Bruni at the New York Times, wherein philosophers and anthropologists were given as examples of what’s wrong with the American educational system, graduating as it does hordes of unemployable thinkers with their heads too far in the clouds to realize the damage they are doing to themselves by reading Immanuel Kant. This morning in my local newspaper I was treated to Nate Beeler’s editorial cartoon, featuring an unkempt and bewildered looking philosophy major on a street corner begging for food, his sign suggesting that he will “epistemologize for food.” Finally, my day was topped off by an NPR story on the grim prospects for this year’s college grads. The story finished with an interview with the ever omnipresent philosophy major, and noted, mockingly, that the student intended to pursue medical school after finishing his philosophy degree. Good to see at least some philosophy major has some sense. I was actually thinking about how wonderful it was to find a student who was so accomplished in both the sciences and the humanities. More fool I.
How philosophers came to represent the ills of recent college graduates is beyond reckoning. Though I did do some reckoning. According to Stats from the Department of Education between 2006 and 2011, American colleges and Universities graduated approximately 117,891 philosophy majors. In the same time period these same colleges and universities graduated 1,687,105 business majors. Give or Take.
According to a Georgetown University study, recent humanities majors unemployment rate is about 9.4%, which means that we probably have about 11,081 unemployed philosophy majors running around loose and unattended.
By comparison, according to the Georgetown study 7.4% of recent business majors are unemployed. Which means that 126,532 business majors are running around loose and unattended. Give or Take.
I think the outcome of this entirely off the cuff analysis is that the average person crowding into line for barista openings at Starbucks is probably not a philosopher. I’m wondering why there are no interviews with business majors on how they feel about the fact that their educational choices did not prepare them for the job market.
We shouldn’t laugh off the difficulties of these figures in general. Recent college graduates are desperately hurting, whether they majored in philosophy or business; they are loaded with debt and many are not finding jobs. And while philosophers are struggling marginally more than some others, the point is that philosophy majors are not hurting in some extraordinary fashion because they have chosen to major in philosophy. This is a generational problem visited on this generation of student through political, economic, and cultural decisions that were not of their doing or making. To trash philosophy students as if they were witless is a snide form of victimizing victims of a system and culture these students did not create. It relieves us of responsibility to the many who are struggling and enables us to imagine that it is all their fault because of the poor educational choices they’ve happened to make. Ironically, it enables us to ignore the plight of 128,000 unemployed business students as well, since they have all come to be represented by unkempt and irresponsible philosophers.
I don’t buy it. A student thoughtful enough to read and think through Kant is thoughtful enough to be aware of what she might be getting herself in to as a philosophy major. Such students deserve better than mockery and contempt. They deserve our gratitude in reminding us that an education is about more than just the bottom line. That we do not give them this is to our discredit, not to theirs.