Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Philosophy Students Rock!

(cross posted at A Ku Indeed!)

On my Twitter feed, I noticed Stephen Law's post regarding the usefulness of philosophy as an undergraduate major. Law has some interesting graphs showing comparative scores on GREs, both of which I reproduce below the fold with some comments. The graphs show what I think some already know: with respect to writing and verbal scores, philosophy majors far outperform every other major (including English). When it comes to the quantitative portion, philosophy majors score better than all majors in the Humanities, better than quite a few in the sciences, but under the hard sciences generally. Overall, with respect to composite GRE scores, philosophy students are in the top of the field, if not constituting the very top itself. Basically: if you are looking to hire someone with outstanding critical, verbal, and written ability - and someone with strong quantitative ability - hire a philosophy major!

Now, of course - and I realize that many of you are thinking this - none of this shows that philosophy makes anyone any smarter. It could even be that we make the students who come into our programs dumber (I suppose it's possible)! However, that said, what we can claim with certainty is that we tend to graduate the students who, especially on verbal/writing and even with respect to combined GRE scores, tend to perform the best on the GRE. For whatever reason - smart kids self selecting into our programs, the effects of our philosophical rigor, philosophy students being great standardized test takers, or whatever explanation you prefer. So our students should be getting hired at a fast clip. In fact, why businesses would don't red flag students from particular majors performing at the bottom of these scales is a bit beyond me.

One last thought on self-selection, though: it may well be that we tend to get the smarter kids by self-selection (I think this is certainly true). However, it's hard to believe that the upper echelon students will self-select, and stay until graduation, in a major that is not challenging to them. So I tend to think that discounting the rigor of the philosophy program itself as a causal factor is probably not well grounded, though I have no idea how to go about determining the degree to which the program is responsible for these successes.

Here is the graph (sorry for the fuzziness) for the combined writing/verbal vs math chart. The graph of just verbal and writing scores is below it.


  1. This is related to a recent comment I made on a Leiter thread and some of the surrounding discussion: if anyone can (or all disciplines can) teach "critical thinking," then why do philosophy students blow everyone else out of the water? Is there something about the content of philosophy? Another commenter suggested that it has to do with the primacy of reason, argument, and analysis in our methods (we often can't just appeal to empirical data). Figuring this out, especially to the extent that the answer suggests that philosophical content is essential to this ind of learning or that the methods best fostered by studying philosophical problems, would be very important for supporting the cause of philosophy education where departments or programs are on the chopping block. (Administrators would somehow be forced into saying that critical thinking is not as important as other institutional goals!) Thoughts? What is it about philosophy (if not self-selection) that fosters "rocking" in our students?

  2. Matt, I do think there's some self-selection bias. At least some students grasp, even in introductory courses, that phil majors will be expected to read texts carefully, engage their arguments, etc. But I also suspect that it's harder to 'hide' in philosophy than in other disciplines that might also help students develop their critical thinking (and other) skills. This is a bit speculative on my part, but I'm guessing you could be, say, a decent psych major (note 'decent', not best in one's class, etc.) without having to read all that carefully, think critically, etc.

    Obviously we should (as many departments do) use this information to market ourselves to our students. I've often thought we should 'go Marine' in our marketing : emphasize how difficult, 'elite', etc. philosophy is, appeal to those students willing to take on a challenge:
    "Philosophy: Can you handle the truth?" (insert snarling Jack Nicholson photo here)
    "Philosophy: Boot camp for the mind"
    "The few, the proud, the philosophy majors"

    What do people think? Is this a good marketing strategy?

  3. There's no doubt that self-selection enters in here. That's undeniable. However, as I noted, these "elite" students tend to pick philosophy as a major. Question is: why? I suspect it's because we (as a discipline) challenge them, so it's hard to believe that philosophy itself doesn't contribute to these outcomes, even if we start with a leg up.

    What is it that we do? More than most, and I hate to be cliche, we force students to think abstractly and out of the box. I suspect, as does Michael it seems, that you can "get by" in a lot of majors without the need to engage in a whole lot of abstract thinking. Moreover, I suspect that philosophy, moreso than in other fields, tends to focus on "what the problem is" in this theory or that. I think there's less "hey just learn this you need to know it" going on. No matter what you learn, you are always asked to think "through" it with an eye to criticizing it and seeing where it goes wrong.

    All disciplines do this to some degree, I suspect, but no discipline does it as relentlessly as philosophy does.

  4. I like the general idea of the slogans, but I would worry (for a different set of reasons) that the macho tone (or associations) of Michael's examples might support gender biases often discussed as a problem in philosophy.

    But the idea that philosophy is hard, challenging, etc., and connecting that with the nobility/virtue of rising to the challenge is good. I'll try to think of some slogans, too. Perhaps there could be a contest?!

    I wonder whether emphasizing the "rebellious" aspects of philosophy, as far as marketing goes, wouldn't also be appealing--that is, the asking of uncomfortable questions, etc. (Rocking the boat, and so on.)

    "Philosopher, n.: a rebel with a cause: truth."

    Or, for those inclined to edginess:

    "Philosophy: Training in Bullshit-Detection Since 399 B.C."

  5. Well, anyone CAN teach Critical Thinking -- or what they call CT. Whether it really measures up or not -- same issue with teaching "Ethics" -- they are generally better off asking those who have greater expertise in it: Philosophers.

    It shouldn't be surprising at all. If you spend more time doing something, you ought to get to know that activity in and out pretty well. If you just kind of gesture at it, skim it, you'll be fairly bad at it.

    I've recommended to my colleagues in other disciplines the APA Delphi report on CT, which is not perfect but is pretty good -- really a "gold standard". Very few of them really read it, and those who do are very impressed.

    Guess who I get the absolutely most resistance from. Education faculty. They have their own (substandard) rubrics for and understandings of CT.

    I agree entirely with Michael about the lesser capacity, or opportunity, to hide behind a screen of BS in philosophy -- and not just for students but for colleagues. I remember how irritated the English grad students would get with us philosophy grad students when we'd talk theory and application, because we were so "mean", pressing them on points where we thought their arguments or interpretations were weak. We'd say: but that's what you do -- meaning, that's what someone interested in truth does -- not realizing that what often they heard was just: that's what we do in our discipline

  6. Matthew -

    I like your last one, but I'd tweak the date: Confucius had an amazing capacity to recognize BS, and he predates that year by a bit!


    I'm in the midst of having this argument right now as we (at my uni) push through a curriculum revision. The issue: can anyone teach ethics? Shouldn't any disciplinary ethics course count as a gen-ed ethics course?

    My take: sure, anyone can teach anything that is at the introductory level. Go buy the book and read it. We all have Ph.Ds, intro level stuff is understandable. Can you teach it even passingly well? Well now we're asking a whole different question - and the answer is no. Outside of philosophy, I'd say there are sparse few who could teach the subject in a way that is worth the tuition money. I mean hey, I _could_ teach intro to physics, or intro to literature, but I wouldn't do it particularly well.

    I don't think the issue is much different when it comes to critical thinking.

  7. (A recent grad's opinion)

    I LOVE the bullshit-detection line. Far from training students to detect and cut through bullshit, my original major (art) seemed to teach them to create it. If you could come up with an elaborate story about about the 'deep' meaning of your project (which you threw together in a frenzied all-nighter, with little to no forethought--so you bragged to your classmates), your grade was made. That's one important reason I dropped art.

    I majored in philosophy partly because I knew it would be a challenge (though physics would have provided that as well) and partly because it introduced me to numerous subjects under the auspice of one department. What other major could incorporate study of ethical theory, religions, aesthetics, the mind, and evolution all together? I was too curious about too many things to commit all of my time to one topic.

    Most other majors are majors in topics. Philosophy can examine many topics--the major is in the examining. Best way I've thought of describing the philosophy major, if not the most catchy, is that it's a major in the analysis and construction of rational arguments. Should it be any surprise that philosophy students score relatively well on a GRE task like written argument analysis? We've had a bit of practice!

    @Chris -

    Yes, you force us to think abstractly and out of the box. But most important, I think, is that you force us to think carefully.

  8. "Training in Bullshit-Detection Since 399 B.C." is brilliant.

    I really do hope we can find a more effective way to market the major. Professional and amateur students of Rhetoric will destroy us all if we aren't careful.

    Also, I've always felt that philosophy tends to foster a special/unique kind of creativity, partially captured by the phrase "creative logical analysis" that the legal folks make noises about. I noticed that it always gifted me with the most novel and elegantly designed experiments in my biology lab.


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