Notes From an Employed Philosopher

In an interview with radio talk-show host Bill Bennett, Pat McCrory, North Carolina’s governor, criticized the “educated elite” for offering courses that supposedly don’t help graduates get jobs. He specifically attacked areas of study like philosophy and gender studies, both of which are strong programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As a matter of fact, the Chapel Hill doctoral program in philosophy is ranked ninth in the country according to the annual Leiter report on programs in the field, joining Harvard, Yale, New York, and Stanford Universities in the top 10. That particular piece of information didn’t come up in the interview, however. Speaking about these areas of study, McCrory stated, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

Now, I am not going to argue that there isn’t such a thing as an “academic elite.” However, if you have a problem with that, eliminating liberal-arts education in public universities is not the way to change things. McCrory says people should go to private colleges if they want a liberal-arts education. That assumes that only those who can afford private education should be allowed to study the liberal arts, an assumption that is nothing if not elite.

Is a liberal-arts education for everyone? Certainly not. Some people would rather do just about anything than major in philosophy, for example, and that’s fine. But a liberal-arts education helps form students into thoughtful and concerned citizens, and that is the subtext here. As a progressive woman with strong political opinions who studied philosophy as an undergraduate and took courses in gender studies, I’d venture a guess that I’m a good example of what the governor is really going after here. Educated, concerned citizens aren’t going to sit back and let the economic elite run the show.

McCrory himself studied political science and education. Bill Bennett, who was interviewing him, has a Ph.D. in philosophy. The underlying assumption is that if you’re part of the upper class, you can enjoy the luxury of a liberal-arts education. If you’re lower-middle class, the public institutions that are supposed to be part of the mythical “American dream,” that level playing field, should only offer courses in skilled trades. Wealthy young people will get a liberal-arts education. Lower-class young people will choose a trade.

I have two main concerns here. First, that the class stratification of this issue reinforces the misguided idea that skilled trades are less worthwhile, in that well-off young people with access to private education are not encouraged to consider such tracks, even when some might prefer working with their hands to studying philosophy. They’re taught that they’re “above” such work. In my experience tutoring philosophy at Duke I’ve encountered plenty of students who would probably have found such work much more fulfilling than studying philosophy. I wish for their sake that they could have chosen a different path, but no doubt their parents would have been horrified if they chose such a blue-collar lifestyle. In contrast, I have encountered just as many students who want to study liberal arts and who would never have had the chance to study philosophy were it not for, say, an athletics scholarship.

To make the point personal, I’d note that thanks to the sacrifices my parents made, too many student loans, and a decent scholarship, I went to Hope College—a private school I couldn’t really afford. I majored in philosophy, and I took courses in gender studies. The result? An educated, employed, engaged citizen who participates in local government and isn’t content to let a few multimillionaires run my state.

McCrory can hide behind the claim that this is about creating jobs, but it’s not. It’s about class, it’s about power, and it’s about who has access to education.

The other issue at stake here is the argument about whether education is just about jobs, or something more. The first response many of us with liberal-arts educations are inclined to make is that education has worth beyond its market value. At the same time, I don’t want to go all pie-in-the-sky waxing poetic about learning for learning’s sake, educational enrichment, and all of that, because I realize many people—most people—don’t have the luxury of thinking that way. So instead I want to tell you what some members of my graduating class of philosophy majors have done with themselves.

Laura went to graduate school for higher-education administration at the University of Michigan, and now works for the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Will spent a year interning in India, then returned to the United States to attend medical school at Wayne State.

Matt scrapped his plan to pursue a Ph.D. in Philosophy, worked in his family’s business for a while, moved to North Carolina, and worked at Elon University before eventually going to graduate school at Chapel Hill.

Lea went to graduate school in cello performance at the University of Wisconsin, and now teaches at Cincinnati Music Academy.

I earned a master’s degree from Duke University and now split my time between working for Duke and for a nonprofit organization that works on issues relating to feminism and religion.

Those are just the fellow philosophy folks I’ve kept up with over the years. I could add stories about all my friends from the religion, English, and women’s-studies departments (who joined the Peace Corps and Teach for America, who became youth ministers, high-school teachers, and editorial assistants), but I think you get the point. Philosophy prepared us for a variety of different paths, and all of those paths include employment. Most of them included graduate school, also, but then you generally don’t choose to major in philosophy unless you’re planning on further study in something.

Our philosophy department made shirts one year that read, “Philosophy: I’m in it for the money.” This joke reflected that we all know the choice to major in philosophy doesn’t make economic sense. I chose it in spite of that. Why? Philosophy made me feel more alive than I ever had before. It made me think about the world around me and the ideas that shape society. My philosophy professors taught me that ideas mattered, that what I thought and what I did as a result of those thoughts was existentially significant, for me and for the people I share this world with. Simply put, the study of philosophy made me a better person. That it has actually helped me succeed professionally is just a bonus.

Meghan Florian is a writing tutor at the Center for Theological Writing at Duke University Divinity School. She is pursuing an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction at Queens University of Charlotte.

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