by Daniel A. Kaufman
What could the election of Donald Trump possibly have to do with the plight of academic philosophy? Well, nothing … and everything.
First, though, regarding philosophy’s plight. We’re in trouble, but unfortunately, our leadership seems not to realize it. Or if they do, they don’t care. Or are too confused to know how to address it. You decide which is worse. There’s no good version of this story.
What leadership? Well, philosophy, as a discipline, doesn’t have a leadership, per se. By “leadership,” I mean a combination of the most prominent members of our profession, at our most prestigious colleges and universities and top programs, and those who run the American Philosophical Association. The two groups overlap to a substantial degree, insofar as there are few people who have been or are currently in charge of the Association, at least at the national level, who aren’t and haven’t been from these sorts of institutions.
What plight? Well, there are several. Most significantly, philosophy programs, across the country, are under threat of merger, diminishment – i.e. elimination of the major – or elimination altogether. The ostensible reason is what in the academic business is called “low-completion,” meaning that philosophy departments’ graduation rates are low, not because philosophy students wash out before graduation, but because of the small number of philosophy majors. This need not mean low enrollments: philosophy courses are typically bundled into General Education distribution requirements, which means that for the typically small size of a philosophy faculty, an awful lot of credit-hours are being produced. But a college or university need not sustain an entire department and major and minor programs – and all of the expenses that come with them – for Gen Ed service. And I trust that I don’t need to explain why few people choose to major in philosophy, given the terrifying economic and labor prospects with which young millennials and Generation Z are faced.
A second significant plight concerns, as it were, the supply-side. There is a prodigious, I would say obscene surplus of professional philosophers. I am, at this moment, chairing a search committee – my third … or is it my fourth? – charged with finding a replacement for one of our retiring faculty, and we have over 250 applicants for the job. And we’re just a run-of-the-mill, undistinguished, public university in the lower Midwest – the shi-shi places are getting double that many applicants per job. Yet, the graduate programs keep admitting students and pumping out new philosophy Ph.D.’s, regardless. It’s a human and moral disaster.
If the leadership, as I have defined it, cares about any of this, I see no evidence of it. And why would they? Their departments aren’t the ones in trouble. The liberal arts and humanities are doing just fine at places like Stanford and Duke and Johns Hopkins and NYU. As for caring about what happens to all those poor jerks who find themselves wandering around the country with a brand-new Ph.D. and no job prospect in sight, why should they? Putting a moratorium on or even a temporary halt to new admissions to graduate programs means that those belonging to our leadership will be deprived of cheap labor; that they won’t be able to maintain their 2-2 or even cushier teaching loads; that they may have to teach introductory level courses and even worse, grade papers and exams themselves. (For those who may be unaware of what the normal state of affairs is for professional philosophers at all the un-fancy places around the country, standard teaching loads are 3-3 or 4-4, we may have between 150 and 200 students per semester, half to two-thirds of our teaching may be in introductory level courses, and we do all of our own grading … every last bit of it. Oh, and we are still required to publish, too.)
But you’ve heard that professors, in general, lean to the Left, politically, and liberal arts and humanities professors even more so. (1) The data bears it out, and anecdotally, I can count the number of conservative philosophy professors I know on one hand. It’s not as if philosophy professors are some cabal of rapacious corporatists or egoistical Randians. You would think, then, that the leadership would care about these things: about the plight of struggling programs; of faculty who belong to what is the academic equivalent of the working class; and of vulnerable young people, just starting their careers.
Not to worry. Our leadership remains committed to progressive causes. Not, perhaps, the ones I’ve been discussing, but … well … others. In fact, the APA has just announced the projects and initiatives they will be funding this year, and they are as follows:
- Ethics and Aesthetics of Stand-Up Comedy
- Gender in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Mexican Indigenous Knowledge, Chican@ Identity, and Philosophy for Children.
- Non-Academic Placement Data and Analysis
- Prejudice: An Interdisciplinary Workshop
- Second Annual Undergraduate Women in Philosophy Conference
- Workshop for Early Career Women in Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy
‘Chican@’ (Initiative 3) is not a typo, though researching it made me wish that it was. Apparently, it’s just intolerable to some people that words like ‘Chicano’ and ‘Chicana’ carry specifically gendered connotations. After all, as we now know, there are at least fifty-seven genders if not more, which means that, clearly, ‘Chicano’ and ‘Chicana’ are not only insufficient but downright discriminatory; bigoted, even. ‘Chican@’ solves this terrible and pressing problem. Indeed, whole university departments have adopted this spelling in naming their programs, like the University of Wisconsin, which is proud to house the “Department of Chican@ and Latin@ Studies.” (3) The fact that it is unpronounceable, while perhaps making things “complicated,” (according to one faculty member), is apparently not enough to give pause. (4)
In case you don’t find gendered words sufficiently concerning, the APA is also committed to support those who want to pore over the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, so as to “provid[e] statistical measures of female representation in authorship and rates of citation, investigating patterns of citation for potential biases.” (Initiative 2) That doesn’t scratch your progressive itch enough? Our leadership is also funding a conference devoted to examining “aspects of identity in stand-up comedy, such as race, ethnicity, ability, gender, sexuality, ability, age, and/or class,” as well as the “ethics of heckling [and] hostility.” (Initiative 1) Of course, given much more of that sort of thing, no standup comedian in his right mind is ever going to set foot on a college campus, and in fact, many already refuse to do so … and they’re not conservatives. (5)
The list reads like a right-wing parody of liberal academics, and this brings me to my last – and first – point: the connection between the plight of academic philosophy and the election of Donald Trump. It’s no secret that many political analysts have attributed Trump’s election at least partly to a backlash against progressive excesses and to identity-politics in particular; to the fact that a good portion of the United States, especially the part living in so-called “flyover country,” is still quite socially conservative, and to the effect on such people of a constant drumbeat of gay marriage, anti-police activism and the like. Indeed, I have done so myself, in these very pages. But there’s another significant dimension to this and that is a perception of terrible triviality. We have tens of millions of non-college-educated, working people who have no idea how they are supposed to make a living in what is rapidly becoming a post-industrial country. And yet, the Democrats in the last election gave the impression that as far as they were concerned, the really pressing issue of our day is what to do about transgender people, who need to use the toilet.
Transgender people make up about .3% of the population, (6) while some 60% of Americans have less than a bachelor’s degree, and some 40% have no education beyond high school. (7) The wild disparity between those numbers is worth meditating upon, for they explain the impression of elites fiddling, while Rome burns. The Democrats worry about transgender toilet protocols, while Flint and Detroit disintegrate. The philosophy leadership worries about gendered words and the number of women cited in the SEP, while philosophy departments around the country collapse. And as is always the case in such situations, it’s not the elites themselves who suffer the worst of Rome burning, protected, as they are in their towers of ivory and steel. It’s the rest of us sad sacks down below who do. And just as Hillary Clinton and her circle will do just fine, no matter how many elections they lose, so the philosophers at the Stanfords, Dukes, and NYUs will do just fine, no matter how many undistinguished philosophy programs are gutted or get the axe.