Is Philosophy OK?
by Robert Gressis
Lately, I’ve been wondering whether it’s OK for me to be a philosophy professor.
You might wonder, “Why on earth should anyone wonder whether it’s OK to be a philosophy professor?” I have a simple argument. It goes like this:
The Conceptual Claim: Professors do three things as part of their jobs: produce research, teach, and provide service to their departments, colleges, or universities.
The Research Claim: I don’t produce valuable research, so I’m not making the world a better place with what I publish.
The Teaching Claim: My teaching probably doesn’t make much positive difference to most of my students.
The Administrative Claim: I can’t engage in the kind of administrative work that would make an important, positive difference to my university.
The Permissibility Claim: It’s OK to practice a profession only if it makes a positive difference (unless you have no realistic option but to be in that profession).
The Conclusion: Since, insofar as I’m a professor, I don’t make much, if any positive difference, I shouldn’t remain a professor.
That’s the argument, in a nutshell. Let me provide some justification for each of the premises. Well, except for the conceptual claim. So far as I know, no one really contests what it is that professors do, so I’ll leave that undefended.
According to the research claim, I don’t produce valuable research. Is that true? Of course, it depends on what it takes for research to be valuable. But rather than present a disquisition about the nature of value or what it takes for research to count as valuable, I’ll just say this much to motivate the research claim: while it’s true that some scholars have read my research, to the best of my knowledge, my work has served merely as something that may have been of a little help to a few scholars of Kant. In other words, some philosophers who spend their time trying to interpret very precisely what Kant meant may have found some of what I have written on that subject to be a little helpful. If that’s what my life’s work amounts to, can you blame me for feeling like I haven’t really produced valuable research?
Things could change; I could write something that gets lots of attention and helps a wide variety of people think through or notice some difficult problem. Maybe. But that seems pretty unlikely to me. The safe bet is that that’s not the kind of research career I’m going to have.
What about the teaching claim? Why do I think that my teaching has been of little value to most of my students? Here I rely on Bryan Caplan’s book, The Case Against Education. In that book, Caplan cites and summarizes a lot of meta-studies from educational psychology about how much students learn during college. In a nutshell, the story is this: most students don’t learn much during college. Most students don’t retain most of what they learn for long. And most students aren’t able to transfer what they learn in the college classroom to non-college contexts.
I could present to you the studies and numbers that Caplan cites (would it make you feel better if I wrote “97%” or “74%” instead of “most”?), but I think just some reflection on the claims make them prima facie plausible. If you’re a professor at a state school like mine, how impressed are you by your non-majors’ (or for that matter, your majors’) understanding of the material you teach to them? If you teach, say, thirty-six students in a class, how many of them leave your introductory philosophy course understanding philosophy as well as you would like?
If you’re like me, the answer to the question I just asked is “between three and five.” OK, of those three to five, how much will they remember from that class a year later? How about two years later? Four years later? You get the drift.
Finally, even if some small cadre of students retain some valuable core of insights from their philosophy (or whatever) classes, how many of them are good at applying these insights to circumstances outside of the classroom? If you’re a professor, it may help to think of your colleagues: how many of them do you think are extremely good at critical thinking? If you’re like me, your answer will be “most of them, most of the time, except when it comes to particularly freighted ideological issues.” But here’s the thing: anyone who is a professor is, relative to the population of college students, extremely good at academics; moreover, they practice their profession every day for decades. So it’s no wonder that they’re good at critical thinking.
That’s the thing, though: our colleagues practice. How many of our students, even our very good students who retain a lot, practice what they’ve learned every day? In most jobs, they either don’t get the opportunity, or it’s actively discouraged. So, most of our students will forget most of what they learn and won’t be able to or won’t be allowed to apply what they’ve learned to their everyday life.
At this point you might wonder, “well, the problem, Rob, is that maybe you’re not a very good teacher.” For what it’s worth, I get very positive teaching evaluations and I spend a lot of time researching and practicing evidence-based pedagogy. I’ve read a fair number of books like Make It Stick, Cheating Lessons, Small Teaching, The Spark of Learning, What the Best College Teachers Do, and others, along with lots of articles from Teaching Philosophy. I also performed improvisational comedy for seven years, in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and New York City. I’m very comfortable talking to people, I’m funny, and I really want my students to learn.
But when I try these new techniques, many of my students don’t like them. This is not the kind of teaching they’re used to, and they rebel. Moreover, a lot of the best teaching techniques require a ton of grading and very quick feedback on my part. So, my students prefer me not to teach well, and after a while it’s just easier for me not to teach well.
This takes us to the administrative claim, for as Jason Brennan and Phil Magness document in their recent Cracks in the Ivory Tower, the incentives in higher education just don’t support good teaching or, for that matter, good administration. Administrators want to please their customers (students and parents), so they want to make things easier on students, which includes increasing their (students’ and administrators’) power over professors. The most plum university jobs go to those who produce the best research rather than do the best teaching, so professors are incentivized to focus on research rather than teaching well. And, plausibly, the reason why getting a college degree increases students’ income is not so much that it builds students’ skills, but rather that it signals to employers that the holder of the degree is smart enough, conscientious enough, and conformist enough to succeed in most jobs. Thus, most students want the degree more than building skills, so they’ll prefer an easy “A” that leaves no traces on their minds over a “C” that makes them into better thinkers.
I bring this up because the kind of administration I would want to do would be administration focused on disseminating good teaching and study techniques throughout my university. But no one is interested in that, and many people are positively opposed to it. After all, getting professors to employ better teaching techniques is not only directly opposed to their self-interest (which lies in producing research that makes them more valuable), but also intrudes on their autonomy. And not only would it make students have to spend more time on their studies, but it would also require them to really buy in to the idea that learning is more important than a grade. Finally, it would require lots of university-, college-, and department-wide assessment of the “value” that professors “add” to their students. But everyone hates assessment.
To wrap it up into a neat little package, it seems like by being a professor I’m wasting my time and my talents. But maybe that’s OK. After all, it’s not like I’m harming people by being a professor; I’m just not doing particularly much good. Isn’t it OK to do something that doesn’t make a difference, either positive or negative?
This takes us to the last claim of the argument, the permissibility claim. Recall that it goes like this: “It’s OK to practice a profession only if it makes a positive difference (unless you have no realistic option but to be in that profession).” I include that parenthetical because some people have no choice – the only professions they can do are ones that are either actively harmful or not beneficial. About those unfortunates, I have no gripes. Although I get the sense that it’s no longer very fashionable, I still accept the claim that “ought implies can” and its contrapositive, “not can implies not ought.”
But what about me? I think it’s plausible that I could do something else for a living, something that makes more of a positive difference. I don’t mean the Peter Singer style “become an investment banker and then donate most of your money to charity” but simply some profession I enjoy that does more good than being a philosophy professor. I honestly don’t know what that is, but I would bet it’s out there.
Still, assuming that there is a job out there that I would like, and in which I could make more of a positive difference, is it immoral for me to stay in this job? Despite all my gripes, I do enjoy it – I enjoy doing my research even though few read it because it’s enjoyable for me to work my thoughts out. And despite the seeming impotence of my teaching, there are occasions where students swear to me that I’ve made a positive difference in their lives (though I admit that it’s rare that I believe them). So, even though what I do for a living may not be great (and how many people can truly say that they do something great?), surely it’s at least OK?
But I worry about two things. First, it may be that I’m harming my students in ways I don’t see. Laugh if you will, but there is one professor who is clearly making a difference right now: Jordan Peterson. And surely, at least some academics think he is doing exactly what Socrates was accused of doing namely, corrupting the youth. Perhaps I am doing the same, albeit only about as much as I elevate some others.
Second, if academia is as bad as it sometimes seems (to me) that it is, is it wrong for me to be a part of this whole system?
I haven’t come to a conclusion about all this. The only thing I’ve resolved to do as a result of these considerations is take a deep dive into the educational psychology literature; perhaps Caplan has presented a cherry-picked version of the findings. It could be that I’ll learn that things aren’t nearly so bleak as Caplan has made them out to be.
But if they are as bad as they seem, then I should probably stop thinking about this and probably do something instead.
Robert Gressis is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Northridge, where he has been teaching since 2008. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2007. His areas of research cover Kant’s ethics and philosophy of religion, Hume’s philosophy of religion, the philosophy of education, metaphilosophy, and the epistemology of disagreement.