Letter to a Reporter

A reporter, who will here remain nameless, had asked me little more than a year ago to comment on the question of “jobs” available to philosophy majors. I don’t think she liked my response, which was in the form of a long letter, but I think it may be appropriate for this forum, so here it is, in its entirety—Lewis Gordon


Here are my thoughts. The formulation of “the job market” confuses the question of education with vocational training. If it were a matter of simply training people for jobs, a stratified society with assembly-line employment would be a better social arrangement. In truth, the job situation is a function of artificial scarcity because of misguided, often neurotic, and very contradictory efforts.

The first is this silly notion of insisting on the private sector as the sole or at least fundamental source of employment. The goal of the private sector is profit, not employment, so regardless of training, no one would have job options in that sector without necessity being imposed on it, for, again, the goal there is to make profits, which by definition requires lowering costs, including minimizing the hiring of workers, who are regarded in the private sector more as a necessary evil than subjects of obligation.

On the other hand, the reason for the public sector is the common good (however that is defined), and if that good necessitates employment, it should, in effect, provide that, just as public universities, we should remember, were created through the commitment to and the necessity of an educated citizenry. To insist, then, that government abrogates its responsibility for the public good—which includes the production of public employment where there are no or at least few private ones—means, then, a stalemate situation of unemployment.

Although there are detractors to the notion of government filling employment gaps, I recommend consulting this community of economist who argue for full employment in response to the naysayers.

I mention all this because the question of the humanities depends on understanding the distinction between education and certification. The latter is more linked to employment opportunities; the former pertains to long-term questions `of quality of life. Philosophy is rooted in the activities that led to the emergence of schooling and higher education in the first place. It is, in its origins, from ancient understandings of free time (scholē) to devote to the cultivation of one’s humanity; liberated from the necessities of simply staying alive, the view was that one could then dedicate one’s time to uniquely human activities. In effect, then, the humanities are about learning to be more human.

Students who study philosophy have historically taken many paths. Some become teachers (primary through secondary), others continue their education and become college or university professors. And still others go on to the professional schools (e.g., law or business), and there are those who enter other professions, as my colleague Don Baxter at the University of Connecticut outlined in a report, “What Can I Do with a Philosophy Degree?”:

In France, the most prestigious professional path for many is to achieve a teaching degree in philosophy (especially at the École normale supérieure and the Sorbonne) and then move on to other disciplines while bringing that knowledge to them.

In the past, it was understood that humanities degrees offered an application pool of people with strong thinking skills and cultivated reflections on maturity and ethical life—in short, characteristics of leadership. I was, for example, offered opportunities after my undergraduate degree in philosophy in the 1980s to join a firm on Wall Street to receive training in the stock market. I know of many who faced similar options, some of whom acted on the invitations, and many over the years who did quite well with those routes. The reasoning was that it makes sense to have people around, whether in business or government, with, well, the ability to reason. To this day, many do not and will never understand my decision to become a high school teacher and subsequently a university professor.

Unfortunately, our society has taken a negative turn for reasons that would require a much longer letter than what I am writing right now. As it moved more to the right with neoliberal and neoconservative aims, it began to devalue education in favor of certification and the valorization of learning institutions such as business schools, law schools, and other professional and vocational schools. An accompanying decline in the quality both of ideas and ethics followed, and as graduates of those institutions and their accompanying values (or lack thereof) emerged more in management, the results have become evident as we witness the level of theft and naked celebration of cruelty, selfishness, and greed that have wrecked our society, in what should be called class massacre instead of class warfare on the part of the rich, avaricious, and powerful, which created the traumatic situation we now face.

Along the way, these vices have been coughed up to and, indeed, forced down the throats of much of our society with the mantra and threat of endangered job security. The hysteria leads to increased unethical behavior. The rise in plagiarism in schools and decline in actual time devoted to academic work by many students makes sense where students are less concerned with their education than they are with simply being credentialed. (My colleagues in liberal arts, especially those teaching general education courses notice, for example, that such behavior is most high among the students from the business schools, which is a reflection of the unfortunate path our society is taking.)

The correlate on higher levels have become such that the more prestigious schools are offering the liberal arts while the less prestigious ones are dumbing down their offerings not only with general education courses (a disaster that is making college education seem more like high school than anything else) but also with a mad quest for funding from donors who care less about education—and, in fact, often don’t even understand it—and imagine universities being better off without professors (another example of that point I made about cost-effectiveness being interpreted as the elimination of workers).

So, the realities are these. Professional schools and the sciences often offer immediate employment but not long-term mobility and fulfillment. Humanities students tend to have a more difficult time in the beginning (for obvious reasons, for instance, of an absence of specificity for employment; education is, by definition, a more general activity). But in the long run, studies have shown that graduates of the humanities tend to lead more fulfilling lives and excel at higher levels of employment. An excellent article discussing these matters is the following:

Finally, much of what I am saying here depends on ignoring some other realities about education and employment. In the United States, employment is heavily racially inflected. It is still slanted more in favor of whites regardless of achievements, as many black and brown peoples discover upon gaining access to institutions by which they gain actual knowledge about employment opportunities, where comparable white candidates or those in similar class location still earn, in some cases, up to several times the income of their colored counterparts. What this tells us, then, is that there is a serious schism, ever widening, between education and employment opportunities, and the latter are often dependent on variables that may have less to do with
skills than with social location.

Philosophy, then, as a discipline devoted to thinking, must always be more creative than the social circumstances allow. If a philosophy major is treated as training for a vocation, it would be too narrow and by definition untrue to itself. It must, counter to what the narrow-minded will prefer, be open to possibilities. A philosopher, then, must be someone who always does both-and, who, in doing philosophy, also does something other than philosophy. I consider this to be its strength, and it should be willing to hold itself accountable in those terms, to be, that is, a reflection of the society faced with the challenge of self-justification.

Anyhow, please feel free to use whatever of these thoughts is useful. I have taught several thousand students over the past 20 years, and I receive letters from them regularly on the lives they are leading. That I teach existentialism and Africana philosophy should give you an indication of why freedom and the cultivation of our humanity are so important to me and why I consider what these areas of thought offer students are the intellectual resources with which actually to live their lives.

Lewis Gordon