Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Philosophy Careers, Autonomy, and Self-direction

My university now offers a bachelor's degree in philosophy, and the degree program has been more successful in its first couple of years than anyone initially expected. Students are transferring in from other programs within the university, students are double-majoring (even with their other degree being in engineering!), and we've recruited students who are willing to enter from Day 1 as philosophy majors. (This is the only university I know of which makes it all but impossible to enter as an undecided major.)

But I have to admit that I have concerns when it comes to recruiting students to the philosophy major in the context of a career-oriented university. I do believe that philosophy prepares people to excel in law, law enforcement, criminal investigation, business, journalism, the clergy, politics, civil service and international development, education, market and policy research, and so many other fields. Yet, in a university where majors are seen as preparatory for disciplinary careers, the philosophy majors I know all expect to become professional philosophers.

I make no judgments about who would be a "good" future professional--there's far, far too much diversity in our profession to play that game. The problem, instead, is my suspicion that the chances of successfully navigating the route to professional philosopher are rather less probable than that of successfully becoming a lawyer, businessperson, journalist, editor, or whatever, while being more vested with mythology and no more dependent on merit. I worry about their future happiness.

So as I say farewell to students on their way to graduate school, I'll be sure to plant the idea in their heads that there are many good and fulfilling careers. And I hope that all our philosophical discussions of virtuosity, of autonomy, and of authenticity will head them down interesting and unexpected paths.

Should the path of professional philosophers seem too flat and narrow, I have two excellent examples of people who trekked off it to find their own:

Martin Noval, who was a visiting professor in my department in the 1980's (before my time here) leads treks in the Himalayas and trips through India.

Jack Turner, formerly a professor at Univ. of Illinois, Chicago is now the president of Exum Mountain Guides.


Khadimir said...

As one of those people who have trekked on, even before the major existed, I would redouble your caution.

K said...

I am majoring in Philosophy, having always assumed law school was the likely next step.

There is a huge blog-based backlash against going to law school. It apparently doesn't pay off the way law schools would have you believe; they doctor the placement rates and salaries. Six-figure debt poses an insurmountable challenge for most graduates for the rest of their lives, because most people don't get into Big Law.

What do you think I should do if academia is unlikely as well?