Adventures in Ethics and Science

The funding situation in the California State University system being what it is (scary-bad), departments at my fair university are also scrambling to adjust to a shift in the logic governing resource distribution. It used to be that resources followed enrollments — that the more students you could pack into your classes, the more money your department would be given to educate students.

Now, in the era of enrollment caps (because the state can’t put up its share of the cost for as many students as it used to), it’s looking like resources will be driven by how many majors a department can enroll (without violating caps on total enrollment for that department’s course offerings — this is a seriously complicated optimization problem).

Plus, because we (i.e., the bean-counters and the tax-payers) don’t want students frittering away tax-payer subsidized coursework (i.e., taking a single unit in excess of the minimum number of units needed to earn a degree), there is an imperative for incoming frosh to declare a major within two semesters, and for incoming transfer students to declare a major within one semester — and then, once the major has been declared, it is permanent. Like a tattoo. (Because, see, changing majors often requires doubling back to complete the requirements of the new major to which you have switched, which pushed you beyond the minimum number of units needed to earn a degree.)

Among other things, this means my department is working hard at this summer’s weekly freshman orientation events to drum up prospective majors. To that end, my colleagues Anand Vaidya and Jim Lindahl put together something of a top 10 list:

Top 10 Reasons To Pursue a Philosophy Major:

Seriously
1. Because investment bankers are corrupting the economy and we need philosophers that can think about ethics to fix the economy.
2. Because even software engineers aren’t getting jobs.
3. Because being smart and being able to talk about anything in a logical manner is important.
4. Because with a philosophy degree you have a better chance of getting into law school, business school, or medical school.
5. Because the meaning of life is not reduced to what you do, it consists of being able to think about and take pleasure in things beyond work, which is what philosophy teaches you how to do.

Not so Seriously, but Seriously

6. Because you can interpret any Spongebob episode as being insightful social criticism.
7. Because unlike all the non-philosophers who smoke cigarettes and try to be profound, you will actually know what you are talking about.
8. Because it is not about navel gazing, it is a serious discipline that has produced some of the greatest minds and ideas.
9. Because it is not what everyone else is doing.
10. Because some classical and contemporary film is bad philosophy. On the other hand, though, some really good classical and contemporary films are philosophical:

2001: A Space Odyssey, Minority Report, Vanilla Sky, Matrix, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, Star Trek, Memento, A Clockwork Orange, Rope, Munich.

And Super Seriously:

YOU CAN MOST PROBABLY GRADUATE IN 4 YEARS, WHICH IS SOMETHING YOU CANT SAY ABOUT MOST OTHER MAJORS

The ability to graduate in 4 years issue is a local one, related to our major requirements, the variety of courses that will fulfill them, and the frequency with which we offer courses that allow a student to meet those requirements. Local graduation rates at your institution of higher learning may vary.

In hard economic times (and when the College of Business is turning away hordes of would-be majors), will students major in a field like philosophy? We’ll let you know when we find out.

Comments

  1. #1 Dan Hicks
    June 25, 2010

    Oh dear. I hope your recruitment strategies involve more than just top ten lists!

    (Seriously, I was doing some research on why students pick a major a couple years ago, when I was very interested in the underrepresentation problem. I could probably dig up some of that literature next month if you need it. IIRC: Real-world relevance is key, especially for attracting students who are worried about finding a job after college. Esoteric puzzle-wrangling that doesn’t hook up more-or-less directly to building new technology tends to attract only wealthy and male students, who don’t feel as much job pressure. Sell philosophy by selling classes on ethics, phil mind classes that tie into cognitive science, and philosophy of science!)

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    June 25, 2010

    Dan, yes, the top 10 list is the eye-catcher to slow them down. Then they’re ready to hear the information we’ve compiled about how useful the training you get as a philosophy major (in reading, writing, and thinking well, not to mention mounting persuasive arguments) is in various employment sectors.

    Plus, the extent to which law schools look at philosophy as a valuable major gets their attention.

    The gender imbalance in who studies philosophy (especially at the M.A. level) is a hard problem to tackle. I hope we’re making inroads, but students are understandably focused on the problem of how to find meaningful *and* gainful employment in our current jobless recovery, and at least in the populations we’re drawing from, the women seem even more sensitive to this concern than the men.

  3. #3 Donna B.
    June 25, 2010

    Since recent law school grads seem to be having such a hard time finding jobs, the emphasis on law school may not be such the good thing it was in the past.

    What really makes me sad is the pressure to graduate without the benefit of taking a few “unneeded” courses.

  4. #4 Jim Thomerson
    June 25, 2010

    As one who changed majors as an undergraduate and again at the PhD level, I am glad not to be enrolling today. If a university degree is a good thing to have, and positions are tight, I would “get in the short line”, and get a degree rather than not being able to enroll. A serious question to ask oneself as an entering freshman is, “What will the job market be like four years from now?”

    In 1954, when I became a Geology major at Univ. Texas, there were 2000 freshman Geology majors. By the time I graduated, there were no geology jobs, and huge layoffs in the oil industry. In 1958 or 1959, there were two entering freshman Geology majors at the Univ. of Texas.

  5. #5 oliviacw
    June 25, 2010

    The movie list is a little high on science fiction. If one of your goals is to attract women, you might look for some movies with a wider range of genres. [Disclaimer: I'm a woman who loves science fiction myself, but I know many who would be turned off by that list.]

  6. #6 bardiac
    June 25, 2010

    That really discounts the huge service departments such as philosophy give to students across all majors, doesn’t it. Don’t we want lots of people to take a logic and/or ethics course, no matter what their major? (Maybe that’s only me?)

    How are they enforcing the no-changing-your-major thing?

  7. #7 Jim Thomerson
    June 25, 2010

    The service course comment is important. At my university doing service courses was thought a very good thing. Even to the point of being more important than majors hours, perhaps. I would think a department like yours would generate more service hours than majors hours. Surely this would be true of math and English departments.

  8. #8 Joshua Zucker
    June 26, 2010

    @oliviacw I agree with the bias in the list of movies, but I’m having trouble coming up with non-SF examples that involve lots of philosophy. This probably has to do with how few non-SF movies I see, particularly of the widely-seen-by-others variety. You could keep SF but probably choose a movie with broader appeal by replacing something from your list with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Memento is a great choice for the same reason.

  9. #9 antipodean
    June 27, 2010

    Frosh?

  10. #10 Peter R.
    June 28, 2010

    Needless to say, many departments would not exist, were it not for their role in teaching other majors–chemistry, mathematics, physics, philosophy, foreign languages. How can the bean-counters justify the existence of departments based solely on the number of majors? Who will teach the biologists chemistry or mathematics if there aren’t enough math majors?

    It’s pretty easy to enforce the no-major change rule. After x semesters, the registrar simply says, “sorry, can’t do it,” when the student requests a change of major. Whether students can unofficially and informally get around this, who knows. It sounds like an insane rule to me.

  11. #11 Carrie
    June 29, 2010

    As a proud graduate of the CSU system (Humboldt State), I also find it very disheartening to hear of the attitude that taking any extra units is a waste of money and time. While my major courses were relevant and generally interesting, some of my most ‘fun’ educational experiences were in course that I took strictly for “fun” — they were well outside my major. I like to think that has continued to fuel my ongoing interest in non-science topics, like History and Ethics.

    There is no greater opportunity than as an undergrad to take courses and learn things simply because you find it interesting. It’s not the same if those are taken away.