Philosophy declining in universities but Philosophers top thinkers ranking…a paradox

Peter Singer Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University has this interesting article in Proj Synd.

He says that the intake in humanities has slipped sharply in recent years:

Last year, a report from Harvard University set off alarm bells, because it showed that the proportion of students in the United States completing bachelor’s degrees in the humanities fell from 14% to 7%. Even elite universities like Harvard itself have experienced a similar decrease. Moreover, the decline seems to have become steeper in recent years. There is talk of a crisis in the humanities.

I don’t know enough about the humanities as a whole to comment on what is causing enrollments to fall. Perhaps many humanities disciplines are not seen as likely to lead to fulfilling careers, or to any careers at all. Maybe that is because some disciplines are failing to communicate to outsiders what they do and why it matters. Or, difficult as it may be to accept, maybe it is not just a matter of communication: Perhaps some humanities disciplines really have become less relevant to the exciting and fast-changing world in which we live.

However Philosopher top the global thinkers ranking:

I am a philosopher, so you would be justified in suspecting bias in my view. Fortunately, I can draw on an independent report by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI), a Swiss think tank, to support my claim.

GDI recently released a ranked list of the top 100 Global Thought Leaders for 2013. The ranking includes economists, psychologists, authors, political scientists, physicists, anthropologists, information scientists, biologists, entrepreneurs, theologians, physicians, and people from several other disciplines. Yet three of the top five global thinkers are philosophers: Slavoj Žižek, Daniel Dennett, and me. GDI classifies a fourth, Jürgen Habermas, as a sociologist, but the report acknowledges that he, too, is arguably a philosopher.

The only Global Thought Leader in the top five not involved in philosophy is Al Gore. There are more economists in the top 100 than thinkers from any other single discipline, but the top-ranking economist, Nicholas Stern, ranks tenth overall.

Can it really be true that four of the world’s five most influential thinkers come from the humanities, and 3-4 from philosophy? To answer that question, we have to ask what GDI measures when it compiles its ranking of Global Thought Leaders. 

Philosophy is highly useful as it helps us ask qs:

Doing philosophy – thinking and arguing about it, not just passively reading it – develops our critical reasoning abilities, and so equips us for many of the challenges of a rapidly changing world. Perhaps that is why many employers are now keen to hire graduates who have done well in philosophy courses.

More surprising, and more significant still, is the way in which taking a philosophy class can change a person’s life. I know from my own experience that taking a course in philosophy can lead students to turn vegan, pursue careers that enable them to give half their income to effective charities, and even donate a kidney to a stranger. How many other disciplines can say that?

One Response to “Philosophy declining in universities but Philosophers top thinkers ranking…a paradox”

  1. John Wade Says:

    Hi there. I came across your post looking for anything about the decline in University Philosophy departments in the UK in the 1980s….the time when I studied Philosophy….became vegan (after reading Peter Singer’s ‘Animal Liberation’) and rather than donate half my income to charity, secured a job with a charity paying half what I might have earned!

    Do you think numbers of Philosophy students really are on the increase again? Atleast in the States?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: