Many philosophy departments have a “Why Study Philosophy?” section on their home pages. Many of them argue that philosophy must do an unusually good job developing students’ intellectual skills. As evidence, they post graphs showing how philosophy majors consistently get the highest scores on the verbal and analytic part of GRE, and get the highest score among all humanities majors (and higher than most social science and many natural science majors) on the quantitative part of the GRE.
For example, see here: http://www.ius.edu/philosophy/
If you’ve taken even a semester’s worth of an empirical social science, or if you’re just a generally thoughtful person, your first reaction to such graphs should be: treatment effect or selection effect? That is, from the fact that “Students declaring an intention to go to graduate school in philosophy have the highest mean scores on the Verbal section of the GRE (mean: 589) of any major ” we cannot conclude that “Philosophy prepares students for the Graduate Record Exam.” Instead, we would need to know whether philosophy A) makes people smarter, or whether instead B) the people who study philosophy are on average smarter.
Departments make no effort to try to show that it’s A, not B. And, in light of the vast empirical on how little students develop in college–literature which most philosophers have come across–they should know better than to just assume it’s A, not B. In fact, by default, given this vast empirical literature on learning, we should presume that it’s B, not A, until shown otherwise.
So, I think philosophy departments have immoral advertising practices. They are not dishonest, but they are at the very least negligent in how they advertise. They claim philosophy delivers certain goods, but they do not have sufficient evidence that it in fact delivers these goods, and they should know that they lack sufficient evidence. Most of my philosopher colleagues would rightly condemn a pharmaceutical company if it tried to sell medicine on such flimsy evidence.
UPDATE 1: If you know of a department that recognizes this problem, and thus actually tries to show that studying philosophy causes high scores, please let me know.
UPDATE 2: Joel Grus points out that Rice University admits that they have no evidence philosophy causes high GRE scores. Good for Rice!
Aeon Skoble (Bridgewater State) objects
They claim philosophy delivers certain goods, but they do not have sufficient evidence that it in fact delivers these goods, and they should know that they lack sufficient evidence.” We claim that majors in philosophy are obliged to develop certain intellectual skills which will be valuable in a wide range of careers, which is true. I don’t see where this is morally-flawed advertisin
Nope, I’m going to bite the bullet here and say that it’s bad ethics. Take the following two similar, but slightly different, claims:
A. As a result of majoring in philosophy, most philosophy majors develop general skills that are useful in a wide range of careers.
B. As a result of majoring in philosophy, most philosophy majors develop general skills, along with the ability to apply these skills to a wide range of careers.
A and B here are empirical claims. If you want to know whether they are true, you check. You do proper social science. Philosophers should know that their personal experiences might make A and B seem true to them even they are false. They should know that before claiming A and B are true, they should check.
And, as a matter of fact, there is empirical literature on student learning. You may recall a book called Academically Adrift, widely discussed last year, which presents a significant range of this literature. In general, the evidence supports three basic claims:
1. Students in particular majors do tend to learn significant amounts about the particular content of that major. (Yeah!) However, they forget most of that rather quickly. (Ouch.)
2. Most students, including most students at elite colleges, do not develop much greater verbal, reasoning, or mathematical skills in college.
3. Most students do not apply general skills from their learning to other areas. Learning is highly specific. As Bryan Caplan puts it, when he summarizes others’ work on this: Most of us do not learn to learn.
So, yeah, I think departments make pronouncements they are not entitled to make, and which they should realize they are not entitled to make. I doubt anyone is being dishonest. They are sincere, but negligent in their beliefs about the advantages philosophical study confers.
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