Discussion on matters of education currently focuses on assessment, but a more fundamental question concerns the content of education. Here are some thoughts on the content of one aspect of higher education.
Students considering a degree in philosophy sometimes asked me: What use is philosophy? I imagine the same sort of question might have been asked by students considering a degree in other arts or humanities. Similar questions sometimes came up at parties with their elders. When students asked the question, they mainly had in mind whether a degree in philosophy would help them to get a job. Their elders were more often questioning, more or less sceptically/aggressively, whether the subject contributed anything worthwhile to the economy or to life in general. The question was often accompanied with: 'Well, I'm just a plain man – a down-to-earth engineer/GP/plumber'.
The students' question is partly an empirical one and I am not in a position to answer for a post-COVID world. But before the world changed, the answer was that philosophy graduates did well in the job market, especially when philosophy was studied in conjunction with another subject such as history, literature or economics. Indeed, many members of the civil service and politicians have the degree known as PPE (philosophy, politics and economics). Of course, not everyone would see that as a recommendation.
The more interesting issue is not the empirical one but whether the employment of philosophy graduates, or indeed graduates in history, literature or other humanities, can be justified. It is often said that graduates in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) should replace graduates in the more traditional arts and humanities. The economy certainly needs graduates in such subjects and perhaps they should receive more encouragement from funding bodies. But I have a cautionary anecdote.
Before lockdown, I was in a music shop and got talking to the young assistant. He had an honours degree and a master's degree in chemistry but had been unable to obtain a job using his chemistry. When he applied for more general jobs he was told he was too specialised. Fortunately, he had some background in music and was able to do a little teaching, and also worked in the music shop.
This anecdote illustrates a problem with STEM subjects: they involve specialist knowledge and are taught in very specialised ways. But many jobs require a broader approach. In more detail, many jobs require both independence of mind and flexibility of mind, and these are skills which philosophy and other humanities cultivate.
Independence of mind
involves skills in assessing evidence and arguments, and identifying the main points in a complex document. The skills acquired from philosophy or other humanities subjects are transferable to tasks of that kind in assorted areas of business and the professions.
Flexibility of mind
involves the ability to challenge accepted doctrines or ways of doing things. Someone with a flexible mind can see things differently, can bring a fresh perspective to a problem and can understand another point of view. Again, these are qualities cultivated in the humanities.
It might be replied that independence and flexibility of mind can also be developed in the STEM subjects. Perhaps they can, but the problem is that such subjects are taught in ways which stress the acquisition of specialised knowledge and skills. They are appropriate for specialised jobs but are less easily transferable.
The second question, the one from the down-to-earth and the worldly-wise, is broader and concerns the impact which philosophy may or may not have had on the course of human history. I'll take two out of many examples. In terms of political, economic and moral thinking, the structures of the contemporary world are largely determined by two types of philosophy: the rights-based, free market philosophy of the West, shaped by John Locke, Adam Smith and J S Mill, among others, and the opposed state-centrist philosophies of Hegel and Marx. Whether in the West or the East, we think as we do on political and economic questions because those great minds have shaped our thoughts.
Less well known is the way in which Plato determined the nature of contemporary physical science. Why did Galileo accept the view that the Earth is not the centre of things but rather that we go round the Sun? The best observational astronomers of the time, such as Tycho Brahe, rejected Galileo's view because the empirical evidence was overwhelmingly against it. But Galileo had studied Plato and was profoundly influenced by Plato's view that the universe is mathematical in nature. He therefore accepted the heliocentric view against the empirical evidence on the grounds that what is better mathematically is bound to be nearer the truth than empirical evidence. Modern physical science was established not by rejecting philosophy for empirical evidence, but rather by accepting a particular philosophical theory. Plato's view of the mathematical structure of the universe continues through to Einstein and contemporary physics and astronomy.
I have argued for the significance of the humanities, such as philosophy, both for their usefulness in educating the young for diverse employment and also for their deeper impact on human thought. But they have another type of significance – some would say the most important. It can plausibly be claimed that the arts and humanities, regardless of any 'usefulness', are just worthwhile for their own sake or intrinsically.
Aristotle argues that many activities (perhaps STEM subjects) can be justified because they are useful to attain desirable ends, which in their turn may be useful to attain further ends. But he points out that chains of useful means and ends must stop somewhere. Unless there are ends or activities which are justified not by their usefulness but just for their own sake, or intrinsically, nothing can ever be useful. In other words, what is worth having or doing or appreciating just for its own sake must be totally and utterly useless. That conclusion never failed to raise a laugh from students. But Aristotle is surely right on this.
Great works – of literature, of philosophy, of music, of the fine arts – are there to be appreciated just for their own sake and not for any usefulness. They are among the glories of the human spirit. And, since we are told that as technology develops fewer of us may be able to have full-time useful employment, perhaps education should prepare us for that increased leisure and celebrate what is just worthwhile for its own sake.
Note too that it is not just high-class activities that can be enjoyed purely for their own sake. Aristotle points out that simple games or sports are enjoyed not because they are useful but just because of the kind of activities they are. The government encourages sport because it is good for our health. Perhaps, but surely the main point about games and sports is just that they are absorbing, exciting, or just a lot of fun. And listening to the singing of Rule, Britannia
and Land of Hope and Glory
can give us a laugh.