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Can majoring in philosophy make you a better person?

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Hercules.jpg That's a question that EconTalk host Russ Roberts poses to University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum in this week's EconTalk episode.* Roberts expresses his concern that we've lost sight of character development in the modern age, and wonders whether the pursuit of philosophy and the humanities more broadly might mitigate that problem.

In response, Nussbaum gives an assessment and an appeal for the Humanities in universities today. She says:

So, the Humanities--I actually am not as much of a pessimist as you seem to be, because I've just done a new edition of my book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. And, for that, I looked at a lot of data. And, in fact, in our country, where in fact crucial, that we have a liberal arts system, so people study humanities sometimes as Humanities majors, but even if not, they'll study it in their required general education courses. There's actually a pretty robust increase in Humanities enrollments: particularly in community colleges enrollments in the Humanities are way up. And, as I mentioned, in adult continuing education, huge upward surge. So, I am not such a pessimist. I think people need--they feel a thirst for meaning. And it's a very important thing that you don't have to make that your whole life. You could say, 'I'm going to major in computer science because that's where I think the jobs are.' Although, not entirely true: I think there are actually more unemployed computer science majors than unemployed English majors. But anyway, you can do what you want to do. And, still prepare yourself for the whole of life by taking Humanities courses. And we are so lucky that we have this system. Our country, Scotland, Canada, South Korea--those are the only countries that have that liberal arts system. In most countries of the world, like all of Europe, basically, except for Scotland; and in all of Asia, you have to choose, when you enter university, one subject. And then you do only that. So, it's either all Philosophy, or no philosophy; all Literature, or no literature. And so, in that context, it's not surprising that parents and kids are scared. And they think: 'Well, what am I going to do, if I do 3 years of nothing but Philosophy? What am I equipped for?' Well, I don't think they should have to make that choice. Now, there are pockets to resistance to that in the rest of the world. So, for example, all the Jesuit universities in Latin America and elsewhere are basically on the Liberal Arts model. But I really think that's the right way for all universities to be. Because, university education has a two-fold purpose. It prepares you for a career; but it also prepares you for being a good citizen and having a complete, meaningful life. And those are both important purposes. But, we are lucky, anyway, that our university system does preserve that sense.

I'm curious...For how many of you does that describe your own university experience? (I will note that Nussbaum earlier makes a similar appeal to exploration in the sciences...but only "really deep science, not just applied money-oriented science...".) There's been much in the media on the demise of the liberal arts in our universities...Are you as sanguine as Nussbaum about their future? Or is their proper place somewhere other than the university?

* This reflect only a snippet of this episode; I have purposely highlighted this pointed discussion about the value of leisure and the liberal arts here. The rest of the episode is an equally engaging discussion of Alexander Hamilton and the Herculean choice between a life of fame or a life of virtue. It's one of my favorites this year, and I recommend it heartily.

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Steve F writes:

My sanguinity towards the Humanities in university is inversely proportional to the degree of government subsidization of costs associated with the university. My sanguinity towards the Humanities in the broader society is proportional to the degree of consumption of alternative learning paradigms, like how people watch Jordan Peterson lectures online.

Jerry Brown writes:

Well, I went back in the late 80's so it might not be relevant any more. But I am happy my college insisted on more than economics classes for me to get a degree. And Economics was a Liberal Arts degree back then. I think the answer to your question is more dependent on whether you view education as a worthy goal in itself, or more as job training. I am more with the first view.

Thomas B writes:

University can make you a better citizen, but it's a very costly resource, and in my view the student should be allowed to focus on achieving the purpose they had for going there - if to become an engineer, then studying engineering, and if to become a philosopher, then studying philosophy. When universities force people to study topics they don't want or need, they are both patronizing their students and engaging in some pretty sketchy upselling.

Separately, my experience has been that, as a "natural" engineer, I have really only come to appreciate the humanities - and self educate in them more - as life has afforded me opportunities to appreciate their lessons. In high school, and college, the lessons meant little or nothing to me. I imagine English majors would feel the same about circuit design.

db writes:

As an engineering student in the 1990s, I was yet exposed to the Humanities through the requirements of my university. I recall many of my fellow engineering students commenting that they didn't understand the Humanities requirements, but I felt it was useful to get a broader picture of the world.

Whether or not there are "more" unemployed computer scientists or engineers than humanities majors, it is hard to escape the fact that initial salaries are generally much higher in engineering. However, very few students make a decision on a major field of study based only on one parameter. An engineering job might pay very well initially, but the student may have no interest or aptitude whatsoever in engineering.

For someone who feels a calling in engineering, majoring in, e.g., Philosophy would be foolish. They would spend at least four years learning some no doubt very interesting material, but be woefully unprepared for an engineering career.

But that is the wonderful thing about the very connected world in which we live! If a person studies engineering and begins a career in, say, the chemical process industries, he or she can now use the great power of the internet to go back and study Philosophy or Economics informally to expand their education.

Likewise, a Classics major who, a decade on, develops an interest in the more technical realm can later audit classes in chemical engineering, if it strikes her fancy.

I think it is interesting that I have heard of many technically oriented folks going back to study Economics or Philosophy to broaden their minds, but less of a trend of liberal arts majors taking Chemistry or Calculus, or Strength of Materials in the same way. Perhaps I am missing something here.

Dan writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

brokilodeluxe writes:

I'd like to see a source on the computer science/english stats, because its implications seem intuitively wrong to me.

Also I take issue when anyone tries to explain to me what the "purpose of college is". The "purpose of college" is to fulfill the needs of its customers, whatever they may be. I went to college not to be a better person, but to get a particular job. I'm sure that's not true of everybody and I understand some people are there to round themselves out/receive the college "experience"/become educated in a nebulous, general sense.

As for humanities, I can only speak to my personal experience. The amount of *productive* knowledge I have retained through my humanities electives is virtually nil. I vividly remember arguments from Kant and Descartes and Berkeley and Freud, and thinking about all that stuff was admittedly a lot of fun, but what has that bought me now in adult life? I will grant that it may have implicitly informed my values, I don't know.

John Alcorn writes:

Reality check:

"Bryan Caplan on college, signaling, and human capital" (EconTalk, April 7, 2014). Link here.

Bryan Caplan, "Education, politics, and peers" (EconLog, April 3, 2017). Link here.

John Alcorn writes:

Eric Schwitzgebel & Joshua Rust report findings on a tangential question that might be relevant:

"Evidence from a diversity of measures suggests that professional ethicists tend to behave on average very similarly to other professors, and one multi-measure study suggests that ethicists are neither more nor less likely than other professors to behave in accord with their expressed moral attitudes." —"The Behavior of Ethicists" (typescript for the Blackwell Companion to Experimental Philosophy, January 23, 1014) p. 15. Link here.
LD Bottorff writes:

Steve F, it is interesting that in this lecture, Professor Peterson does not mention Philosophy as one of the corrupted disciplines. Professor Nussbaum claims that "There's actually a pretty robust increase in Humanities enrollments: particularly in community colleges enrollments in the Humanities are way up." It may be that Humanities students in the community colleges are actually getting a better education in the Humanities since such a large portion of community college staff are adjuncts who are less likely to try to indoctrinate their students in post-modernism.

Scott Sumner writes:

I think philosophy is fine, and useful. But in terms of making people a better person, I think the narrative arts do a much better job than studying philosophy.

drobviousso writes:

Strong disagree. A good education, regardless of the subject matter, teaches you all the skills a humanities supporter puts forward. A bad education, regardless of the subject matter, will not.

I went to undergrad and grad school for the "applied money-oriented science..." AKA engineering. I learned more about logic and solid reasoning from my physics, programming, and design classes than I did from humanities electives.

Kids, spend your money on the kinds of things you can only learn in a classroom - math and science. A library card is free, and if you can make it through Diffeq and Thermo classes, you can make it through Shakespeare and Longfellow on your own.

RPLong writes:

In my university education, I had only one philosophy course. It was a good one, but it was only a semester-long introductory course. Everything else I've since learned about philosophy has been learned through self-study.

Which brings me to my next point: Maybe if people weren't saddled with an almost-obligatory 20-year educational time-suck, we'd have more time to study philosophy on our own.

Amy Willis writes:

@Scott, Thanks for chiming in! I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on the narrative arts and how they might contribute to a better education. Does that apply to education in economics, as well?

@drobviousso, Ha! Naturally I took the "applied money-oriented science" to be economics...But I guess it certainly could be others, too!

@RPLong, I'm with you, and we hope that's at least in part what we try to do here. Regarding the "time suck," probably the first thing I'd do is have K-12 education cease being compulsory. And I can't over-emphasize my agreement with self-study. I work for Liberty Fund, so that may go without saying, though we also have a shining example in our founder, Pierre F. Goodrich. I hope to continue my own education until the day I die.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

My mother became friends with a philosophy major graduate recently. He is the "bag boy" at her grocery store.

I really have problems with people who say that schooling "provides character development" or "makes you a better person", especially without clear metrics and double-blind tests.

Pretty much everyone becomes a "better person" after prefrontal cortex is fully developed at age 25 and it starts to inhibit stupid thoughts (murder, for example, goes down dramatically after age 25).

The best thing college can do is teach you about economics, which is the study of how humanity solves the problem of poverty and starvation, and can be applied in the private and public sphere.

My college education had no requirements to learn economics, however. I did not know much about it until years later, thanks to EconLog, Marginal Revolution, Cafe Hayek, etc.

John Alcorn writes:

@ Scott Sumner (comment above):

"I think philosophy is fine, and useful. But in terms of making people a better person, I think the narrative arts do a much better job than studying philosophy."
Do you mean that studying the narrative arts is relatively effective at making one a better person? Or that consuming (reading and viewing) narrative art does the trick (perhaps by providing vicarious experience of life)?

Relatively few people study any of the narrative arts (literature, film, music, performance arts) at anything like the university level. However, most people, no matter their level of educational attainment, are lifelong consumers of narrative art. Modern communications technologies put a cornucopia of narrative art at most people's fingertips.

My intuition, for what it's worth, is that people who complete university coursework in the narrative arts don't thereby become better people than mere readers and viewers. (Is there good empirical research on this topic?)

Compare Bryan Caplan's point that economics education tends to make people somewhat better voters. People rarely consume economics textbooks unless they study the subject at university.

J Scheppers writes:

Should Russ's son study philosophy? Yes, if he has similar talents to Russ and has the natural aptitude to find a career with his degree, excellent decision.

My concern is that the question is nuanced. A news piece (possibly on NPR) from 10 years ago focused on a student that had a masters degree in puppetry. The degree was from an expensive private institution. The graduate was at a loss for why he could not find a job or possibly pay off his student loans. Bad decision and society should have made it more clear there were high risks.

Very smart and entrepreneurial people can take more chances. I would warn any B student or lower that the arts have high risk and low short term reward.

As an engineer, I found that undergraduate college humanities 30% good to great and 70% irrelevant. I did find in my own young reading of classics and participating in arts great learning experiences of extraordinary value. I would have found it even more valuable to have read Hayek or D. Boudreaux blogs, but I was unaware and/or born to soon for blogs to exist.

Engineers would benefit greatly from understanding natural orders, but a curriculum that would address the nuanced side of engineering would likely miss the point.

My advice to my kids is do something that does have market value in college. But with caution that you have to think the reward for doing the money making work provides maximum reward to their subjective well being balancing out the money and the intrinsic reward of the work or lack thereof.

There is every reason to think an engineer's knowledge of people's values makes his work more relevant and more valuable. Colleges creating engineering education where more engineers would embrace this concept, not likely.

Tracy W writes:

I did my first degree in engineering in NZ and had the opportunity to do some papers outside my degree (I did maths, not philosophy, but many engineering students did philosophy).

And engineering was unusually restrictive, most students could take a more diverse mix.

Bob N writes:

I majored in philosophy (1962) and ended up as a financial analyst at GE with the last ten of my 36 years as a VP. At the higher levels of management, everybody, regardless of education speciality, had critical thinking skills. Engineers (many excellent ones at GE) stood out as critical thinkers, but lawyers and accountants also excelled. If I were to redo my education, I would major in economics.

Emerich writes:

I'm surprised no one has mentioned that the liberal arts are today notoriously perverted by professors who have come to believe their role is to purvey leftist politics. Stories about rampant bias on college campuses and intimidation of non-leftist speakers are common. You want your child to take liberal arts classes to learn to write, and to reason critically? Remember the Alan Sokal hoax? Or the more recent, equally fantastical hoax, published in April of this year, “The Conceptual P***s as a Social Construct”, published here: Peer-reviewed by some of the smartest and clearest thinkers in their field!

And what’s the evidence that philosophers are sharp, logical thinkers? Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered by many the most brilliant philosopher of the 20th century (Keynes said he “met God” about his first meeting with him), sympathized with Stalinism and visited the Soviet Union in 1935, after the purges had begun and millions in the Ukraine had starved in the famine induced by Stalin’s policies (phenomena that were covered in the English press and would have been known to Wittgenstein). Wittgenstein had plenty of company, including that of Bertrand Russell, another philosophical luminary, who said in 1925: “I am not prepared to advocate any alternative government in Russia. I am persuaded that the cruelties would be at least as great under any other party”. (For more evidence, see When Reason Goes on Holiday: Philosophers in Politics, by Sesardic Neven.) The enormous blind spots of these great philosophers makes one wonder how much good that clear, sharp thinking does them.

A liberal arts education could be good, perhaps even great. But only if the curriculum taught the “best which has been thought and said in the world” (as Matthew Arnold pithily put it). How many universities take such an approach? Most liberal arts departments today regard with horror the thought of teaching the ideas of mostly dead white males.


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