Shingle-hanging 101: The little philosophy shop that never was

“A philosophy course? Oh, that'll come in handy," he said. "Now all you have to do is open up a little philosophy shop. You’re all set!”

After all these years, I can still see the smirk on that man’s face. Can’t recall his name, but the smirk lingers.

Fool that I was, I had thought I'd impress this man, the uncle of a childhood friend. I recall sitting at his kitchen table. His wife had just served me a cup of tea. What I remember about him, apart from the condescending attitude, is that he appeared to be successful. He was a professional photographer with a big house and a new Mercedes-Benz. I suspect he had a college education and had benefited from similar courses.

At the time of this conversation, I was about halfway through the journey toward my bachelor’s degree. When the chitchat at the kitchen table turned toward me, someone asked how school was going, so I told them that one of the courses I’d just finished up at UMass was an Introduction to Philosophy course, and that it was much more interesting than I’d imagined such a course would be.

That’s when the uncle made the crack about the financial utility of philosophy. I’m embarrassed to report that I guffawed along with him, as though I, too, understood how useless and frivolous it was to study philosophy.

Maybe my nervous laughter happened because I wasn’t sure, myself, what the point was of taking such a class.

As time passed, though, it finally dawned on me that it had been the first time I could recall sitting in a classroom and not being taught what to think, but being taught how to think. Applying logic and ethics in a deliberate way to my own thought processes amounted to a personal revolution.

I returned to school the next semester, and worked toward my degree in French language and literature. But every now and again, I would remember the uncle’s crack about opening up a philosophy shop. I wouldn’t be opening up a French poetry shop, but I did become certified to teach French to high school students.

The financial saving grace of any academic subject is that you might one day teach it to someone else. Of course, that only works as long the powers-that-be agree that such knowledge merits transmission to the next generation.

In the current American atmosphere where the corporation is king, any academic subject that does not have obvious short-term earning power is an endangered species.

How narrow should higher education be? There are calls, today, for universities to be run like businesses, and that implies pruning away those educational offerings that don't lead immediately to a paycheck.

Following the recent ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, it was reported in Charlottesville’s Daily Progress that Sullivan’s detractors thought she “lacked the mettle” to axe “obscure” academic pursuits such as German and Classics.

Apparently, the smirking uncles of the world are now in positions of power, and in the name of fiscal responsibility, they’re calling for an emphasis on narrow vocational training in areas such as business and finance– presumably because you can, indeed, hang out a shingle and open a little hedge-fund shop.

Teresa Sullivan may have been reinstated, but behind the scenes, the powerful influence of those with big money and little regard for traditional education remains.

What will the world look like if they get their way? Picture an American landscape of “higher” education without the humanities: without art, literature, philosophy, history, or foreign language study.

How long would it take for the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of thousands of years of civilization to disappear? One generation? Two?

Yes, we want our college graduates to be self-supporting, tax-paying citizens. But we also need an American electorate that can sniff out hypocrisy and discern faulty reasoning when they hear it flowing from those who aim to be our leaders. And when history is repeating itself, it would be good to have someone around who recognizes the pattern and can lead us to an optimal outcome.

Also consider that, in our rapidly evolving world, we can anticipate changing careers several times throughout our working lives. The most flexible worker will be the one with a full quiver, the one who has had a broad education. Just as we can’t predict what foreign language will be essential in the coming decades, we can’t predict what the long-term benefit may be of any course of study.

If you think that the value of a life can be assessed by how much money a person earns, consider Socrates, who engaged Athenians in challenging discussions every day as he hung around the agora.

Those discussions have reverberated through the past two and a half millennia, from teacher to student, shaping Western civilization.

But even Socrates never did hang out a shingle and open a little philosophy shop.
Janis Jaquith hung out a shingle and raised three little children, all of whom are now adults.

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Back in my undergraduate days, I minored in philosophy. I took a philosophy course every semester for four years. That's 24 credits in courses that didn't allow me to hang out a single. I'd have to look at my transcript to remember the titles of all these courses, but I only need to look into my mind to remember much of the content. It did, indeed, help me to think and exposed me to some of the great thinkers of the world. Some of the ideas I was confronted with are still things that I ponder.

If I had it to do over, I'd take all of these courses again. One wonders if those in corporate think academia may be the very folks who did poorly in some of the subjects that appear to have fallen out of favor. The real problem is a failure to understand the need for broad exposure to the ideas of any stripe that came before us. Two closing thoughts.

"Those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it,"

"The society that allows shoddiness in philosophy and scorns excellence in plumbing will have neither good philosophy nor good plumbing. Neither its theories nor its plumbing will hold water."

Who wrote this? by Hawes at the top and why the mention of Jaquith at the bottom.

Sorry I clicked on the wrong key. It's by Janis Jaquith - hawes

Wonderful piece, thank you Janis.
We need to encourage the young ones in our lives to keep the fire of creativity, and the faith it takes to create, burning strong.

This is great.

I was just with a friend of mine who is a higher education administrator who was thinking of returning to get his doctorate in Higher Education Administration or maybe an MBA. I encouraged him to get his doctorate in philosophy (with a couple of courses from the B school on the side), that way when he applied for his next job he could argue that he would be an critical thinking and moral administrator.

He was persuaded and is mulling this over now!

I have had two excellent recent experiences with Philosophy Ph.d.s both in applied work, one a community activist and the other an organizational consultant with experience from the hospital industry. Both are excellent thinkers and doers. Applied Philosophy, what a concept.

We need more young people in fields like philosophy and religious studies. Its one way we are going to attain an ethical economy and a critical thinking citizenry. Wouldn't be great if all the social studies teachers in America required a BA in Philosophy to teach. Talk about critical thinking. Our students would out perform any students on the globe. Just imagine if the SOLs tested for moral reasoning and critical thinking instead of the inane distractions we require our young people to study now. That's the power of education for change.

Loved this piece Janis. Thank you.

I have followed with interest much of the conversation on The HooK message board regarding the recent happenings at UVa and the larger issue of the direction of higher ed in the US, in general. Just as I was troubled by the initial actions of the BoV to remove President Sullivan, I am also troubled by the tenor of some of the "Liberal Arts is the only true education" comments in connection with the local and national debate.

Just as much of the K-12 debate over the past decade has been about "core competencies," maybe that is where the debate over higher ed should focus next, too. Learned students in the United States should have exposure to philosophy, classical literature, and religion courses at college, but they would also benefit from some instruction in "financial literacy" and other basic business concepts. To often, today, though, students are not getting enough of either at "University."

I invite those of you who have not perused the list of current offerings at UVa to study the following website created and maintained by a UVa physics professor to make it easier for students to register for classes. It shows which courses are offered for the current semester (as opposed to the complete list of courses "authorized" by the University (even though many are never taught)). One can also go back to see the courses actually offered in previous semesters, as well. It takes some "clicking around" to get used to how the site works, but with a little effort one can fairly quickly find all the courses that are being offered at UVa this Fall, in all of the undergraduate schools and most, if not all, of the graduate disciplines.

Many departments of offer a stunning array of relevant and interesting courses to the students at UVa. Others, however, tend more toward the narrowest of niches -- primarily offering courses in the areas of current academic interest to the faculty members, while failing to offer more general, introductory or survey courses into the discipline. While I am sure there would be much debate among HooK commenters regarding the relative merits of some of the current offerings, I am confident that even the most ardent supporters of Liberal Arts education would find some drivel among the current course offerings at UVa.

If you take the time to review this website, I invite you also to consider what is not being taught. One glaring omission, in my opinion, is public speaking. How one can be well educated, especially in the Liberal Arts ,without touching on oratory, remains a mystery to me. Ironically, in the past 7 semesters, public speaking has only been offered within the McIntire School of Commerce and then has been limited to commerce students.

My conclusion, not all Liberal Arts courses are ipso facto beneficial to one's long-term intellectual growth. Likewise, not all business/practical/trade school type classes are bad. As schools struggle with resources, now may be the appropriate time to start critically evaluating the "intellectual merit" of the classes being offered.

An Observer: In regards "public speaking," I believe that was offered through the Rhetoric and Communication Studies Department (or was it a program?) before the budget ax fell in the late 1980s.

In regards your comments about course offerings: can you point to a school, department or program that does not offer and indeed require as part of its curriculum any introductory classes? I think not.

It is a good argument, but certainly not one I wold make to my kids. The soccer team my daughter played on entered college 4 years ago. Of that lot, 3 have been able to get jobs in their field of study. One in Social Services, but has to have a roommate on the outskirts of town in a rural area to survive. Another in graphic arts that has to live with her parents to survive. And one in nursing, who was employed 6 months before graduation and is stocking her new downtown apartment via Ikea.

A couple more have "jobs," which are neither in their field, or require a GED.

But a lot have tons on debt. The worst off of the lot (graphic artist excepted) are those that followed educational dreams and are trying to figure if they need to double down on the debt with grad degrees. Many are in the are between.

However, I am not paying for a education that lands my child back on my doorstep in 4 years, which is NOT the exception these days. Encouraging people to drown in debt and be your waitress in 4 years...the idealistic dreams of someone not worrying about their children anymore.

RCS -- "I believe that [public speaking] was offered through the Rhetoric and Communication Studies Department (or was it a program?) before the budget ax fell in the late 1980s."

My info is that the Communications Dept. fell not because of economics but rather because the "higher minded" types believed it had had fallen to the "rocks for jocks'' major. Whatever merits there may have been to that decision, it doesn't justify not finding a home for public speaking within English of some other department. The problem appears to be no current faculty member wants to teach the course, so it goes away. There are a couple of public speaking classes in the catalog of authorized English Department offerings, they are just never taught (at least not during Spring and Fall semesters).

As for course offerings -- I offer this as just one example: The Anthropology department offers one into class this Fall. Since first year registrations have just started, I am guessing the class has somewhere between 60 and 80 slots (currently 47 students are registered). So, out of 3000+ incoming students, there are less than 200+ slots a year for intro Anthro. Yet, there are 30+ other Antro classes offered, including ANTH 2230--Fantasy and Social Values which "examines imaginary societies, in particular those in science fiction novels, to see how they reflect the problems and tensions of social life."

Some heeded the call for more lab scientist but the jobs aren't there. Yesterday's Washington Post article. Slash and burn drug mergers have gutted drug research in the past 10 years while we screamed for more American scientist.

Jimi you base your conclusions on (a) a sample of a soccer team (12 girls?) and (b) gross, unsubstantiated generalizations. Which doesn't make your conclusions incorrect, it's just that you can't make a compelling case for them this way. Nor can Janis in all fairness.

And more importantly you missed the point that Janis made here (and btw very nice op-ed Janis). It's not that pursuing a major in Art History, as a particular example--others are easily imagined, will lead to a great job as a curator at the MOMA, but rather it might give that student an awareness of culture, history, and aesthetics that makes them an excellent member of the Foreign Service.

A big part of the problem is that it's just hard to find good work period.

Jeff -- that is the conundrum for students embarking upon college right now (and also for their parents). Jobs are scarce, and the signs don't point to that changing in the near future. So what is an 18 year old to do when considering college?

Your example of the art history major is noted, but the ranks of the foreign service are not expanding. The paths forward for liberal arts majors today are far narrower than they were 10 years ago. Law School is a pretty dreadful option right now, unless your family has its own law firm. ($100K + in debt with no job at the end of the line . . .) Businesses are not hiring humanities majors like they used to. Government/politics majors are still flocking to Capital Hill, but to what end, ultimately? Academia? Why would one pursue that path when supply and demand suggests a decline in humanities positions?

Bottom line as I see it, unless there is a sudden opening up of the post-grad job market for Liberal Arts majors -- especially those with Humanities backgrounds -- universities, including UVa, will look vastly different in 20 years, and maybe less.

@Jeff. that would be 22 girls. And yes, getting out of school and getting a job is a pretty important thing. Your want culture, there is nothing out there you cannot find that give you culture without going into debt. Hit itunesU and listen to an unlimited level of lectures and discourse for free. Recxorded lectures from silly places like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Yale. Full coures. You do not need paid tuition college for culture. Crap, you ever wandered a campus post game time and thought... "Ahhhhh the high minded culture...."

Give it a rest. Graduate at 22 and get a job and spend the next many years reading, listening and learning. But for gods sake, dont drop yourself into a pit of debt so that these egg headed ivory towers can perpetuate over paid researched sending grad students to teach their classes so they can jump a bit in the USNEWS and World Report standings and subsidize overreaching money sucking "journals."

My compelling case is this: 22 girls go in college, four years later we have 3 with jobs in their study field, 1 that can survive on their own. The compelling part is called the real world.

Observer: You're probably right. And if we don't get the wealthy to pay taxes again like they did under Reagan the whole country is going to be vastly different.

Plumbers, nurses, HVAC techs, and electricians can't be outsourced (and I don't think there aren't visas available for these). These are solid jobs, but to follow my own admonition (above) I don't have the data for a compelling case. Good marriage and birth are still the best career choices.

Jeff --

30 years ago we still had a vibrant manufacturing "industry" where high school grads could earn $50+ an hour without a college degree. Now we have a service economy under which college grads don't even know how to answer the phone professionally, much less have the people skills to deliver good service. Taxing the bejesus out of the top 2% isn't going to solve those problems.

I don't remember Reagan saying "tax the bejesus" out of the rich, nor did he; rather there just wasn't the effort to relieve them of paying like we've seen in the last 20 years. We've got huge gaps in infrastructure due to lack of funding. Just do an easy Google search and look at how contributions to the well-being of our state have declined since Clinton years; there's a marked drop in tax contribution from upper earners.

You'll have to take your "they can't answer the phone politely" beef up with Ann Landers. This is not a data-driven argument (more of a "get off my lawn" gripe). [irony] I do my phone support with India and the Phillipines; they're very nice people. I get my home services done by Latinos; they're nice and they work hard for less money. I'm in the upper 2% but I don't want to spend more for American labor, since I don't get the 1% tax breaks. [/irony] *I've noticed the anti-intellectuals like Jimi don't get irony without billboards.

I suppose I would get irony a bit more if you had a bit more basics in knowledge bubba rather than flip use of linguistics.

Me, not so much anti-intellectual as the guy that would simply laugh at you and knock you on your ass. (should I say punk right about now?)

But, keep up the good work. Your posts really do make a difference for those teammates of my daughters looking for work...

And FYI, no one believes your in the 98, more like the Ivory Tower. Night-night...

Jimi looks like you quickly got to wit's end. Too bad but no surprises either.

Looking for jobs during the crash in the early 70s almost everyone
graduating with me was taking any job they could get--some jobs pretty grim.
Big differences less student debt and more affordable housing (at
least in my city). Best job I ever got was due to my impractical
minor in French.

mer -- I came just behind you. By 1972, because of what you experienced, there was a huge shift at the University of Illinois, my home state's flagship. Immediately prior, Suburban Chicago students needed to be in the top 5% of their high school classes for admittance to the Liberal Arts college. Thereafter, admittance to LAS eased some, and getting into the College of Commerce became decidedly more difficult.

Not only was student debt much lower back then, there was also a much smaller pool of college graduates competing for the jobs.