Elijah Millgram

Copyright © 2017 Elijah Millgram.
All Rights Reserved.

Job Prospects: The Big Picture

There's an old joke about the man who polished the cannon in front of city hall. Tired of working for a plodding bureaucracy, the enterprising employee bought a cannon with his savings and went into business for himself.

Every would-be philosopher has to figure out how you can make a living doing philosophy, and philosophizing is a little like cannon polishing: there's not much of a market for it. For as long as it has existed, philosophers have faced the problem of finding perches in the economies and societies in which they have lived.

Philosophers have been college teachers for long enough that, if you say you're a philosopher, most people just assume that you're a professor, or trying to become one. But in historical perspective that's a recent development, and the business of being paid to teach college students is becoming a less hospitable and less suitable perch. And it is likely to become a much less available one shortly. Philosophers may soon have to look for a new way to get by.

Let me explain that "less suitable". Once upon a time, taking on the role of a college teacher wasn't too bad for someone who was really a philosopher in disguise. Teaching took, oh, fifteen or so hours a week, and administrative overhead was low. So if one didn't mind living in genteel poverty, one could have the remainder of one's waking hours to do whatever it is that philosophers do. However, it's next to impossible for our institutions to say no to the next piece of procedure (another committee, another kind of report to be written and filed away...), and so, over time, the administrative load has grown; it now takes up all the time that teaching leaves over, and then some. A reasonably responsible professor no longer lives in genteel poverty, but he or she works 60 hour weeks, and that's before getting to actual research.

That's bad enough, but there's worse. The institutions that employ college teachers have incentives to require ever greater professionalization of their faculty. They track 'productivity': rates of publication, conferences attended, national and international recognition -- and, now in the humanities, they're starting to track grantsmanship. The problem is that philosophy is not a profession, but rather, its very opposite. A profession takes the rules and standards and aims of a guild for granted; the defining moment of philosophy was Socrates buttonholing guild members on the street and insisting that they account for themselves. 'Professional philosophy' is an oxymoron: when you're being professional, you're not being a philosopher; when you're busy publishing, you're not being a philosopher; when you're out at conferences, drumming up recognition, you're not being a philosopher. Not sure what I mean? Just imagine what Wittgenstein's 'productivity' would have looked like to a contemporary tenure committee. (In fact, this is a trickier point than I'm making it out to be just now, because in many ways philosophy itself feels like a techne, but one in which the rules are themselves up for grabs; an argument assembled, say, solely to occupy an unoccupied spot in the space of positions, and thus to get tenure, counts as a finger exercise, but not as a genuine product of the craft.)

Some people do negotiate the tension, and somehow manage to fold together the conflicting forms of activity into a single life. But most philosophy professors eventually give up the aspiration to philosophy, and end up settling for professional.

Still worse, the activities are incompatible in a further way, which I will mention only briefly. Philosophy requires honesty; that's one of the reasons it's so very hard. Administration and professionalism require dishonesty. If you need examples, think about letters of recommendation, or more generally about the sort of optimism in assessment that one learns to adopt in administrative records, or about the ways one treats professionally accepted performance metrics as reference points, whether one thinks they're any good or not. Professionalism tends to corrupt and undercut philosophy.

Proceeding now to "less available": The perch, suitable or not, is in any case liable to vanish of its own accord. Higher education today is unsustainably hypertrophied. Partly because the general public treats education as a positional good (i.e., you win by having more of it than the next person over, which gets you arms races), and partly because it's hard to measure (you can measure years in school, but it's very hard to measure education), there's been ever-increasing demand for schooling, and governments have been unable to say no. As each certification is devalued in its turn, people stay longer in school to get the next certification. Once a high school diploma was enough to get you a decent job, but it's now worth almost nothing. So everyone has to go to college. But letting everyone into college devalued college degrees, too, and now more and more people go on to some form of graduate school. At this point it's routine for people to spend sixteen to twenty years of their lives in school, with very little to show for it. This enormous waste of social resources is unlikely to be supportable over the long term.

The current enthusiasm for MOOCs, anyway in some quarters, is probably best understood as an attempt to wind down the nonperforming institutions. Of course MOOC promoters have to say that these products educate students (only more efficiently), and of course academic skeptics argue the contrary view, that they don't. But this back and forth is naive: it doesn't address what the decision to move forward with MOOCs is about. The powers that be (or some of them) think that higher education in the US isn't working, that we don't know how to fix it, and that there's no point in paying the costs. Now if you told the next cohort of eighteen year olds (and their parents!) that they couldn't go to college, you'd have an uprising on your hands. So you don't tell them that; instead, we move to a new arrangement, in which the elites, who can pay out of pocket, get a traditional classroom product, where the future engineers, who need to learn actual skills, get lab sections -- but everyone else gets to interact with a web page for while, after which we give them a degree and call it good. Or perhaps alternatively, we split the difference: the first two years of most college educations, in which students take remedial-level, grade-inflated introductory classes in this and that, are replaced by those web pages, and real education starts during an undergraduate's junior year. If this program is carried out, the majority of college level teaching positions for philosophers will most likely just vanish; and if it's not -- if MOOCs turn out to be a passing fad -- those very same powers that be will be looking around hard for a different way to discontinue what they quite reasonably regard as a waste of the public's money.

So it's time for philosophers to look around themselves and think about what other perches they might move to. It's worth remembering that philosophers haven't always been schoolteachers. They've taken day jobs; for most of his adult life, John Stuart Mill was a colonial administrator. They've been independently wealthy (alright, not necessarily an option for many of us). They've been independently not-so-wealthy; Nietzsche did his most important work living on a meagre disability pension. They've been employed by churches, both as clergy and as theoreticians. On occasion, they've supported themselves as popular authors (Bertrand Russell). And sometimes, nowadays, they set up a practice.

If Martha Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire is to be believed (but I don't know the history for myself), back in Hellenistic times, philosophers used to work in the self-help industry. Philosophers weren't academics as we now know them; instead, they ran institutions that had much more of the look and feel of Esalen. If you were bent out of shape about something, you could go to a Stoic, who would try to convince you that nothing was worth being bent out of shape over; or you could go to a skeptic, who would try to teach you how to suspend belief in whatever was bending you out of shape; or to an Epicurean, who would teach you how to be happy on bread, water, and a little cheese... Looking over the shelves in a chain bookstore, it's tempting to think that if philosophers reentered the self-help business, it would be to everybody's benefit. At least they might make it more intellectually respectable than it now is.

I don't know that any of the options I've surveyed are going to make a satisfactory perch for the next, or the next-but-one, generation of philosophers. But I'm pretty sure it's time to take a thoughtful and inventive look at these and other options. The current perch won't do for much longer.