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Philosopher for Hire


Philosopher for Hire

by Kenneth Lyen

When I was applying for a place in a British university, my parents strongly urged me to choose a major that would result in employment upon graduation. They cited law, medicine, and engineering as examples of university courses that would more or less guarantee a job at the end of the day. They advised me not to take up Mickey Mouse courses, like philosophy, that would lead to unemployment. I could almost hear them scoff.

I chose a subject that was acceptable in their eyes, and sure enough, I have never been unemployed since graduation. And I enjoy my work.

This memory was jogged when I was invited to dinner by my friends, who wanted me to dissuade their son from applying to read philosophy as a major subject at university. They viewed this aberration most gravely. Like my own parents, they cited potential unemployment as a reason why he should not choose philosophy.

"Who would want to employ a philosopher?" they asked.

As I have just started to read a bit of basic philosophy, I was quite sympathetic to the son. So I defended him. I suggested to the parents that employers were more enlightened these days, and that they would not look at a philosophy degree disparagingly.

"Nonsense!" was the response. "A philosophy degree gives you no useful skills."

"You think better, write better..."

But before I could finish my reply, the mother interrupted. "It’s okay for a girl to take up philosophy, but not a boy."

I gasped at this blatant male chauvinistic remark, made by a female!

The conversation was getting nowhere. I made some lame remark that philosophers ruled the world. They provided us with ideologies, ethics, ways of thinking, and different perspectives of our world and of ourselves. But my friends realized that I was of no further use to them, and we lapsed into inconsequential smalltalk.

Later, when I got home, I asked myself some questions. How popular is philosophy in the undergraduate curriculum?

The National University of Singapore employs 14 staff members to teach philosophy. I’m told that philosophy is a popular undergraduate course, and there may be as many as 500 students per semester. Medicine has less than half that.

On the other hand, some of the newer universities, like University of Bedfordshire, do not even offer it as an undergraduate course.

Fordham University in the United States seemed sufficiently concerned that parents viewed undergraduate philosophy negatively, that they put up a web page defending the value of philosophy.

So what do philosophy graduates do? Like any liberal arts degree, the options are indeed very wide. Many go on to become lawyers, teachers, journalists, publishers, politicians, managers, etc.

But what if a philosopher just wanted to be a philosopher? Then the harsh reality is that the risk of unemployment is indeed high. Unless you want to be an academic philosopher, philosophy is not intended to be a vocation.

"An unemployed philosopher is a philosopher who happens not to be thinking about anything at the moment," quipped actor and writer Severn Darden.

In Germany there is a popular joke about philosophers. What does an unemployed philosopher say to a philosopher who has got work? "French fries with ketchup and a coke, please."

There is a gift shop online inspired by the humor that unemployed philosophers conjure up.

You will probably not find philosophers advertising themselves in the "job wanted" section of the classified pages. But if you see a "Philosopher for Hire " sign in a shop window, give the poor fellow a job!

My advice to all undergraduates is to go ahead and read what you really want. It's your life. And if you wish, philosophy is fine too!

Post script: My friend's son did decide to apply to read philosophy, combined with psychology as a double major.

[This article first appeared in Parenting]