The cost of thinking outside the box: Valuing philosophy in a changing world

The world needs dreamers, because when first conceived, it is incredibly difficult to tell if a dream is truly idle or achievable.

Photo: The University of Houston.

There is a tendency to class the philosopher as a sort of ‘idle dreamer’. An individual that spends their days invoking Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’, as they sit in their ivory tower and mull over trifling distinctions and hair-splitting semantics, all the while stroking their long, white beard. This image, the product of an ignorant conception of the ends that philosophy strives to achieve, is what fosters the assertion that philosophy as a discipline lacks utility and value outside of a mere search for knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

Although I cannot earnestly contend that the study of philosophy produces the sort of definite answers that one could draw from disciplines such as maths or engineering, this is not a shortcoming. On the contrary, in a political, economic and social atmosphere built on uncertainty, our obsession with predictability and pragmatism actively reduces our conception of what is possible, diminishes the value of intellectual imagination, and perhaps most notably, threatens us with the prospect of floating through the world asleep. The world needs dreamers, because when first conceived, it is incredibly difficult to tell if a dream is truly idle or achievable. And so as not to fail in our endeavour to make the world a more meaningful place, we must cast aside our prejudiced notion of what is ‘practical’, continue to ask questions, and embrace the philosopher: the bold, curious and intellectually alive dreamer.

In June of this year, the Government announced the ‘Job-Ready’ Graduates Package, signalling a 113% fee increase for degrees under the umbrella of the humanities and social sciences (HASS). In response to the denigration of humanities in the package, over 100 of the most notable and respected professional philosophers in the country penned ‘An Open Letter on the Importance of Protecting Philosophy’. It is upon the foundation of this letter that I call on students to reject the misguided approach to funding undergraduate education, that is little more than a culmination of decades of devaluing the humanities, and discounting the impact of subjects upon which the wellbeing and flourishing of our common life depends.

Whilst obstinately clinging to the defence of ‘job-readiness’ to justify the package, the government’s interpretation of what it means to be ‘job-ready’ rides on a prophetic vision of the future jobs market; one that has fallen subject to the aforementioned prejudices that see ‘value’ as reducible to pragmatic and measurable economic ends. Such a criteria openly dismisses the value of many soft skills that are held in high esteem by employers, common among HASS graduates, and absolutely fundamental to the study of philosophy, such as critical thinking, analytical skills and cultural competence.

If employability is truly the incentive behind the government’s fee adjustments, then in a world where we are told that we will have as many as 11.7 jobs before we reach 48, surely the skills that are most valuable are those that make us adaptable workers in a variety of fields. Technology will undoubtedly evolve, and new hard skills will irrevocably replace those that have become outdated. But the need for effective communicators, thoughtful compromisers, and skilful strategists in all areas of the workforce will never fade.

Additionally, whilst the package boasts of lofty goals to transform and bolster the university sector in Australia, a severe lack of empirical foundations foster questions about the likelihood of the success of the initiative in shifting enrolments towards disciplines such as science, maths and languages. Nonetheless, the normative implications of the package could be perilous to the continued existence of philosophy as an independent academic discipline. As philosophy is not a well-established subject in high school, students often come across it at a university level by chance. From discussion with friends, tutors, lecturers, and from my own experience, it is almost a rite of passage for arts students to choose ‘Reality, Ethics and Beauty’ on a whim during their first semester at university – a subject that has served as a sort of philosophical Kool Aid; birthing philosophy majors, and keeping curious students coming back for more. But under the guise of a government that is in the process of actively condemning academic experimentation and uncertainty, students are less likely to venture into the realm of the unknown, and be accidentally enlivened by philosophy in the first place.

Perhaps more than any other HASS discipline, what continues to plague philosophy is its characterisation as a sort of self-indulgent wankery that the humble taxpayer should not be expected to fund. I, for one, have found myself having to defend my discipline in alarmingly frequent conversations with companions that reduce philosophy to ‘airy fairy bullshit that is out of touch with reality’. However, one need only look at the list of subjects offered by the philosophy department at the University of Sydney to see how baseless this assumption is. Students are given the opportunity to engage with the political, aesthetic, rational and principled in subjects as diverse as the philosophy of human rights, literature, mathematics, logic and ethics, to name but a few. Additionally contrary to the popular assumption that philosophy remains disconnected from the ‘real world’, the content taught within these subjects is dynamic and receptive to current events, with ‘The Philosophy of Medicine’, a course on offer this semester, tailored to address many of the issues surrounding the current pandemic. In sum, when I asked Dr Sam Shpall, a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Sydney, to explain what philosophy is, he responded “tell me the issue you care about most, and that’s part of philosophy”.

A point returned to many times in my discussion with Professor Moira Gatens, as well as in her recent appearance on the Minefield Podcast, was that being ‘job ready’ is but a tiny fragment of being human. And thus, what the ‘Job-Ready’ Graduates package completely fails to recognise, is the integral role that philosophy plays in making our lives better. In the words of Bertrand Russell; “contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe.” The uptick in engagement with quasi-philosophical self-help books, podcasts such as the Philosopher’s Zone and the Minefield, and public celebrations of ideas and questions such as the Festival of Dangerous Ideas are but a blip on the map of public engagement with philosophy. However, what they point to is a profound public acknowledgement of the value of philosophy to our human inner-culture. A value that the government is completely out of touch with.

But there is one thing about the discipline of philosophy that is more fundamental to its value than anything else. Funnily enough, it is also the thing that is the most commonly misrepresented. The philosopher. The bold, curious and intellectually alive dreamer that keeps the questions alive and the students coming back. It is because of these erudite scholars that I am able to see the intricacies and ideals that I would otherwise overlook, and it is because I study philosophy that I am able to question what it is that makes life truly meaningful.

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