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Is philosophy having a moment?

Enrollment in philosophy programs and courses are on the rise recently. The discipline is being seen by young people as a tool to understand their world and help change it.
BY IAN COUTTS
JUN 16 2021

Is philosophy having a moment?

Enrollment in philosophy programs and courses are on the rise recently. The discipline is being seen by young people as a tool to understand their world and help change it.

BY IAN COUTTS | JUN 16 2021

Munema Moiz waves her hands excitedly. It’s the sort of gesture that would normally catch people’s attention but, of course, we’re not in normal times. University of Toronto professor Rachel Barney’s third year course philosophy course, The Sophists, is being conducted entirely via Zoom. Students are scattered across Toronto, and perhaps even farther, seated in bedrooms and living rooms, and some in environments so seemingly aquatic they could well be at the bottom of a fish tank. So the gesture doesn’t have quite the impact that it might in normal times when students and professors would all be in a seminar room somewhere on the U of T campus.

What does come across, however, is Ms. Moiz’s enthusiasm. Her fellow classmates share that – even if these days their enthusiasm feels a little muted.

Dr. Barney, the Canada research chair in classical philosophy, says that she finds this level of enthusiasm with all her students – even in the midst of the pandemic. “This fall, I taught a freshman course on Death and Immortality in the Ancient World and it was perhaps the most successful course I’ve ever taught — 100 per cent fully engaged students.”

What she is seeing is not limited to the U of T. Philosophy departments at other universities report similar levels of enthusiasm. More students are opting to spend their undergraduate years wrestling with humanity’s perennial questions: What is truth? What is good? And of course, why are we here?

“We can scarcely keep up with demand,” says Dr. Barney.

Paul Fairfield, the undergraduate philosophy chair at Queen’s University, reports the same trend, adding it “has become usual across a number of universities.” Athabasca University’s Chris McTavish, a member of the school’s department of philosophy and its academic coordinator, says there has been a 12 per cent increase in the number of students taking philosophy courses in the last year, from 2,689 to 3,042. “Some of this growth is likely owing to COVID[-19] driving learners to distance learning, but our numbers in philosophy courses have been growing steadily for a few years now,” Dr. McTavish says.

“We have climate change, we have so many horrible things going on in the world and we don’t know what to do. Philosophy gives you that space to question and really flesh out your thoughts in a group environment to maybe come up with an answer.”

The University of British Columbia reports that the number of students in their honours program has doubled in size since 2009 from 16 to 32 and the number of students who have declared philosophy as their major has increased by about 17 per cent since then. The University of Alberta and McGill University also report modest growth in recent years. U of A’s head count for philosophy honours and majors students jumped from 65 to 80 between 2014-2015 and 2019-2020 and McGill saw the number of undergraduate majors, including joint majors, increasing from 219 to 254 between fall 2014 and fall 2019. The University of Calgary is holding steady for the moment, but they anticipate growth starting this fall when they introduce their new law and philosophy program, says David Dick, the director of undergraduate studies, philosophy.

While each school might have particular circumstances that explain why their enrollment has improved, the bigger numbers confirm the growing trend. Statistics Canada provides detailed records for university majors over a nine-year period, starting in 2010-2011 and ending in 2018-2019. During those years, the number of university students in Canada grew by about 10 per cent, from 1,234,140 to 1,360,263 but the number of students in the humanities fell from 209,949 to 169,989. In English language and literature, the total numbers dropped from 19,824 to 13,935 – or about 30 per cent.

At first glance, the numbers in philosophy appear to tell a similar tale. Statistics Canada says the number of students in philosophy and religion, the classification it uses, fell from 9,864 to 8,115. But when you drill down, the numbers look a little different. In the sub-classification of “philosophy, logic and ethics” – a good shorthand description for a modern philosophy department – the numbers drop gently from 7,129 in 2011-2011 to 6,132 in 2017-2018 before starting to rebound to 6,162 in 2018-2019. Go deeper and the real story is at the bachelor level: the number of undergraduate philosophy majors dropped from 5,429 at the beginning of this period, before starting to climb in 2018-2019, jumping from the previous year’s 4,656 to 4,723, a gain of almost two per cent in one year. That’s as recent as Statistics Canada’s information gets, but the anecdotal evidence suggests the climb has continued.

Not every school is seeing growth. For example, the numbers have held steady at the Université de Montreal. But “when other programs in the humanities saw a decline in numbers, ours were stable. They are also stable now compared to the previous academic year,” says Peter Dietsch, director of undergraduate studies in philosophy. Philosophy is bucking a trend. Philosophy is having a moment.

Why?

Why is it that more undergraduates are choosing to spend four years studying an exacting, frequently frustrating, but sometimes deeply satisfying academic discipline? One that popular myth tells us has no economic value? “I have no idea why,” said the head of one undergraduate philosophy program, who prefers to remain anonymous. But it reflects something of a general truth – departments might or might not have ideas about what motivates their students’ choice, but in general, it’s not really anything that the departments themselves do.

“We’re not really terribly entrepreneurial,” says Paul Bartha, a philosopher at UBC who oversees the undergraduate program and authored a 2017 report about the department’s climbing enrollment. The department does a little bit of recruiting – a table at orientation, for example, and gathers some interested students through a first-year arts course that many undergraduates take. Another factor that might explain the increase, says Dr. Bartha, is that “in recent years the department has become increasingly interdisciplinary.” There are students doing what might be called “philosophy of ” courses in other disciplines. “Our courses are kind of a recruiting program and the fact that we are in so many programs may be helping boost enrollment,” he says. Students get a taste, and then switch majors or add a minor. As well, a lot of students in other disciplines take symbolic logic courses as a way to fill a humanities requirement. But they aren’t actively courted.

By contrast, the University of Calgary does practice active outreach, encouraging students in introductory philosophy courses who seem to have an interest in the program to consider it as their major. The philosophy department at the U of A does the same, emailing prospective majors. According to U of C’s Dr. Dick, the department is “very mindful about how our introductory courses are taught.” The department uses sessionals to teach, but “we have a tier one Canada research chair in the department, and he regularly teaches one of our introductory courses,” adds Dr. Dick. That kind of exposure has proven to help recruitment. Like UBC, the U of C offers a wide selection of interdisciplinary courses that expose students in other programs to philosophy. “What I see are a lot of students adding a major or a minor.” The department works at being welcoming and minimizing any barriers, such as too many prerequisites, that might deter students. “We’ve designed it so that if you want to add a philosophy major, in your second year, say, it’s pretty […] easy to do that,” says Dr. Dick.

Sound career foundation

The U of C’s outreach makes it easier to draw in students, but it doesn’t explain why they might be interested in philosophy in the first place. After speaking with a number of students – either in Dr. Barney’s class or from one of the many undergraduate philosophy societies that seem to be flourishing in departments across the country – a different picture starts to emerge.

More than any other humanity subject, more than perhaps any other academic discipline, philosophy seems to match most successfully what might look like the seemingly incompatible concerns of young people today: the desire for material security, which has gotten a whole lot harder in the last couple of decades, and a deep-seated anxiety about the future of our world.

It’s paradoxical, but as Dr. Bartha notes, “[philosophy is] a very flexible discipline.”

That philosophy might be vocational training may seem strange, but says Dr. Dick, “There is good data about the mid-career salaries of philosophy majors. There is evidence out there that philosophers out-earn every other humanities major [except] economics. There is good evidence that they out-earn every business major except finance.” A number of U of C students see it as a sound foundation for the work world. This is particularly true for those contemplating law school.

Amanda Cha, the outgoing president of Philosophia, the U of C’s undergraduate philosophy society, is headed to law school next year, and praises her time in philosophy as excellent preparation. “The writing skills are really useful, and I have the ability to articulate my positions clearly.” Claire Monahan, a student at the U of T, also sees philosophy as excellent training for law. The philosophy-law school connection is well established, but it isn’t the only practical application for philosophy. John Magbanua, another student in Dr. Barney’s course says, “In high school, I had a hard time talking and a hard time structuring my thoughts. Philosophy helped me do that.”

“There is evidence out there that philosophers out-earn every other humanities major [except] economics. There is good evidence that they out-earn every business major except finance.”

The U of C’s Claire Hadford sees her undergraduate work leading to a master’s degree in educational policy. For Zoltan Reimer, also at U of C, it is preparation that may lead to graduate work in public policy. Isaac Hicks, the president of the undergraduate philosophy society at UBC, plans to join the army after he finishes his fourth year, making him the latest in a long line of philosophically-trained warriors dating back to Alexander the Great. After that, he is considering graduate school in philosophy. Mr. Hicks offers another reason for studying philosophy: “Philosophy is fun. It’s just so much fun.”

Fun – and profound. “[Students] have an interesting belief in the power of philosophy,” says Dr. Bartha. U of C and U of T students came to philosophy with the kind of experience under their belts that parents and guidance counsellors want high school students to aim for: a former diesel mechanic, a public health worker with an MA; a sheet-metal mechanic; and a TV cameraman with 15 years’ experience. If studying philosophy is an impractical idea, no one told them. At its heart, philosophy feels more important. It is a tool to understand their world and perhaps change it.

Blythe Black, a fourth-year student at Queen’s and the co-president of the philosophy department student council, says the reason for the interest in philosophy is “kind of reflective of young people nowadays taking more ethical stances and being aware of their world and their surroundings and that things have to change. And I think that they’re trying to use philosophy as a way to arm themselves in this ethical combat.” The professors and the departments don’t see that, she feels. “They’re just seeing bigger numbers and they’re going ‘well, what the heck is that relating to?’

“I feel like right now young people are experiencing so much frustration and so many emotions and they don’t know what to do or how to tackle it or how to overcome that grief. We have climate change, we have so many horrible things going on in the world and we don’t know what to do. Philosophy gives you that space to question and really flesh out your thoughts in a group environment to maybe come up with an answer.”

PUBLISHED BY
Ian Coutts
Ian Coutts is a writer and editor who lives in Kingston, Ontario. The author of several books and articles, he holds an MA in philosophy from the University of Toronto.
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  1. Mark Mercer / June 16, 2021 at 15:04

    Might it be that philosophy courses have not yet entirely succumbed to wokeness? For the present, philosophy professors are concerned to help their students come to think for themselves. But the signs are not good. Soon philosophy professors will join their colleagues in other disciplines in trying to get their students to hold the values and beliefs demanded by contemporary social justice movements.

  2. Manasvini Narayana / June 17, 2021 at 14:57

    Perhaps that Netflix show The Good Place made philosophy relatable!