Appreciating Philosophy Degrees

An argument from Mark Cuban that such degrees will soon be worth more than computer science degrees. Advise your children accordingly.


Thos. said...

To remain competitive, Cuban advises ditching degrees that teach specific skills or professions and opting for degrees that teach you to think in a big picture way, like philosophy.

"Knowing how to critically think and assess them from a global perspective, I think, is going to be more valuable than what we see as exciting careers today which might be programming or CPA or those types of things."

On the one hand, Cuban is right that knowing how to think critically is an extremely valuable skill. People have been saying this (and identifying the fact that some of the more technical fields tend to produce people who think too narrowly) for decades, if not generations.

On the other hand, Cuban's observation is overlooking a couple of things:
1. Almost everybody thinks they are good at the kind of critical thinking he is describing, whether they have any reason to think so, or not. It's pretty difficult to come up with a system to identify and reward quality thinking if it's something that everyone believes they are already doing that. It'd be like trying to hire people to sort eggs by color when 90% of the population sees all eggs as the same color. Only 10% of the people can even tell when anybody is wrong, and the 90% don't have: a) any way to tell if they are being given correct information, or, b) any reason to even believe there is a problem in the first place.
2. A philosophy degree is no guarantee that the holder is good at critical thinking, or big-picture thinking, or whatever else it is that Cuban is trying to sort for.

I say all of the above as a holder of a philosophy degree. People like Cuban have been telling people like me how much they value our particular abilities for a long time. But Cuban, just like everyone else, will pay their accountants and their engineers and their programmers according to the predictable utility of what they can reliably produce, because without a way for "big-picture" thinkers to reliably forecast the usefulness of their thoughts (and in a way that can be usefully compared to the quality of other critical thinkers' thoughts), no one is ever going to be able to know how to value them well enough to compensate the thinkers in the way that Cuban is predicting.

In the end, people who are good at thinking still have to produce something that other people value. "Just thinking good" isn't enough. Reality, it turns out, is remarkably indifferent to theory. In fact, reality has a strong action/results bias.

Grim said...

That is, as you know, a problem at least as old as Socrates. At least the shoe-makers actually do have knowledge they can demonstrate: they can make a shoe! I can't make a shoe. So their claim to specialized knowledge is justified.

What about the philosophers? Do they really know more about justice, courage, virtue in general? Socrates didn't find that they did, and he had -- arguably -- one of the best contemporary classes of philosophers to challenge on the point.

E Hines said...

Another problem that Cuban overlooks is the question of who will teach this philosophy, this facility for critical thinking. All we have today are colleges and universities managed by people and that employ teachers who disdain contradicting speech, contests of ideas--the foundation of critical thinking.

Think critically like those folks do, or they will criticize you out of the place.

Oh, and Eliza is an early example of automating "philosophy."

Eric Hines

David Foster said...

A much wiser recommendation, IMO, from the late Dr Michael Hammer, who argued that the best education for the aspiring executive would be an undergraduate *double* major--one tough STEM subject, and one rigorous humanities course of study. One recommended pairing would be a double major in computer science and classics. For those who don't find this combination particularly appealing, he suggests alternative double-major possibilities:

--electrical engineering and philosophy
--mechanical engineering and medieval history
--aeronautics and theology

Hammer also said "If you aspire to a career in the business world, avoid an undergraduate major in business at all costs. You may learn some superficially useful skills, but not the fundamental capabilities needed for the long haul...There is plenty of time to develop expertise on the job or in a professional school."

E Hines said...

My recommendation: whatever undergrad degree you get, don't go to graduate school. Get a job, get some real world experience, and accumulate a nest egg. Then go to graduate school, letting that experience inform you in your choice of graduate study and that nest egg help you through the living expenses and the inevitable unexpected expenses.

That undergrad degree set of choices should include VoTech degrees, too; BAs aren't the be-all and end-all.

Eric Hines

raven said...

IN his book, "Investment Biker", Jim Rogers said the first thing he mentioned to his class at Columbia was this- paraphrased from memory
" you are here to learn business skills. This university is costing you $50,000 a year. My best advice as business professional is to drop out now, take the $200,000, and start a business. In four years, you will either succeed or fail. In either case, you will have learned more than I can teach you."

David Foster said...

One problem: How does a prospective employer know how rigorous...and hence, how likely to actually develop thinking skills...a particular university philosophy program might be? They range from great to terrible.

I could do it...but then I have a somewhat decent knowledge of philosophy, and also have a more than typically freewheeling and conversational interview style. I'm not sure how many people really could.

Also, in those companies that require the candidate to interview with a whole raft of people and allow *any one of them* to blackball him...a terrible idea IMO....I doubt that many philosophy majors would pass the screen.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Echoing Thos, there is this idea that going to a philosophy class will make you a thinker. Similar claims are made about classical studies and the liberal arts in general. I don't think it is so; it flows in the other direction. People who can think can benefit from philosophy. Whether they can turn that into gainful employment, or even want to, is a different matter.

It is analogous to the government idea - including Republicans like George Bush - that if you make it easier for people to buy a house they will develop middle-class values and start taking care of the place, working more regularly, teaching their kids how to mow the lawn, staying hom e weekends, getting involved with neighborhood and town organisations, and other bourgeois concerns. It works the opposite way. Bourgeois values produce homeowners.

Plus, not only intelligence, but determination and contemplation are likely to be highly heritable.