Who Majors in Philosophy and Why (Or Why Not)?

(with Sara Aronowitz) Presented at the 2016 Eastern APA, panel on “Rethinking the Philosophy Major in Changing Times” by the APA Committee on Teaching Philosophy.

In 2013, the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan undertook an informal survey of undergraduates enrolled in Philosophy classes (n=444), which was analyzed by a team of graduate students participating in a Learning Analytics Fellows Seminar. Among our preliminary results were findings that:

  • Over half (55%) of students who did not plan on majoring in philosophy reported that they did not do so because they worried the major would not help them achieve their post-graduate goals, including 17% who reported this as their only reason for not majoring,
  • While a small percentage of students planning to major in philosophy (16%) reported interest in the subject as their only reason for doing, many more reported doing so because they thought additionally that it would help them acquire needed skills (32%), they liked the accessibility of professors in the department (19%), or both (21%).
  • Women were more likely than men to report that they did not major in philosophy because they were not able to do as well as they wished in the subject, and they were more likely than men to report that they did not major in philosophy because they found other subjects more interesting.
  • In open-ended responses to questions concerning the philosophy curriculum, the most common requests were for: non-Western philosophy [e.g. Indian, Islamic], courses with relevance to concrete, real-world issues [e.g. current events, popular culture], advanced logic, and philosophy of religion/theology.

Our analysis of survey data contributes to a growing body of empirical literature on philosophy undergraduates by examining students’ explicit self-reports of reasons for and against choosing to major in philosophy, and it suggests a number of possibilities for empirically-informed strategies to recruit and retain philosophy majors, especially those from underrepresented groups who are most vulnerable to leaving the profession.

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