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"The Value of Philosophy in a Market-Driven World": An Essay by Hossein Dabbagh (Keywords: Education; Humanities; Neoliberalism; Ethics; Critical Thinking; Social Justice)

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The Role of Higher Education in Today’s Society

The recent proposals by Rishi Sunak’s government to restructure the UK’s higher education sector, particularly targeting university degrees with perceived low earning potential, have sparked debate and concern over a “diminished vision of HE”. The policy, aimed at limiting student enrollment in certain courses, primarily in the humanities, such as philosophy, could exacerbate existing class divides and further restrict access to a broad-based education. A case in point is the closure of philosophy departments, which illustrates the broader shift in higher education towards market-oriented policies. The University of Kent’s decision to shut down its philosophy department is the most recent of this trend. The elimination of philosophy programmes exemplifies the increasing commodification of education and raises questions about the role of higher education in fostering an essential understanding of human existence and societal structures. Are universities merely conduits for employment, or should they strive to maintain their longstanding commitment to intellectual diversity and holistic development?

Philosophy, as a discipline, has been fundamental in developing critical and analytical skills applicable across various fields. It encourages students to question, analyse, and understand complex problems, an ability that is crucial in a rapidly changing world. The closure of philosophy departments suggests narrowing the university’s role as an institution dedicated to pursuing analytical skills in its most comprehensive sense. The loss of philosophy programmes can diminish the university’s commitment to encouraging a critically engaged citizenry. In Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum highlights the indispensable capacities cultivated by humanistic education. She lists “the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person”. Similarly, philosophy teaches students not just to think, but to think about thinking itself, probing into areas such as ethics, politics, logic, and epistemology. These areas of study are vital for cultivating informed and reflective individuals who can contribute thoughtfully to democratic societies. The closure also represents a shift in societal values, where the humanities are increasingly seen as less valuable or ‘practical’ compared to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. This trend could lead to a reduction in the diversity of perspectives and skills in the workforce and society at large.

The Commodification of Higher Education

The government’s policy raises concerns about equity in education. By devaluing courses considered to be of lower economic return, the policy may disproportionately affect students from less affluent backgrounds, who might be discouraged from pursuing studies in the humanities due to concerns about employability and debt. This could lead to a scenario where only the financially privileged can afford to study subjects like philosophy, thus perpetuating social inequalities. There is a risk of exacerbating social inequalities because students from lower socio-economic backgrounds may be funnelled into ‘practical’ courses while wealthier students have the luxury of exploring a broader range of academic interests. This could further entrench existing social divisions and limit opportunities for social mobility.

The emphasis on immediate economic returns overlooks the long-term societal benefits of a populace well-versed in philosophical reasoning and thought.

The government’s policy to force universities to limit the number of students taking “low-value” degrees poses a fundamental challenge to the traditional concept of education as pursuing knowledge for its own sake, a principle rooted in the liberal arts tradition. By assigning value to courses based on their economic return, the policy risks undermining the intrinsic worth of subjects that teach an understanding of human culture and history. This policy reflects a growing trend towards market-driven educational models in the UK where the value of academic disciplines is assessed predominantly through their immediate economic utility. However, in What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel articulates a pertinent concern: “The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?”. The emphasis on immediate economic returns overlooks the long-term societal benefits of a populace well-versed in philosophical reasoning and thought. This approach could potentially marginalise subjects that do not directly align with labour market demands, narrowing the scope of academic inquiry and intellectual diversity in higher education. In this framework, universities are increasingly viewed as service providers, and students are treated as consumers, with the educational landscape being shaped by market forces rather than solely by academic or intellectual considerations. This commodification of education fundamentally alters the traditional role of universities, raising significant questions about their responsibilities and the broader societal impacts of such a shift.

The transition to viewing education primarily as a commodity to be bought and sold has several implications. It suggests that the value of an education is primarily, or even exclusively, determined by its marketability and potential to enhance future earnings. This approach tends to favour disciplines with clear and direct paths to employment, often in technical or vocational fields, while undervaluing subjects in the humanities and social sciences, whose benefits, though profound, might not be immediately tangible in economic terms.

Moreover, the consumer model of education can lead to a narrowing of the educational experience, where students are encouraged to focus on acquiring specific skill sets that are in demand in the job market, at the expense of a broader, more holistic educational approach. This could result in a generation of technically proficient graduates who lack the critical thinking skills and ethical grounding essential for fully participating in and contributing to a democratic society. Derek Bok’s Universities in the Marketplace warns that commercialising higher education risks prioritising profit over educational values, potentially eroding public trust and respect, and undermining the mission of universities to nurture informed citizens. Another consequence of this market-driven approach is potentially eroding academic freedom and intellectual diversity. As universities compete for students and funding, there is a risk that less popular or commercially viable courses and research areas will be sidelined or eliminated. This could lead to a homogenisation of academic offerings and a loss of the rich intellectual diversity that is a hallmark of vibrant academic communities.

The Value of Philosophy in a Market-Driven World

This neoliberal approach to higher education, emphasising market norms and economic outcomes, poses significant challenges to the traditional role of universities as places of learning and critical engagement. It prompts a reevaluation of what is valued in education and raises important questions about the kind of knowledge and skills that are important for individuals and society as a whole. This approach neglects the intrinsic value of education in cultivating moral understanding. Historically, philosophers like Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill have emphasised the role of education in developing moral citizens. Kant’s notion of ‘sapere aude’ (dare to know) underscores the importance of using reason and understanding as tools for enlightenment. Mill’s advocacy for individual liberty and intellectual diversity aligns with the idea that various educational pursuits are essential for a vibrant and progressive society.

The importance of the skills developed through studying philosophy becomes increasingly apparent in addressing contemporary issues like climate change, global pandemics, and social justice. Philosophy is not just an academic pursuit but a vital tool in understanding and responding to the complexities of our world. Critical thinking, a fundamental aspect of philosophy, equips individuals to analyse and evaluate arguments, identify underlying assumptions, and discern the validity of information, which is particularly crucial in an era marked by misinformation and rapidly evolving narratives.

Philosophy’s emphasis on ethical reasoning is equally significant. In the face of climate change, ethical considerations play a pivotal role in decision-making processes. Philosophical training encourages individuals to contemplate the broader implications of actions, considering not just immediate effects but long-term consequences for the environment and future generations. It nurtures a sense of moral responsibility and helps navigate the ethical dilemmas posed by climate change, such as the distribution of resources and the rights of various stakeholders, including those most vulnerable to environmental changes.

Similarly, in the context of global pandemics, philosophy provides critical tools for grappling with questions of public health ethics, individual freedoms versus collective well-being, and equitable access to healthcare resources. The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who ruled the Roman Empire during a devastating plague, reminds us through his quote, “That which is not good for the bee-hive, cannot be good for the bees”, to balance individual well-being with the collective good, a lesson relevant to today’s challenges. Philosophical thinking drives an essential analysis of societal structures and their roles in exacerbating or mitigating public health crises. It helps in understanding the ethical dimensions of policy decisions, such as prioritisation in vaccine distribution or the imposition of quarantine measures, ensuring that such decisions are not only practical but also morally sound and equitable.

Philosophical inquiry encourages critical examination of social norms, laws, and institutions, developing a deeper understanding of the experiences and perspectives of marginalised groups.

In the realm of social justice, philosophy is indispensable. It challenges students to consider justice, equality, and human rights from multiple perspectives. Philosophers like John Rawls, with his theory of justice, and Michel Foucault, with his analysis of power structures, provide frameworks crucial for understanding and addressing systemic inequalities. Philosophical inquiry encourages critical examination of social norms, laws, and institutions, developing a deeper understanding of the experiences and perspectives of marginalised groups. By promoting empathy and critical reflection, philosophy aids in devising more inclusive and equitable social policies.

Moreover, philosophy encourages a global perspective, essential in today’s interconnected world. It urges individuals to look beyond their immediate surroundings and consider the broader human condition. Drawing on Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, philosophy encourages an appreciation for the interconnectedness of global communities, advancing a sense of global citizenship. This global outlook is vital in addressing transnational issues such as global poverty, where actions in one part of the world have far-reaching impacts elsewhere. In times of heightened political polarisation, where discordant narratives and conflicting ideologies often clash, the need for philosophical inquiry becomes paramount. Philosophy teaches us not only to dissect and understand arguments but also to empathise with diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of dialogue and understanding rather than confrontation. It encourages examining one’s beliefs and assumptions, a practice crucial for bridging divides and promoting social cohesion.

Advocating for a Balanced Educational Approach

The skills developed through the study of philosophy are more pertinent than ever specifically in the current era marked by increasing global crises such as misinformation, pandemics, and social justice issues. Philosophy equips individuals to navigate the multifaceted and often contentious landscape of modern society. The closure of philosophy departments in such a context appears unwise and counterproductive.

As we face global challenges that require collective action and a nuanced understanding of ethical and societal implications, denying students the opportunity to engage with philosophical thought risks diminishes our capacity to address these issues effectively. In an age where information is abundant yet often misleading, the analytical skills honed in philosophy are indispensable. Philosophical training teaches discernment, enabling individuals to investigate information critically, identify biases, and understand underlying assumptions. This skill is crucial for navigating the information-saturated digital landscape and making informed decisions in both personal and public spheres.

It is imperative to remember that education, at its core, is about broadening horizons, cultivating critical minds, and encouraging a sense of moral responsibility

In conclusion, while aligning education with economic objectives is important, maintaining a balanced approach that values all disciplines is necessary. This ensures that universities continue as institutions nurturing informed, critically thinking, and socially responsible citizens, not just gateways to employment. It is imperative to remember that education, at its core, is about broadening horizons, cultivating critical minds, and encouraging a sense of moral responsibility – qualities that are indispensable for the progress and well-being of society.

Hossein Dabbagh is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Northeastern University London and is affiliated with the Oxford Department for Continuing Education. His areas of specialisation include moral philosophy, political philosophy, applied ethics, and public policy. He is the author of The Moral Epistemology of Intuitionism: Neuroethics and Seeming States (2023).


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