Jennifer M. Morton over at The Philosophers' Magazine Online:
Picture yourself as a young mother with two children. You enrol in university to obtain a bachelor’s degree, hoping to give yourself a better chance at a job that pays a living wage. Maybe you receive government loans to pay for tuition, and rely on your family’s help, but you still don’t have enough to pay for living expenses and childcare. So, you continue working at a job that pays slightly above minimum wage while taking a full load of courses. Every day you wake up early to get the children ready for school and commute an hour or more to university. After class, you pick up your children from school. If you’re lucky, you can drop them off with a relative while you go to work. By the time you return home in the evening, you are tired, but still have many pages to read and assignments to complete. This is your gruelling daily routine. Now, ask yourself: what could philosophy do for you?
I teach philosophy at the City College of New York, an institution which, since its founding in 1847, has attracted a student body as diverse as the city it serves. Many of my students come from minority, low-income, or immigrant communities; some all three. They are strivers – seeking an education in order to become health professionals, teachers, engineers, or lawyers while holding onto jobs and taking care of families. Most of them are more fortunate than our imagined protagonist, but for many of them going to university involves great personal and financial sacrifices. Given that few of my students will ultimately find their way into the academy and that, within that already small cohort, only a fraction will choose to do so in the field of philosophy, the question of why study philosophy has a particular resonance for them, and for me as their teacher.
One answer to this question is pragmatic – philosophy teaches you to think and write logically and clearly. This, we tell our students, will be of use to them no matter what path they pursue. We advertise philosophy, then, as a broadly useful means to a variety of ends. There is a lot of truth to this dispassionate answer, but it is also rather disappointing. It sells philosophy short. A different sort of answer dives into profundity – philosophy aims to discover fundamental truths. Many disciplines aim at knowledge but philosophers, we solemnly tell our students, go deeper – we seek Knowledge with a capital K. This is undeniably the goal of many philosophers, but it can alienate some students (in particular, those who are not interested in pursuing an academic career). Why, these students might ask, is the knowledge that philosophy aims at any deeper than that of more practical fields such as medicine, science, or the law? And why should they care about this kind of knowledge? Even if most professional philosophers aim at the deepest kind of knowledge, this does not show that it is a valuable enterprise for all students, especially for those who are already overcoming significant hurdles to attend university.