In the early 2010s, there were annually about 7,800 philosophy bachelor’s degrees awarded nationwide, according to data Robert Townsend provided. But a multiyear decline began in 2014, before the number started recovering to reach 6,622 as of 2021.
Townsend, co-director of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators, said it’s interesting that these numbers of philosophy graduates have increased, unlike what some other humanities fields are seeing.
Pennsylvania’s Millersville University, which this fall had 5,858 total undergraduates, had only 18 philosophy majors this spring, down from 29 in spring 2019, according to numbers the department provided. It had only five philosophy minors this spring, down from 17 in spring 2019.
But the department is revamping its offerings.
Chuck Ward, a philosophy professor, said the department started offering a second minor—alongside the old Philosophy minor, there’s now Ethics and Society—in fall 2021. And this past fall, he said, the department began offering an Ethics and Society certificate that will be listed on earners’ transcripts.
The certificate requires five courses, instead of the minor’s six, and both paths only require Introduction to Ethics before letting students choose from an array of courses, including courses Ward said are new: Business and Professional Ethics; Black, Latin and Native American Philosophy; and Philosophy of the City, Technology and Public Health.
“It’s maybe a little too early to draw too many conclusions," Ward said. There were only three enrolled in the new minor this spring, and likely no one in the certificate yet.
But the department is also enacting new requirements this fall for the philosophy major. Ward said the major will require less focus on the history of philosophy and allow students more flexibility to take issue-centered courses, including new ethics-focused courses such as Food, Ethics and Society.
“The enrollment question was part of it,” Ward said. “But, I think even more generally, our concern was really the decline in recognition of the role that philosophy and the humanities could play in higher education.”
“We did want to sort of raise the profile of philosophy on campus,” he said, “and figured the way to do that would be to help people see how it could complement their other educational goals.”
He said the department wanted to help people understand philosophy’s relevancy “to whatever else they were doing.”
“What we ultimately decided was that the ethics angle was a clear way in which that was the case,” he said. “Our society today is kind of encountering a challenge in terms of the limits of our ability to think through the ethical issues in all of these various kinds of advancements that are taking place.”
Amy E. Ferrer, executive director of the American Philosophical Association, said in an email that her organization “is aware of philosophy programs naming and structuring their degrees, courses and concentrations in ways meant to draw the interest of students that might not have a clear understanding of what philosophy is.” She even provided her association’s own Department Advocacy Toolkit.
“Consider whether some of the traditional names of courses might be failing to attract students,” the guide says. “The appeal of a course on ‘epistemology,’ for instance, might be limited to students who are already ‘in the know’ about philosophy. It is worth considering whether a name change might attract a wider audience. Words like ‘information,’ ‘knowledge,’ ‘truth’ and ‘belief’—common topics in an epistemology course—might draw a student to read the course description more so than ‘epistemology.’”
“Philosophy prepares students for so many of life’s challenges,” the guide says. “Course content and full-semester courses that address timely topics in culture and society demonstrate the value of the discipline to students and administrators alike. Philosophy courses on human rights, poverty, racism, robot ethics and artificial intelligence and war and peace may help to attract non-majors to the philosophy electives.”
Miriam Solomon said she was behind creating an ethics certificate at Temple University that started in fall 2016, when she was the philosophy department chair. Solomon, a philosophy professor, just became chair again this month.
“I think it was a couple of things,” she said of the reasons for creating the certificate. “Although there wasn’t a waning of philosophy majors, there was certainly some pressure from the dean’s office to increase undergraduate enrollments generally, across the board, and I think the certificate reflected my personal view that a little bit of philosophy, short of a minor or major, can really enrich a liberal arts education.”
“I also wanted something that they could put on their CVs for employers,” she said. “And there are a number of ethics courses offered in other departments, applied ethics, so business ethics, for example, which they could hopefully combine with some ethical theory and philosophy to give them a full ethics background.”
She said a large percentage of philosophers think this “applied” philosophy isn’t real, compared to “theoretical” philosophy.
“I totally disagree,” she said. “I think that applied ethics is really important and is part of philosophy and, actually, it makes for better philosophy than armchair philosophy. I personally believe the philosophy is relevant to life, and it should be.”
Temple’s four-course certificate requires Introduction to Ethical Theory, which Solomon said covers philosophical ideas like utilitarianism and Kantianism. Then students must take two applied/professional ethics courses—Business Society and Ethics, Environmental Ethics or Ethics in Medicine—and finally complete either Classics in Moral Philosophy, Contemporary Ethical Theory or Good and Bad, Right and Wrong.
The University of New Hampshire offers three-course philosophy “cognates,” in Business, Innovation and Technology and Political and Legal Philosophy, that appear on transcripts. It also offers four philosophy majors: one just called Philosophy, one called Ethics and Social Responsibility, and two with the same names as the cognates.
“You will choose courses in the philosophy of artificial intelligence, evolution, neuroscience, biotechnology, business ethics, economic policy, environmental ethics and other high impact subjects,” the description of the Business, Innovation and Technology major says.
Ruth Sample, an associate professor of philosophy and chair of the University of New Hampshire’s Philosophy department, wrote in an email that student demand was the primary driver for offering and advertising the department’s courses in this way.
“Enrollment wasn’t declining in philosophy per se, although the humanities in general have suffered in the last decade,” she wrote. “We had a number of students who wanted to take courses related to their primary major, and wanted the focus of their philosophy education to reflect that on their transcript. We have also had many students who are both interested in various entrepreneurial endeavors and philosophically engaged, so the Business, Innovation and Technology option really appealed to them. Similarly, our Ethics and Social Responsibility option appeals to those students who want to work either in business or in the non-profit sector. And the Political and Legal Philosophy option appeals to those who plan to work in the legal field.”
Nick Smith, another University of New Hampshire philosophy professor, wrote in an email that every business major also must take an ethics course with the department.
“We teach over 800 students in these courses annually,” Smith wrote. “This is obviously a boost for enrollments in the Philosophy Department, but it also provides a considerable public service to require ethics training to the future business leaders in the region. Many of these students required to take the course fall in love with philosophy, major in philosophy, and have lifelong relationships with the department.”
“We’ve been proactive about keeping the curriculum fresh and relevant,” he wrote. “We’re not selling out with whiz-bang marketing, but just trying not to be stuck in a stodgy and stale curriculum that students pass over. We try to understand what students want, and we make an effort show them how philosophy is a powerful and interesting ally.”