Nation’s philosophy literacy falls to all-time low
The average American knows less about philosophy now than ever before. So say Samantha and Robert Lawson in a paper forthcoming in Teaching Philosophy. The Lawsons reached their depressing conclusion after examining nearly 60 years of data, including information on Americans’ reading habits, formal philosophy education, and the citation of philosophers by writers outside the discipline.
“Many in academia bemoan the gap between public opinion and scientific consensus,” says Sarah Lawson. “But the disconnect between lay and expert opinion in philosophy is just as bad.” Lawson points to Gallop polls that indicate 40% of Americans believe God created humans in their present form and 46% believe the global warming of the past century has been due to natural causes. By comparison, a shocking 97% of respondents in one recent poll said that objects are colored. Most of the remaining 3% endorsed “a facile and vague ‘colors are just in your head’ theory,” says Lawson. “Very disappointing.” Similarly, in one of the Lawsons’ own surveys, 99% of subjects said they knew they had hands, with the remaining 1% split between “Not sure,” “Other,” and “Shut up and take me to the hospital.”
With global warming and evolution, the less someone’s views align with the scientific consensus, the more likely they are to think of themselves as well-informed, and a similar phenomenon of misplaced confidence has been observed with philosophy. When asked if they knew what the Sheffer stroke was, a surprising 21% of all undergraduates—not just philosophy majors—responded in the affirmative. When asked where they had learned about it, however, only 8% of those students selected “In logic class,” while 47% said they learned about the Sheffer stroke “in last month’s Cosmo.”
The fall in philosophy literacy comes even as terms and ideas increasingly diffuse from philosophy into popular culture. “Without even realizing it, people are using in everyday speech what was once philosophical jargon,” says Glenda Rowe, a fellow at the Center for Media and Culture. “This represents a paradigm shift in ignorance,” Rowe adds, apparently with a straight face.
Interviews conducted by the Lawsons corroborate Rowe’s claim, as well as display an increasing skepticism towards philosophy on the part of those outside the discipline. In one episode, a college first-year protested her school’s requirement of an introductory philosophy course. Her comments are instructive.
Philosophers say they’re concerned with the ultimate nature of reality, but speculating on the ultimate nature of reality is pointless. For all we know we’re in the Matrix and reality is totally different than we think. Besides, philosophical theories are unfalsifiable, so what good are they?
“At first we suspected she was actually a philosophy major and was just messing with us,” Robert Lawson confides. “But a quick check of the school directory confirmed that she was a biology major who had just passively absorbed some philosophy without realizing it. I’m sure we all do that with disciplines we know nothing about—just absorb it by meiosis.”
[Note: Special thanks for the Sheffer stroke joke to Martin Thomson-Jones.]