Friday, October 06, 2017

Do Philosophy Professors Tend to Come from Socially Elite Backgrounds?

To judge from the examples we use in our essays, we philosophers are a pretty classy bunch. Evidently, philosophers tend to frequent the theater, delight in expensive wines, enjoy novels by George Eliot, and regret owning insufficiently many boats. Ah, the life of the philosopher, full of deep thoughts about opera while sipping Ch√Ęteau Latour and lingering over 19th-century novels on your yacht!

Maybe it's true that philosophers typically come from wealthy or educationally elite family backgrounds? Various studies suggest that lower-income students and first-generation college students in the U.S. and Britain are more likely to choose what are sometimes perceived as lower risk, more "practical" majors like engineering, the physical sciences, and education, than they are to choose arts and humanities majors.

To explore this question, I requested data from the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates. The SED collects demographic and other data from PhD recipients from virtually all accredited universities in the U.S., typically with response rates over 90%.

I requested data on two relevant SED questions:

  • What is the highest educational attainment of your mother and father?
  • and also, since starting at community college is generally regarded as a less elite educational path than going directly from high school to a four-year university,

  • Did you earn college credit from a community or two-year college?
  • Before you read on... any guesses about the results?

    Community college attendance.

    Philosophy PhD recipients [red line below] were less likely than PhD recipients overall [black line] to have attended community college, but philosophers might actually be slightly more likely than other arts and humanities majors to have attended community college [blue line]:

    [click picture for clearer image]

    [The apparent jump from 2003 to 2004 is due to a format change in the question, from asking the respondent to list all colleges attended (2003 and earlier) to asking the yes or no question above (2004 and after).]

    Merging the 2004-2015 data for analysis, 17% of philosophy PhD recipients had attended community college, compared to 15% of other arts and humanities PhDs and 19% of PhDs overall. Pairwise comparisons: philosophy 696/4107 vs. arts & humanities overall (excl. phil.) 7051/45966 (z = 2.7, p = .006); vs. all PhD recipients (excl. phil.) 69958/372985 (z = -3.0, p = .003).

    The NSF also sent me the breakdown by race, gender, and ethnicity. I found no substantial differences by gender. Non-Hispanic white philosophy PhD recipients may have been a bit less likely to have attended community college than the other groups (17% vs. 21%, z = -2.2, p = .03) -- actually a somewhat smaller effect size than I might have predicted. (Among PhD recipients as a whole, Asians were a bit less likely (14%) and Hispanics [any race] a bit more likely (25%) to have attended community college than whites (20%) and blacks (19%).)

    In sum, as measured by rates of community college attendance, philosophers' educational background is only a little more elite than that of PhD recipients overall and might be slightly less elite, on average, than that of PhD recipients in the other arts and humanities.

    Parental Education.

    The SED divides parental education levels into four categories: high school or less, some college, bachelor's degree, or advanced degree.

    Overall, recipients reported higher education levels for their fathers (35% higher degree, 25% high school or less [merging 2010-2015]) than for their mothers (25% and 31% respectively). Interestingly, women PhD recipients reported slightly higher levels of maternal education than did men, while women and men reported similar levels of paternal education, suggesting that a mother's education is a small specific predictor of her daughter's educational attainment. (Among women PhD recipients [in all fields, 2010-2015], 27% report their mothers having a higher degree and 29% report high school or less; for men the corresponding numbers are 24% and 33%.)

    Philosophers report higher levels of parental education than do other PhD recipients. In 2010-2015, 45% of philosophy PhD recipients reported having fathers with higher degrees and 33% reported having mothers with higher degrees, compared to 43% and 31% in the arts and humanities generally and 35% and 25% among all PhD recipients (philosophers' fathers 1129/2509 vs. arts & humanities' fathers (excl. phil.) 11110/26064, z = 2.3, p = .02; philosophers' mothers 817/2512 vs. a&h mothers 8078/26176, z = 1.7, p = .09). Similar trends for earlier decades suggest that the small difference between philosophy and the remaining arts and humanities is unlikely to be chance.

    [click picture for clearer image]

    Although philosophy has a higher percentage of men among recent PhDs (about 72%) than do most other disciplines outside of the physical sciences and engineering, this fact does not appear to explain the pattern. Limiting the data either to only men or only women, the same trends remain evident.

    Recent philosophy PhD recipients are also disproportionately non-Hispanic white (about 85%) compared to most other academic disciplines that do not focus on European culture. It is possible that this explains some of the tendency toward higher parental educational attainment among philosophy PhDs than among PhDs in other areas. For example, limiting the data to only non-Hispanic whites eliminates the difference in parental educational attainment between philosophy and the other arts and humanities: 46% both of recent philosophy PhDs and of arts and humanities PhDs report fathers with higher degrees and 34% of both groups report mothers with higher degrees. (Among all non-Hispanic white PhD recipients, it's 41% and 31% respectively.)

    Unsurprisingly, parental education is much higher in general among PhD recipients than in the U.S. population overall: Approximately 12% of people over the age of 25 in the US have higher degrees (roughly similar for all age groups, including the age groups that would be expected of the parents of recent PhD recipients).

    In sum, the parents of PhD recipients in philosophy tend to have somewhat higher educational attainment than PhD recipients overall and slightly higher educational attainment that PhD recipients in the other arts and humanities. However, much of this difference may be explainable by the overrepresentation of non-Hispanic whites within philosophy, rather than by a field-specific factor.


    Although PhD recipients in general tend to come from more educationally privileged backgrounds than do people who do not earn PhDs, philosophy PhD recipients do not appear to come from especially elite academic backgrounds, compared to their peers in other departments, despite our field's penchant for highbrow examples.


    ETA: Raw data here.

    ETA2: On my public Facebook link to this post, Wesley Buckwalter has emphasized that not all philosophy PhDs become professors. Of course that is true, though it looks like a majority of philosophy PhDs do attain permanent academic posts within five years of completion (see here). If it were the case that people with community college credit or with lower levels of parental education were substantially less likely than others to become professors even after completing the PhD, then that would undermine the inference from these data about PhD recipients to conclusions about philosophy professors in general.


    Michael said...

    Do we really have a penchant for highbrow (or wealthy examples? After all, all you give is anecdotal evidence. But there are non-highbrow examples too (trolley cars and The Matrix come to mind).

    Maybe another empirical study is in order.

    (Michael Kremer, in case my sign-in doesn't show that.)

    Unknown said...

    I don't know, Eric. If I had to judge from examples I'd think philosophers are pretty badly off: we've been chained in caves, struck by lightning, sold fake barns, forced to use our internal organs to help others, confined in colorless rooms, saddled with untrustworthy partners in crime, fooled into thinking we understood Chinese, and had half of our brains transplanted into other people -- not to mention that we constantly have to be on the lookout for out-of-control trolleys.

    (But thank you very much for doing all of this interesting work on the sociology of the profession.)

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks, Justin. The life of the philosopher appears to be very complicated!

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    True, Michael, there are also lots of middlebrow examples. The highbrow ones are salient to me -- and I think might have an impact beyond their raw number. We can all share middlebrow tastes, but highbrow examples risk alienating those who don't have the resources to cultivate a taste in wine or the kind of cultural background that makes it likely that examples from opera and George Eliot feel natural and familiar. That said, I think a quantitative study of this would be very interesting!

    David Dick said...

    Interesting, and not great if the job market and its difficulties makes philosophy too risky a choice for anyone who can't float for a good long while on other sources of support.

    I wonder what the historical trend about philosophers is? Wittgenstein I know came from a *very* wealth family, and I hear Aristotle had enough wealth to be granted basically green card status in Athens. I wonder if the general trend it toward more or less privileged philosophers?

    Anonymous said...

    The Matrix is probably the exception that proves the rule. It’s the sort of example many of us use because most students know it, a concession to their lower brows. It’s a classroom standby, but not, e.g., a prestigious journal article standby.

    As for trolley examples, as an undergrad I found the very use of the word “trolley” antiquated, weird, and pretentious. The only time I’d ever heard the word was on Mr. Rogers or in reference to San Francisco, and I’d never lived anywhere near a city that had streetcars. I couldn’t figure out if it was just an old person’s word, or a Britishism, or what.

    Alan Nelson said...

    People in other disciplines don't tend to publish articles full of examples. At least not examples like, "here I am typing and looking at a coffee cup."

    Matt said...

    It's not just philosophers that want relief from slooplessnes, it's also country music artists:

    As for trolley examples, as an undergrad I found the very use of the word “trolley” antiquated, weird, and pretentious. The only time I’d ever heard the word was on Mr. Rogers or in reference to San Francisco, and I’d never lived anywhere near a city that had streetcars.

    Or weird, exotic places like Boston or Philadelphia (just in the US off the top of my head)...

    Sam Rickless said...

    For the record, my mother became a famous opera singer. She was born in poverty, lived in a roach infested apartment in Brooklyn with her extended family, worked to make money for the family from her early teens, everyone in the family chipped in to make it possible for her to go to college, and one day, early on, her public school teacher took the whole class to the opera. My mother was entranced and never looked back. Sure, most opera and theater goers are wealthy, but art appeals to everyone, and not only the wealthy. Second thought: Middlemarch is one of the greatest novels ever written. Fiction is free, all you need is your local library. To suppose that those who admire Eliot or Austen or Dickens are elitist is to denigrate the achievement of these authors, whose work has had an impact on many more than the rich. Fiction transports you to a different world. If you are poor, it opens up a world of possibilities, and gives you a sense of what you might aspire to and what you might avoid. I guess I am just saying that we need to be careful about reading back from the examples used by philosophers what their backgrounds are.

    Heath White said...

    I wasn't sure how to interpret "Recent philosophy PhD recipients are also disproportionately non-Hispanic white (about 85%) compared to most other academic disciplines that do not focus on European culture."

    I would think that our discipline might aspire not to focus on European culture, but in practice it certainly does. (And my personal unsubstantiated view is that this is a fairly significant reason it fails to attract minorities.)

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

    Sam: Of course there are fans of opera and Eliot from all walks of life. But the claim is about broad trends and averages, and also about what is implicitly conveyed by disproportionate emphasis on high culture examples.

    Heath: Perhaps that was awkwardly phrased. What I meant to convey is that most of the disciplines that are as non-Hispanic white as philosophy are disciplines with an explicitly European focus, such as German studies and European history.