Philosophy does seem to have a slight image problem when it comes to diversity. When you think of philosophy, what is the first image that comes to mind? Is it an old white man with a beard? Well if it is, you’re not alone. The field is notoriously under-represented when it comes to women, and black and minority ethnic individuals.
Over the past few years, this has been highlighted with increasing frequency, in a range of newspaper articles and online blogs, most notably The New York Times.
The philosophy pipeline leak
One reason, which has been cited as the main cause of the problem has been dubbed “pipeline leak”. Essentially, this means that members of black and ethnic minority groups are leaving the field at a higher rate than their white, and normally male, colleagues. This was initially highlighted in a report that was published in 2009 by the American Philosophical Association. This report stated that the under-represented groups achieved approximately 12 percent of the undergraduate degrees in philosophy, but only 5 percent of the doctorates.
Under-represented groups achieved approximately 12 percent of the undergraduate degrees in philosophy, but only 5 percent of the doctorates.
– American Philosophical Association, Minorities in Philosophy Report (2009).
So how do we plug this leak? Well, there are two main camps. The first believe that additional work needs to be done at the undergraduate level to ensure that these underrepresented groups continue into postgraduate studies. However, the other camp believes this is too little and too late. They believe that the issue is not the number of people progressing to postgraduate studies, but the number taking philosophy in the first place at the undergraduate level.
Early exposure is key
One explanation for this is that black and minority ethnic students are far more likely to attend a “high-poverty school”, where subjects like philosophy are just not taught, or even mentioned. In stark contrast, students who have been fortunate enough to attend a private school are far more likely to have had, at least some, exposure to the discipline of philosophy.
So in conjunction with the latter stage pipeline leak, we now have two possible explanations as to why philosophy seems to be under-represented. So which one do we focus on improving; reducing the attrition of students that progress from undergraduate to postgraduate, or do we focus on improving the number of students entering the pipeline at the start.
If philosophy is truly serious about changing, it will need to work on all areas. However, it seems that if the initial lack of representation at undergraduate level were improved, the pipeline leak would be far lower at the later stages. You have to ask yourself why we have a pipeline leak in the first place. In reality, it is most likely the feeling of isolation at the undergraduate level that is causing the leak in the first instance.
So what’s the solution?
If philosophy really wants to shake this image of the old white man sitting in his wing-back chair reading, and really wants to improve the under-representation of black and minority ethnic individuals, it has to act early. More pre-university initiatives need to be generated for secondary school students, in the same way that we have numerous science and engineering initiatives.
Philosophy is a fantastic field, which teaches complex and powerful ways of thinking. A field so important that everyone, regardless of your ethnic background, should have early access to. A concerted and focused effort now needs to be made to address both the pipeline leak and lack of accessibility of pre-university philosophy.