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3 “Useless College Majors” That Are Useful

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3. Philosophy

The School of Athens — Raphael

Telling your relatives you’re majoring in philosophy is guaranteed to evoke responses such as “what a waste of your parents’ money” and “why don’t you do something practical.”

Studying philosophy has never been connected to getting a job, but has had plenty to do with changing the world. In Plato’s Dialogues, the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, has no discernible occupation, seeming to spend his days hanging out in the agora (the city center of Athens), the public baths and at various people’s houses while asking lots of questions and discussing justice, “the good,” love and the like. (Like all male Athenian citizens, Socrates did serve in the army and, according to reports, with valor.)

Studying philosophy teaches you to analyze arguments, identify logical fallacies and ask questions; to consider why what might seem to be true really is not and to be able to explain why.

Why are banks charging higher fees? What is the ideology concealed in arguments about fetal personhood and religious liberty?

Wouldn’t some people, and a lot of businesses, like it if we stopped asking these questions?


Photo by JustinMN via Flickr.

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Photo of the Sather Gate at the University of California at Berkeley campus by maveric2003

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2:53AM PDT on Jun 1, 2012


8:02PM PDT on May 9, 2012

Sadly, the time when degrees were about knowledge, thinking critically and the professions have long since gone. Now it's all about jobs and employment. In that respect universities are a bit like assembly lines churning out widgets. The mind boggles that there are degrees in golf green management, surfing, (the best one I've heard of is a degree in make up for drag queens) all very niche markets but hardly cerebrally challenging. Now everyone aspires to a university degree when indeed technician and trade level courses are dying out. The tradesperson, the artisan and the craftsman are no longer valued.

The professions historically were medicine, law, divinity and teaching. My, how things have changed.

7:16PM PDT on May 7, 2012


4:21PM PDT on May 1, 2012

A broad-based education with an emphasis on the liberal arts teaches people how to think and how to learn. It enables a person to go through the many job and even career changes that so many will be facing. It enables people to be employERs, not employEEs because it helps them develop the ability to do research and to think independently. It helps people to be active and participating citizens. It helps people develop the tools with which to enjoy and make more of their lives (we are human beings 24 hours of every day, not just work machines) and the lives of their loved ones. In short, it doesn't give a narrow job skill that suits you for a single job, it prepares you for life. That is why certain forces are against education and for instruction. They don't want people to think or to analyze or to do research to be able to evaluate claims--they want little robots who will do what they are told and buy what they are told and abandon their self-interest to witlessly serve the interests of the rich. BTW, many in business tell those of us in higher education that they prefer hiring people with liberal arts degrees because they offer more--it is always possible for them to go on to get an MBA but it is rarely possible for someone who did not get a liberal arts undergraduate education to go back and recoup that.

4:47PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012

You'll never know what knowledge would come in handy and when.

4:29PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012


4:16PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012

I'm afraid I'll have to disagree with this article. I agree that the skills it identifies in each of the three selected "useless subjects" are in fact useful or indeed vital to have, but the implication that this alone therefore justifies them as university courses on a par with STEM subjects is, I believe, dangerous.

These skills are part of a basic set that should be part of the mental arsenal of every responsible adult. To suggest that they require university-level education in order to be useful risks giving justification to those who prefer to derail proper informed democracy by remaining ignorant and apathetic. Instead, the crucial parts of these subjects should be part of the core compulsory curriculum from a young age, to build a culture of honest evaluation and engagement among the rising generations.

12:43PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012

I'm an illustrator, and I use my background in Art, Art History, and History all the time.

But it's true--it has not been easy. Especially as a student from a very poor background--I was homeless when I was applying to university--I was often urged to go into something more practical. I soon found that other students from a poor or even lower middle class background tended to go into very practical majors such as Political Science, Economics, or the hard sciences.

Most of the students in my majors came from families that were upper class or wealthy--this was especially true of Art History.

Still, art has always been my absolute passion, and I have never regretted my course of study or my degrees.

By the way, the picture above of Sather Gate is from my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley.

11:49AM PDT on Apr 30, 2012


6:58AM PDT on Apr 30, 2012

I would argue for his position that all knowledge is powerful and useful. I would argue against his position that you have to go to college to get it! I have a BS degree (2 actually :) but later on, I also self-taught subjects I know are courses in college- Photoshop, robotics, C++. I don't have a degree in it, but I do know them. And if that is the author's point, I still think it's valid question to tuition rates and the value of degree.
Because those two degrees I mentioned earlier are keeping me in debt to the tune of $500 a month. I feel like I'm treading water every year when I get my "you still owe X" amount slip in the mail.

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