Could philosophy be the most practical major? That might sound outlandish at a time when the economy is sluggish and one hears too many accounts of recent college grads working “in retail” (i.e., Macy’s, Walmart) and shouldering massive amounts of debt from student loans. These days, who’s going to get a job as a philosopher?
But contrary to what you might expect, there’s a rise in the number of students majoring in philosophy across the US. Philosophy majors have increased by 74 percent at†the†University of California at Berkeley, in a time of economic turmoil. Nationally, there’s been a 46 percent increase in the number of philosophy majors from 2008 – 2009. 12,444 students received degrees in philosophy or religious studies in that time period, up from 8,506 in 1998-99.
Overall, philosophy majors comprise only 1 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the US; business, education and engineering continue to attract the highest numbers of majors. Some of the students interviewed in a Philadelphia Inquirer article note that they are double-majoring in philosophy, sometimes along with something of a more obviously practical nature, such as engineering. But what’s intriguing is why they say they’re majoring in philosophy: the thinking skills you can acquire in taking classes about logic, ethics and Plato’s dialogues.
Shannon Maloney is studying for an extra year at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. She already has a degree in mechanical engineering but is staying on to earn a philosophy major:
“It’s teaching me to see the big picture and to think about things in a different way. Not only can I do the math and figure out how to design something and build something, but I can see it in the context of a business plan.
“…Most engineers struggle to explain simply – they get bogged down in the details. Philosophy teaches you to take a step back, understand what your audience needs to know, and explain it to them so that they don’t get lost in the scientific challenges.”
Steven Occhiolini, an accountant in the Blue Bell office of LarsonAllen L.L.P., a national accounting firm, says that his double major in philosophy helps him to “produce more descriptive, better-written reports.” Philosophy, notes Occhiolini,†”really makes your brain work in a different way.”
Others (besides Thomas Jefferson) who have majored in philosophy include martial-arts specialist Bruce Lee, Supreme Court Justice David Souter, activist Angela Davis, NBA coach Phil Jackson and business magnate George Soros. The late venture capitalist and pioneer in the computer industry†Max Palevsky even once noted that:
Many of us early workers in computers were philosophy majors. You can imagine our surprise at being able to make rather comfortable livings.
Philosophy teaches students to think; to examine, articulate and analyze arguments and patterns of thinking and to demonstrate their ability to do so by writing papers and†in class discussions (and, if you’re up to it, one-on-one interlocutions with your philosophy professor). Thinking and the ability to parse and offer thoughtfully reasoned arguments are not quantifiable skills. But a brief look at, for instance, some of the statements put forth by various US political figures (the contenders for the GOP presidential nomination at last night’s debate), can lead one to conclude that a lot of people could benefit from a good dosing in philosophical instruction to firm up their thinking mechanism.
I am very biased in making the above argument about the practical benefits of philosophy and, more broadly, the liberal arts. I’m a professor of classics, of ancient Greek and Latin an academic subject that far fewer than 1 percent of students major in. I teach at a small, urban college where students are practically oriented of necessity, as most are the first in their families to attend college (and to grow up in the US). Many are from working class and lower middle class backgrounds and have to be prepared to get a job after graduation, to help support families, young siblings and numerous relatives here and overseas. In such a setting, a professor of “dead languages” regularly finds herself on the defensive, as resources are allocated for such more overtly practical programs such as criminal justice, nursing and sports management.
I have had students majoring in those subjects taking Latin and ancient Greek to fulfill core curriculum foreign language requirements and have often found myself speaking about the “practical applications” of learning these ancient languages because they can be helpful for learning medical terminally and vocabulary. They indeed are but, now that I’m in my 15th or so year of teaching “dead languages,” more and more it’s my thought that what’s valuable about my classes is something a little less obvious. Students studying Greek and Latin hone their memorization skills in studying grammar for the weekly quiz. By far, the most challenging aspect of studying these languages is translating. Here’s a sentence †from a recent Elementary Latin midterm:
Pecunia et gloria semper animum boni occupabunt.*
Translating ancient Greek and Latin is a problem solving exercise, requiring a student to apply rules, recall vocabulary and improvise, to think on their feet. They cannot depend on their experience and feelings to translate as ancient Greek and Latin texts do not refer to their everyday realities (computers, iPods, TVs, debit cards, text messages, fast food). Google Translate can spit out a clunky rendering of a phrase according to the dictionary meanings of the words, but to turn it into a meaningful utterance can call for a bit of creativity, to get your mind to work in the way of someone living more than 2,000 years ago.
In other words, classics, like philosophy, exhorts students to use their minds in ways that our technology-and-tech-device-driven-consumer culture does not. Could classics and philosophy offer practical skills for students today precisely because both subjects are divorced from the practical aspects of people’s lives today?
It’s something to think about.
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* [Money and glory will always seize a good man's soul.]
Photo of a mosaic of Plato's Academy from a mosaic in Pompeii from Wikimedia Commons