Why Major in Philosophy?

As students head to college, they and their parents wonder: what is the best major for the current, changing world? It might just be Philosophy–that most ancient and enduring academic discipline. Consider it for reasons of career, citizenship, and character.

Career. Those who see college just as vocational training can’t imagine what Philosophy majors do besides teach. Plenty, but not usually teaching. Top career fields for Philosophy majors include Management, Sales, Community Service, and Computer Science. Philosophy is great preparation for Law School, and Philosophy majors have the highest acceptance rate to Medical School. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, skills in communication and analysis are crucial across virtually all occupations. The method of Philosophy is reasoned debate. Active listening and clear expression backed by critical thinking and creative problem-solving on complex topics in the light of a vast literature are Philosophy’s stock in trade. And don’t forget that today’s graduates will be changing careers several times during their lives. Being a flexible learner is essential to making the transitions. Suppleness and flexibility of mind is another of Philosophy’s benefits.

Citizenship. In the bad-tempered echo chambers of the blogs and talk radio our democracy is being poisoned. Civil discourse between our citizens and our politicians is the only antidote. Learn how to do it in Philosophy class. You’ll find sharp disagreement about matters of value based entirely on reasons without personal attacks. It is trial and error of ideas, where each side learns from the reasons and criticisms of the other: competition in the spirit of respect and mutual learning. It takes practice. Get started. Your nation needs you. Civil discourse is required for negotiating solutions to problems. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on “Face the Nation” that the greatest threat to America’s security is “the inability of our political leaders to come together on bipartisan solutions.”

Character. The central question of Philosophy since Socrates is: what is the best sort of life for a human being? The advice of Philosophy can be boiled down to this: Be Reasonable. There are grander pieces of advice, such as, Seek Union with the Eternal. There are narrower ones, such as, Make a Lot of Money. The first provides no obstacle to violent religious fanaticism, if being reasonable is neglected. The second provides no obstacle to exploitation of the unfortunate and vulnerable, if being reasonable is neglected. Philosophy’s advice is always needed, whatever other advice you follow. It helps make you open-minded, as you appreciate the merits of opposing ideas. It helps give you the courage of your convictions, as you more accurately gauge the strength of your reasons. It helps make you more resilient, as you begin to focus on the bigger picture and less on your own limited hopes and assumptions. It helps you become more mature, as you start to see past your own willfulness and illusions. Being reasonable contributes to good character.

People the most sure that Philosophy is impractical tend to be the least acquainted with it. Majoring in Philosophy is practical for a career, but also beyond for citizenship, and within for character.

Donald L. M. Baxter
Philosophy Department Head
University of Connecticut