Why Major in Philosophy?
As students head to university, 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 in which permanence is questioned alongside the dynamism of change. Consider it for reasons of career, citizenship, character, and the joy of learning how to learn and adapt to challenges the future will pose.
Career. Those who regard undergraduate study just as vocational training can’t imagine what Philosophy majors do besides preparing for graduate school with the hopes of becoming teachers. Most philosophy graduates, an extraordinary percentage of whom secure employment or continue their education, take their philosophy education into many directions. Top career fields for Philosophy majors include Management, Sales, Community Service, Computer Science, Entrepreneurship, and the Entertainment Industry. 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 and critical discussion of imaginative ideas constrained by evidence. 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 are among Philosophy’s benefits.
Citizenship. In the bad-tempered echo chambers of cable television, social media, and talk radio, American democracy is being poisoned. Civil discourse between our citizens and our politicians is crucial. 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 in the spirit of respect and mutual learning and commitments to see what they previously failed to see, hear what they once failed to hear, understand what they previously failed to understand. It takes practice. Get started. It is not only your country but also the world that 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 the United States’ security is “the inability of our political leaders to come together on bipartisan solutions.” This observation applies, unfortunately, to a growing number of countries across the globe.
Character. The central question of Philosophy since the times of Imhotep, Antef, Maitreyi, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Aspasia, and 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, Truthful, and Compassionate. There are grander pieces of advice, such as, Seek Union with the Eternal. However, this provides no obstacle to violent religious fanaticism, if being reasonable, truthful, and compassionate is neglected. There are narrower ones, such as: Make a Lot of Money. However, this provides no obstacle to exploitation of the unfortunate and vulnerable, if being reasonable, truthful, and compassionate 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 strong and wise, 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.
Joy of Learning. Philosophers have a reputation for being “smart.” This is because they fall in love with learning and continue to learn in their many endeavors. The joy of learning enables philosophy students to excel in the areas of study they love, and this offers the possibility of continued growth in which career, citizenship, and character flourish.
People who think 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.
Professor Emeritus Donald L. M. Baxter
and Philosophy Department Head, Lewis Gordon