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General Philosophy: The Most Useful College Major?


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
by Kristina Chew

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 p{censored} 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.

Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/philosophy-the-most-useful-college-major.html#ixzz1bPV5RXtn


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Sep 2, 2014
Actually, Philosophy can be a great choice. Also, there is nothing wrong in working in retail; you may find you really like it! There are those who tell college students to major in whatever field promises a "good job"; hey, that's great, but what happens if you major in something like Accounting, and you hate it, and your grades are bad, and you finally get a job with an accounting firm, and you are miserable, well, what then? What have you done with the time in your life? Yes, you may have made some good money, that's fine, but what have you done with it?

Hey, make no mistake, money is necessary in this society; it is a tool of commerce; the light company will not take payment in bushels of oranges! Also, there is nothing wrong in making money to live well; poverty is not a virtue, contrary to what many will tell you. However, please bear in mind that you are a unique being; you have a set of gifts and talents God gave you to share in this world; to make it a better place not just for yourself but for all! So think carefully about what major you choose for your college years. Yes, take some courses that will give you practical skills; yes, but take the time to explore a variety of subjects as well. You may find you have a talent you never knew about!
I have a degree in Philosophy with a concentration in Metaphysics and Epistemology. Lock, Stock, and Barrel, as they say ;). I currently work as an Investment Strategist for a large bank, and I was an analyst for many years.

I find that there are parallels in the investment world with my training in Philosophy. I believe that investment trading methodologies and even value-oriented investors are somewhat like the empiricists, grounded in past data and searching for clues to indicate what we can expect in the future. And I view growth investors and maybe even thematic investors as somewhat akin to the rationalists, who used logic and reason to form theories about the future and support their conclusions.

So all that to say I can at least offer myself as one example of a Philosophy major who has a job that is intellectually stimulating. At least I do today - tomorrow, who knows. :)



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