Monday, April 07, 2008

Skills to be Successful!

Why major in philosophy? One of the things one sometimes hears coming from the folks at the orientation tables on some college campuses is something along the lines of the following: "With a philosophy major you learn to think and write clearly and critically, and you grow into a thoughtful, mature person of the sort that any business, corporation, or government office would be happy to hire." In short, the message seems to be, you should major in philosophy because those jokes about being the most articulate person in the unemployment line are all wrong--you will too be able to get a good job with this major! A recent story in the New York Times showed some evidence of similar thinking:
Ms. Onejeme, now a senior applying to law school, ended up changing her major to philosophy, which she thinks has armed her with the skills to be successful. “My mother was like, what are you going to do with that?” said Ms. Onejeme, 22. “She wanted me to be a pharmacy major, but I persuaded her with my argumentative skills.”
In this particular case, the "skills to be successful" turned out to be skills to get an argumentative relative off one's back--a skill that I myself found useful when my family tried to convince me that I should get a job as a computer programmer back in the days when that sort of job actually seemed alluring to some people (mostly, folks who did not have to work in cubicles themselves).

The difficulty with seeing philosophy this way is that it really masks what philosophy genuinely is. Another passage from the NYT story has this to say:
Once scoffed at as a luxury major, philosophy is being embraced at Rutgers and other universities by a new generation of college students who are drawing modern-day lessons from the age-old discipline as they try to make sense of their world, from the morality of the war in Iraq to the latest political scandal. The economic downturn has done little, if anything, to dampen this enthusiasm among students, who say that what they learn in class can translate into practical skills and careers. On many campuses, debate over modern issues like war and technology is emphasized over the study of classic ancient texts.
While I am certainly all in favor of the study of classic ancient texts, I would want to point out that the emphasis on "modern issues like war and technology" is already a misrepresentation of what philosophy is. Granted, there is such a discipline as "applied ethics" within philosophy, but too often this sub-field gets turned into The Field in philosophy, and courses in it wind up being massively useless bull-sessions in which poorly trained students are asked to present "arguments" in favor and against all sorts of contemporary issues, and these arguments are then moderated by only marginally better trained graduate assistants.

I'm not saying that philosophy courses should make more of a point to get at metaphysical and epistemological issues, or even that Plato and Aristotle need to be mentioned when discussing justice or moral virtue. I will say, however, that any good philosophy student needs to have the intellectual curiosity to find these sorts of things of interest whether or not they impinge upon any "modern issues like war and technology." If you're just not interested in the core elements of philosophy, then you are not a particularly good philosopher, no matter how passionate you are about peace, freedom, and a clean environment.

Sadly, in today's educational environment, a subject like philosophy has to be "sold" in order to attract any students at all, and the selling that gets done usually has to do with explaining why studying philosophy will be a good background training for doing something other than philosophy. I am certainly not claiming that every philosophy major should go on to become a professional philosopher. But it's just plain silly to say that a person who wants to work in business, or law, or the government, should major in philosophy, unless that person genuinely loves wisdom for its own sake. If she does love wisdom for its own sake, then philosophy is a fine major provided it does not hamper the person's chances in the career he really desires. (Note the evidence, in that last sentence, that I am myself a professional philosopher: I used both the masculine and the feminine relative pronouns in referring to a single, abstract person. You can't say I wasted my time at the university!)
Barry Loewer, the department chairman, said that Rutgers started building its philosophy program in the late 1980s, when the field was branching into new research areas like cognitive science and becoming more interdisciplinary. He said that many students have double-majored in philosophy and, say, psychology or economics, in recent years, and go on to become doctors, lawyers, writers, investment bankers and even commodities traders.
As long as they don't go on to become philosopher who think that the sort of philosophy that gets done at Rutgers is the heart of the profession. Don't get me wrong: I'm fascinated by neurophilosophy, and have done some work in that area myself. However, the skills required to excel in that particular sub-field of philosophy often require a student to sacrifice other areas of the discipline. There are exceptions, of course, but many of the students who focus on such cutting-edge aspects of the discipline wind up having to cut corners in other areas. That's bad enough in itself, but what's worse is the fact that many of them don't mind cutting those corners, because they don't really see the relevance or interest in those other areas.

I had a friend like that in, of all places, classics grad school. You'd think that classicists, of all people, would be the paradigm cases of the Renaissance Scholar, with wide, interdisciplinary interests. But this friend of mine did Roman history, and just about literally nothing else. His interests were so narrowly restricted that his knowledge of Greek was poor enough that he had trouble passing his qualifying exams in that language. He was an excellent historian, of course, but it is hard to see in what sense he was a "classicist", if that term is meant to pick out something as interdisciplinary as classical philology. Philosophy is very similar, in many respects, to classical philology, because the best philosophers are all-arounders, who know enough about a wide variety of sub-fields to have something intelligent and interesting to say in just about any of them. Most importantly, however, the best philosophers work in philosophy, not in some other field. Not everyone has the luxury to do that, of course, so the next best thing is someone who majors in philosophy because of an innate sense of intellectual curiosity, not out of some utilitarian quest to get the ultimate job offer after graduation.

Nothing wrong with job offers, of course, especially "ultimate" ones. But for the philosopher, they are merely icing on the cake. I am sometimes asked if I regret having done an advanced degree in classics, seeing as how I wound up in philosophy (in order to get the two PhD degrees I spent 14 years in graduate school, while working and starting a family). Quite frankly, I don't regret it at all, and if I were required to go look for a job tomorrow at someplace like Borders or Starbucks I still would not regret it, even though I might be able to get a better job somewhere else if I had majored in engineering or chemistry, because I really believe that the unexamined life isn't worth living. If, indeed, that is what one ought to call "living" at all. Of course engineers and chemists can live examined lives, too, but for anyone in any sort of job it will be easier to examine one's life if one has that spark of intellectual curiosity that lies behind an authentic desire to major in philosophy:
That [philosophy] is not a science of production is clear even from the history of the earliest philosophers. For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters....a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant...therefore since they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end.

Aristotle, Metaphysics A.2 982b12-22


Michelle said...

Thanks for noting that chemists indeed can live examined lives, though I will admit that the graduate courses in philosophy and theology are a help in that aspect of my life.

I suspect I was a stronger student in theology grad school because of my science background. An argument for "liberal arts" on the graduate level?

Darwin said...

Having gone the route of being a classics major (because I found education a more valuable use of my college years than the sort of training one gets in a business or computer science major) I'd say that while I agree with these well-intentioned admissions and departmental representatives, it's important to be clear with people what they're getting into. I think it is indeed valuable to persue an "impractical" major, but if you then go out into the business world it does realistically take 3-5 years to catch up to what you would have been making if you'd come out of a well recognized business/marketing/computer science sort of program.

However making less in your early 20s is something quickly surmounted, and having a lack of education or intellectual curiosity is a lifelong handicap...

Scott Carson said...

That's a good point--indeed, I wonder how many software engineers or biology lab workers would take the first three years of their spare time after work and read through Homer, Virgil, Thucydides, Plato, etc. Whereas, if you had already done all that as undergrad, you could easily spend those first three years going further in such studies (since you won't be making enough money yet to spend that time traveling!).

I agree that it's important to be realistic about these things. If someone wants to be a doctor, or a biologist or a chemist, then there's no denying that a classics or a philosophy major would be more of a hindrance than a help (though I did have a student who was a double major in philosophy and biology and who went on to be a doctor). But surely Michelle is right to point out that some courses in philosophy (or theology) could be useful to just about anybody with the right sort of intellectual curiosity.

Conan DeWitt said...

Actually, it takes a lot longer than three years of after-work time. I pursued an engineering degree, with audits of liberal arts /classical languages / philosophy classes. Ever since, I've spent my free time trying to read more of what is theoretically included in a good liberal-arts program. The result? I'm now in my 30's, possess just enough Latin and Greek to be truly ignorant, and have a relatively thin understanding of the Western tradition, with enormous gaps in my reading. On the other hand, I'm happily employed, making good money, with a lifetime of good reading to look forward to. Still, there are times when reading particularly difficult works that I wish I had the benefits of the classroom lecture...

And I actually agree with the well-meaning philosophy recruiters. I work as a chemical engineer in R&D, and in my experience, the best engineers have a) natural curiosity and a desire to learn for its own sake, and b) an ability to think carefully and clearly about difficult problems, without immediately trying to rush to a solution...I expect that philosophy departments tend to attract a greater proportion of such students.

Unfortunately, no one in my field would ever hire a philosophy major, so maybe the sales pitch does leave something to be desired.

Michelle said...

I teach at a liberals arts institution, and have many students who double major in a humanities and science and go on in one field or the other; it's not an unusual path here.

All that said, I would not hire a person with only a philosophy degree to do chemical engineering work for me. It's essential to know something of chemistry, mathematics and engineering - and a lively and curious mind can't make up the lack.

One of our previous college presidents was fond of saying the purpose of a liberal arts education was to make your mind a more interesting place to live.

I would recommend some serious mathematics in addition to the "classics" for that post-education education.

Darwin said...

Actually, I'd argue that I use the stuff I learned in Classics, History, Literature and Philosophy classes pretty regularly now in my job in marketing analytics. Many not in a direct, (Footnote: Aristotle's Metaphysics) kind of way, but the modes of thinking I picked up along the way have been very useful.

And dealing frequently with freshly minted MBAs, I'm prepared to venture that often advanced studies in business are not all that useful.

However, when it comes to actually landing a job and getting your paygrade set, it does take a while to "catch up" from having a liberal arts eduction. (Though how much of that is a result of my also going to a no-name school is probably an open question.)

Anonymous said...

Scott I think your point is entirely valid. Indeed, it is pretty much a good summary of the very reason-for-being of Thomas Aquinas College, my alma mater.

I believe that education at the college level should be by design the education of man qua man (first and foremost), and only secondarily the education of man qua provider. And the education of man as such is the education which enables him to think well on ALL FRONTS of his life, both in the sense of proceeding clearly and in the sense of starting out with sound principles. This clearly puts a major role in philosophy and theology as essential to a truly educated person.

For me this worked out well: first I got a sound basic education at Thomas Aquinas College, then I went on to specialize with an MA in math in graduate school at a university. My graduate advisor (a professor from Germany) claimed pretty strongly that American colleges were essentially beefed up high-school in real value, you had to get a graduate degree to prove you could do anything real these days. (Well, those days, 23 years ago. Can't imagine the situation has improved since then.) So if you really have to get a graduate degree anyway, you might as well spend your undergraduate career becoming truly educated as a start.