Sunday, January 3, 2010

Why Philosophy?

Several people have sent me this article from the New York Times Career U: Making College Relevant. It is an old discussion gussied up in a new guise - should college be aimed at preparing graduates for jobs or should college be about acquiring an education? (I call false dilemma on this, BTW).

I'm struck by a few things here. First, the quantified data about what employers want - good writing skills, good speaking skills, and analytic ability - are seemingly compatible with any major, depending on how it is structured. My limited experience (16 years of teaching philosophy to graduate students and undergraduate students in a variety of environments including small liberal arts college, large state research university, small Catholic university, and Ivy League university) has taught me that there are brilliant students in any major.

What I'm more curious about (and what the article doesn't speak to directly) is this question of the 'average' student. What skills does the average business major possess? How does this compare to the skills of the average humanities major?

There's a reason I ask this, of course. My experience is that students select majors for many reasons - path to employment being one, of course. Another reason is ease of major - a major that requires, say, a 50 page senior thesis, can be seen as a deterrent or at the very least, requiring too much work.

The experience of asking a big question, identifying the issues this question presents, and writing about several possible responses to this question and then defending one's work orally seems to be a great way to improve one's analytic skills. This seems to go right to the core skills that employers are demanding, plus it shows a willingness to take on a challenging task and to persevere through a long-term project.

Students struggle with this, to be sure. Writing is mostly a solitary activity, and thinking hard about something for a sustained period of time is nowhere near as fun as hanging out with friends in the school pub. (Not to say these are mutually exclusive, but thinking time can put a damper on other activities - at least for a short while, e.g. a semester).

Maybe philosophy as a major will go the way of the dodo bird. I'm not sure what to think about this, except to hope that college graduates of schools without philosophy majors would have at least a nodding acquaintance with "great ideas" and the minds that spawned them. I dare say that many of the 'average student' business majors I have taught would probably disagree with me on grounds of relevance, but I wonder if there might be a deeper reason for their disagreement - that for a variety of reasons, philosophy is just too difficult. And that the easiest way to duck this issue is to dismiss it or to eliminate it as a requirement.

In my experience there is a high correlation between a student's ability to write and analyze and their appreciation of philosophy. Students who struggle to analyze do not appreciate a subject whose very essence is analysis and argumentation. In my opinion, a student who has not demonstrated mastery of the basic skills of analysis (and we can quibble over what that means) should not be permitted to graduate from college. One way to measure this might be to require a certain score on national standardized tests such as the GRE or GMAT, but I suspect this will never fly.

Even Plato acknowledged that a society full of philosophers was not sustainable. I'll give him that. I'm more focused on the question of analysis and inquiry. Most of the people who have brought great changes to society have mastered these skills. Philosophy is one lens through which one can study these skills, but it is not the only one - history, chemistry, economics, mathematics, literature, biology - the list goes on.

A society with fewer philosophy majors is not such a concern; a society with fewer people who are able to think deeply and analytically is a much greater concern. How sustainable would such a society be? I wonder...

No comments: