Suppose you wanted to design an undergraduate major that would provide you with a classic liberal-arts education as well as the skills necessary to gain a competitive edge in some of the world’s most prestigious professions. It might surprise you, but you'd be hard-pressed to do better than the modern philosophy major.
Let’s begin with what will be, for many, the most surprising part of my central claim. What is one to do with a philosophy major besides inventing absurdly sophisticated ways of inquiring whether people would like fries with that? It is somewhat ironic that the philosophy major has become a byword for the perceived uselessness of the “ivory tower” learning often associated with academia. For the truth of the matter lies far in the opposite direction.
Most undergraduate philosophy majors enter careers in other professions and fields.
And they are well prepared for it. On graduate entrance exams, philosophy majors perform better on the quantitative and analytic sections (GRE quantitative, LSAT, GMAT) than students from any humanities major, and outperform students from all majors on the verbal and writing sections of the GRE (see summary of a study done by the Chronicle of Higher Education here). This means that philosophy majors tend to develop strong study skills that are very broadly applicable. This is a result, no doubt, of the fact that philosophy majors combine training in logic and argumentative rigor with exposure to a vast array of ideas. Further, through relentless questioning and demand for justification, they instill the drive to get to the foundations of things and understand their basics, promote the value of creative thinking, and foster the ability to express ideas in clear and precise prose.
There is also evidence that philosophy majors excel beyond the exams to get them to the next stage (see this NYTimes article that makes reference to a non-scientific but suggestive study of the career arcs of philosophy majors from four schools since 1977).
Philosophy students tend to have sterling reputations at top law schools across the country. In addition to professions such as law and business consulting, philosophers also often get hired for interesting kinds of work at the forefront of emerging technology. They often have computer programming skills and find their “outside-the-box” thinking is highly valued at web-based companies. Former philosophy students have also been in demand at think tanks and medical schools for their abilities to tackle hard ethical issues raised by accelerating advances in biotechnology.
But let me now turn to my own favored side of the opening contention. For in addition to being one of the best majors for training in skills broadly applicable across the professional domain, philosophy is also the keystone in achieving the aims of a classical liberal arts education. Within the university, in my experience, the philosophy major is the most likely to value thinking, reasoning, and knowledge for their own sakes. It uniquely combines the quest for the most general and integrated understanding of the world with the quest for practical wisdom--how one ought to conduct oneself, what ends to pursue and values to hold, etc. Perhaps most importantly, it provides the opportunity and tools for rigorously reflecting on and integrating what one learns throughout one’s education, past and ongoing.
As a result, philosophy departments tend to become liaisons between the grand intellectual traditions of the past and today’s cutting-edge research and trends.
Whereas classics departments may be the ultimate stewards of our Greek and Roman intellectual heritage, philosophers employ current philosophical tools to bring ancient philosophy and even literature into dialogue with contemporary ideas and cultural issues (Bernard Williams’ Shame and Necessity, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Hubert Dreyfus’ and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining, and Alexander Nehamas’ The Art of Living and Virtues of Authenticity are good recent examples). Similarly, I’ve found that philosophers have become the guardians of some of the most important-yet-undervalued intellectual achievements not only of the last century, but perhaps of all history.
Everyone today knows about the power and importance of computers in contemporary life throughout the world.
Most college educated people are at least notionally aware that someone named Alan Turing played a major role in the development of computers which are, essentially, concrete implementations of an abstract formalization of his that has come to be called a “Turing machine”. Many mathematicians and computer scientists (a small percentage of the previous class of people) know the technical principles and details of Turing’s original work on computation. But even fewer people are aware of the fact that Turing’s achievements were the culmination of philosophically motivated work begun on the foundations of mathematics in the last quarter of the 19th Century, work which yielded the most powerful and revolutionary advances in logic since the time of Aristotle.
The level of logic taught today in mathematics and philosophy departments and the awesome power of computing in our lives find at least one common root in the philosophical questions concerning mathematics pursued by philosophers, mathematicians, and logicians such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Henri Poincare, David Hilbert, and Kurt Goedel (see links for information on these thinkers and their ties to foundational philosophical problems). I find that philosophers, more than anybody, are conversant in the importance and significance of these advances in logic, their source in deep philosophical problems initially articulated by Hume and Kant, how and to what extent they advance on Aristotelian and Scholastic logic, how they relate to subsequent advances in other disciplines such as linguistics, cognitive science, and decision and game theory, and what the status now is of the original motivating philosophical questions (subsequent elaborations and clarifications, the range and relative plausibility of proposed answers, etc.). This ‘guardianship’ is crucial, for the history and importance of these advances are much less a part of popular consciousness, and even academic consciousness, than the monumental advances of 20th Century physics, chemistry, and biology.
This extended example is just one of the ways in which philosophy serves as a forum for bringing together and holding in view the relationship and broader significance of the various parts of our ongoing intellectual heritage.
There are still other functions philosophy serves within the classical liberal arts tradition that I do not have time to go into (e.g., a deeply respectful yet critical stance toward each of the sciences which sometimes become the otherwise unquestioned authorities and dispensers of what counts as commonly accepted “knowledge”). But as in large institutions of learning, so in the individuals who study philosophy. When done right, studying philosophy has the power to impart to individuals the ability to reflectively, critically, and appreciatively integrate the varying strands of their lifelong educations. The intrinsic and instrumental value of a major in philosophy is rich indeed.
If you want to combine reflection, learning about one’s history and traditions and the ability to constructively reflect on them, etc. with gaining foundational skills for high professions, you could do a whole lot worse than philosophy. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to do much better. The liberal arts side is easier. The other side is slightly harder, if only because common sense seems shocked at the prospect.