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The Mother Ship: How Philosophy Is Everybody’s Business

April 9, 2008

My life partner in academia is history. I spent the better part of the last ten years wooing her. She’s one of my intellectual rocks. She satisfies both the speculative and empirical aspects of my thoughtful meanderings. We are in love.

My academic mistress, however, is philosophy. My desire for graduate school in history began with using her to sort out my love for the speculative and empirical. She satisfies some of the deepest aspects of my person. But we have an on-again, off-again infatuation.

As might be expected, my mistress always catches my eye. That’s why I recently leered at a New York Times article on the rise in demand for philosophy by undergraduates. Written by Winne Hu, the piece is titled: “In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined.” Excerpts follow—interspersed with my commentary.

When a fellow student at Rutgers University urged Didi Onejeme to try Philosophy 101 two years ago, Ms. Onejeme, who was a pre-med sophomore, dismissed it as “frou-frou.” “People sitting under trees and talking about stupid stuff — I mean,
who cares?” Ms. Onejeme recalled thinking at the time.

TL: I too hear this from students at my current workplace. It’s not intense, but I nevertheless get raised eyebrows when I suggest a few, targeted philosophy courses.

But 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.”

TL: Good one. The biggest obstacle in getting students to think beyond their vocational aspirations, or with hooking those aspirations to their major, is generally the parents. The fact of the matter today, however, is that a great many students are only using their major to get to a graduate professional program. In most instances, those programs care less about the major than one’s performance within the major.

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.

TL: It’s nice to see the larger schools getting on board. Small liberal arts colleges and Jesuit schools have, in general, always heartily encouraged philosophy as part of a more traditional view of the curriculum (i.e. core curricula). But while awareness of philosophy’s merits have increased, it’s not like the issues today are any more or less important than yesterday’s. And where have philosophers only been concerned about ancient texts? Perhaps ancient philosophy texts, but many philosophers have continually sought to apply philosophical issues to the present. And there’s certainly a problem with academic philosophical specialization, as noted by historian Bruce Kuklick and other observers of philosophy in the last half of the twentieth century. Could it be that those observations have made their way back to the academy and are now bearing fruit for undergraduates, at least? …And what are the other “luxury majors,” by the way? I’m guessing history is on that list. But why wouldn’t business, based on the luxuries it may provide later? What a silly categorization.

Back to the article…

Rutgers, which has long had a top-ranked philosophy department, is one of a number of universities where the number of undergraduate philosophy majors is ballooning; there are 100 in this year’s graduating class, up from 50 in 2002, even as overall enrollment on the main campus has declined by 4 percent. At the City University of New York, where enrollment is up 18 percent over the past six years, there are 322 philosophy majors, a 51 percent increase since 2002.

TL: This is indeed nice to see. I wonder if any particular promotional efforts have been utilized? If so, those methods need to be spread across the U.S. higher education landscape. Someone needs to write a piece on that. It certainly can’t be some kind of business-oriented/capitalist study that shows philosophy undergraduates becoming the highest earners?

“If I were to start again as an undergraduate, I would major in philosophy,” said Matthew Goldstein, the CUNY chancellor [right], who majored in mathematics and statistics.

TL: Ditto for this undergraduate chemistry major. Check that: I’d double-major in philosophy and history.

“I think that subject is really at the core of just about everything we do. If you study humanities or political systems or sciences in general, philosophy is really the mother ship from which all of these disciplines grow.”

TL: This is why the late Mortimer J. Adler [left] called the study of philosophy “everybody’s business.” But by “we,” does Goldstein mean the university or the United States in general?

Nationwide, there are more colleges offering undergraduate philosophy programs today than a decade ago (817, up from 765), according to the College Board. Some schools with established programs like Texas A&M, Notre Dame, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, now have twice as many philosophy majors as they did in the 1990s.

TL: Jumping by 52 courses constitutes a 6.8 percent improvement. But I wonder if there’s an ebb and flow to philosophy offerings? I’d like to see a 50-year comparison before concluding anything about a 6.8 percent increase.

David E. Schrader [right], executive director of the American Philosophical Association, a professional organization with 11,000 members, said that in an era in which people change careers frequently, philosophy makes sense. “It’s a major that helps them become quick learners and gives them strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking,” he said.

TL: You’d expect no other kind of statement from the APA’s director. But what of detractors?

Mr. Schrader, an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware, said that the demand for philosophy courses had outpaced the resources at some colleges, where students are often turned away. Some are enrolling in online courses instead, he said, describing it as “really very strange.” “The discipline as we see it from the time of Socrates starts with people face to face, putting their positions on the table,” he said.

TL: I agree. Live conversation should be at the heart of all kinds of higher education disciplines. But sometimes written communications are the only option. In this case, online formats are no worse than correspondence courses, or assigning papers on articles or books not discussed in class (a constant practice all across education). So, online formats are necessary. There’s no reason to denigrate the unfamiliar as “strange.” [Aside: This rest of the NYT article focuses on Rutgers particular situation, but I’ll continue.]

The Rutgers philosophy department is relatively large, with 27 professors, 60 graduate students, and more than 30 undergraduate offerings each semester. For those who cannot get enough of their Descartes in class, there is the Wednesday night philosophy club, where, last week, 11 students debated the metaphysics behind the movie “The Matrix” for more than an hour.

TL: I hated The Matrix. More accurately, I hated the hype that surrounded the movie. Talking about it for an hour on a weeknight sounds like a drag—unless caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine were involved. I know this has been accomplished in book form [above right]. Maybe it’s just that imagining Keanu Reeves [left, as “Neo] in any kind of intellectual role gives me indigestion? I know that’s a cheap shot. Please forgive me Keanu.

Barry Loewer, the department chairman, said that Rutgers started building its philosophy program in the late 1980s. …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.

TL: As I noted above.

Some, like Ms. Onejeme, the pre-med-student-turned-philosopher, who is double majoring in political science, see it as a pre-law track because it emphasizes the verbal and logic skills prized by law schools — something the Rutgers department encourages by pointing out that their majors score high on the LSAT.

TL: It’s the verbal section of the MCAT that prompts my suggestions to pre-meds at my institution. I propose logic and ethics to them.

Other students said that studying philosophy, with its emphasis on the big questions and alternative points of view, provided good training for looking at larger societal questions, like globalization and technology.
Frances Egan, a Rutgers philosophy professor who advises undergraduates, said that as it has become harder for students to predict what specialties might be in demand in an uncertain economy, some may be more apt to choose their major based simply on what they find interesting. “Philosophy is a lot of fun,” said Professor Egan, who graduated with a philosophy degree in the tough economic times of the 1970s. “A lot of students are in it because they find it intellectually rewarding.”

TL: I advise picking majors based on interest, not vocational dreams. I would do this in any advising setting beyond my current one.

Jenna Schaal-O’Connor, a 20-year-old sophomore who is majoring in cognitive science and linguistics, said philosophy had other perks. She said she found many male philosophy majors interesting and sensitive. “That whole deep existential torment,” she said. “It’s good for getting girlfriends.”

TL: What of philosophy making the females more interesting—and sensitive?! Still, it’s the Ethan Hawke-in-Before Sunrise school of thought. Woo them with your deep thoughts!


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  1. I'm one of those people who has realized this… I cannot get anywhere in my field without a firm grasp of the philosophies which support and oppose – and how these operate in human minds.

    I wish I had been a philosophy major.


  2. Ira,

    At the very least I wish I had more time to read and study philosophy. Personally, I think every one who works in education or government should be ~paid~ to read most any kind of philosophy on the job. I can't think of a more productive use of one's time if one does that reading in an engaged manner. Of course I also believe this about history with regard to one's particular job/field.

    – TL


  3. I've taken the time to be in a philosophy seminar this semester, and it has been brilliant. I thought going in that I needed a better way to understand how people understand their world view. I can't really discuss my ideas about universal education without seeing how that very notion conflicts with peoples' inherent philosophies. So it has been difficult going, but thrilling, and proof of your notion that this kind of education should underlie the rest. Of course I already knew that regarding history.


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