A college education is usually thought to provide three main things to students:
1. Valuable knowledge about various subjects.
2. The acquisition of useful skills.
3. A signal to future employers of intelligence and a willingness to work hard.
Students should study philosophy because it does a very good job at providing value relative to these standards.
Philosophical knowledge has a reputation for being impractical. It is. What is weird is that so few other disciplines have the same reputation. Here is a simple fact about education: almost everything you learn in a college course consists of information you will never need and never use at any point in the future. With the exception of a few majors that teach very specific information in areas many of their students will actually spend their lives working in, such as degrees in engineering or marketing, almost no information you obtain in college will be of any value to you at any point in your career. This might be disheartening to some; I prefer to think of it as freeing. Since you won’t actually need the information in the future, it doesn’t matter what information you obtain. Given this, you might as well learn the coolest and most interesting information you can find. On this score, philosophy does very well. Philosophy addresses issues that have fascinated people forever, and deals with questions most people wonder about when they have free time. Given the fun and interesting nature of the subject matter, if you have to obtain a bunch of useless information to get the degree you want, shouldn’t it at least be cool useless information?
Acquiring Useful Skills:
Because philosophy is so poorly understood, it hasn’t always provided as much of a signal to employers as it ought to. However, recently this trend seems to be changing. In his book The Undercover Economist Tim Harford praises philosophy degrees as great ways to signal to employers that you are smart and hardworking since obtaining a degree in philosophy is usually harder than obtaining one in most other disciplines.*** In addition, publications varying from the New York Times**** to the Bloomberg Businessweek***** have praised the value of a degree in philosophy for succeeding in life. This suggests that more and more employers are recognizing that training in philosophy is a valuable sign that the person they are hiring will be smart and capable. Given this, there is reason to be hopeful that by the time a prospective student is on the job market philosophy degrees will have higher initial value on the job market than they have had previously.
So, philosophy will introduce you to a bunch of cool ideas, teach you valuable skills, possibly help you get a job, and probably help you succeed and get promotions at a job once you find one. Prospective students who are interested in thinking about cool ideas while setting themselves up for successful lives should seriously consider majoring in philosophy. In particular they should do so if they are smart, but lack interest in majors that involve learning information and skills that are specifically suited to particular career paths.
*- See http://www.uic.edu/cba/cba-depts/economics/undergrad/table.htm , http://www.ncsu.edu/chass/philo/GRE%20Scores%20by%20Intended%20Graduate%20Major.htm
***-See p. 111 of the paperback edition, ©2007, Random House: New York