Why Study Philosophy?

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.

Valuable Knowledge:

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:

While philosophy is no worse than most other things in terms of useful information, philosophy’s reputation as an impractical subject isn’t deserved, because unlike most majors, philosophy actually teaches you a useful skill. Specifically, it teaches you how to think. Many people don’t realize that thinking is a skill, or that it takes a lot of training to do it well, but it is and it does. Here are two compelling pieces of evidence that philosophy teaches you how to do it well. First, philosophy majors do better than virtually every discipline out there when it comes to scores on post-graduate (grad school and law school) entrance exams.* This seems to suggest that it teaches you the skills you will need to be able to become an expert at whatever field you plan to go into. Second, mid-career salaries for philosophy majors are higher than they are for any other humanities major despite the fact that entry-level salaries for philosophy majors are often lower.** This shows that philosophers are getting promoted while others lag behind. This isn’t surprising. When you learn how to think well you will understand, anticipate, and be able to solve problems better than others. You will also be able to communicate your ideas more effectively. This will get your bosses to trust you, and will lead to promotions and success. So, unlike many other disciplines, learning all the useless information in philosophy will have a wonderful side effect of teaching you a useful skill that will actually help you in life.

Signaling Employers:

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








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