The practicalities of being a useless philosophy major

When Dr. Andrew Irvine, associate professor of philosophy and religion at Maryville College, tells people that he teaches philosophy, he said the common response is “Ugh!” Such a negative societal view of the subject does not appear to be unusual.

“I think [philosophy] is viewed as a bunch of old men sitting around in bathrobes with pipes discussing nonsensical things,” said Jennifer Deaver, a sophomore at MC. “It is seen as the preservation of pointy headed academics,” Irvine agreed. However, if one is to sit in on one of MC’s philosophy classes, there is a distinct lack of “pointy heads” and bathrobes.

Rather, there is a group of typical liberal arts students discussing and analyzing texts and ideas, just like they would in any other class. Dr. William Meyer, professor of philosophy and a Ralph W. Beeson professor of religion, always becomes animated, darting across the room during class. Irvine occasionally ends up standing on a table in order to help illustrate some greater philosophical theory of experience or existence.

The conversations in class are varied and they break from the perceived stereotype of philosophy that Matthew Barger, history major, described as, “mostly looking at old Greek philosophers and that’s it.” “

We’re not just looking at old guys,” Barger said. “We’re relating it to our current day situation.” Society is not so quick as to see justifications for philosophy. Cole Freeman, a philosophy major planning on going to medical school, said that he viewed society’s views of philosophy as “outdated, worthless and not useful in the working world.” Keith Wall, a music major, felt that most individuals are not as overtly critical of philosophy, but simply not concerned with it. “People just live life and not worry about it,” Wall said. Freeman said that he would agree that most people do not see a reason to be invested in philosophy.

“Philosophy is meant for the academic world. I don’t think everyone is right to sit down and philosophize,” Freeman said. “For the working man, there’s no time for it.” Meyer agreed with this statement, saying that college was a good place for philosophy.

“Education is one of the most direct places to think about philosophical questions in relation to topics,” Meyer said. “All topics have underlying philosophical assumptions, and they need to be examined.”

The value of a liberal arts education is in being able to have broad perspectives on life, and philosophy can help foster the intellectual skill to accomplish that. While philosophy may indeed be useful for analyzing texts, questioning our assumptions about the world and formulating arguments, Deaver still joked that in the real world “it’s about as useful as an art major is.”

There is another common stereotype that all one can do with a philosophy degree is teach; otherwise, one ends up either taking fast food orders, or doing in-depth analysis on the existential state of unemployment. Most students of philosophy have taken the problem of a “real world job” into mind. Freeman is majoring in philosophy, while going a premedical route.

“Humanities majors are becoming valued in the medical world,” Freeman said. “So, for me, it was a win-win to major in something I enjoy, and do well going on to graduate school.” Combining philosophy with another major or minor can be a beneficial decision for students. Philosophy, when coupled with another skill, can make a student stand out to graduate schools and employers that are looking for critical thinking skills, as well as analytic abilities.

Despite the outcries of uselessness and odd fascination with old, dead white men that society has, individuals often have an underlying interest in philosophy and philosophical ideas. “I think it’s fascinating,” Wall said. “I like it.” Even though he is not studying philosophy, he values the way it can provide insight into his personal beliefs on life. Most students have a natural curiosity about life and existence, and philosophy is a way to delve into reality, gaining a better understanding of the values, experiences and ideas that are generally taken for granted. Meyer and Irvine started out studying other subjects, economics and English literature, respectively, and ended up being drawn into philosophy.

Both ended up learning and loving the subject, without any plans to eventually become professors. Most philosophy students are the same way. Through one class or professor, they stumble onto philosophy and become enthralled. Few initially seek out philosophy, but it seems to find them instead. The draw of philosophy comes from the simple fact that it matters, both to the individual and to society at large.

Meyer gave the example of how current politics are shaped around the philosophical question of whether humans are “self contained individuals, or individuals in a web of relationships with responsibilities to each other.” Phrased another way, should the government focus primarily on protecting individual rights without meddling or on providing a better quality of life and health to everyone? Modern philosophy should become involved with trying to answer such questions. At the individual level, Irvine emphasized how philosophy teaches one to ask questions about one’s career path and meaning in life.

“What does it mean to be such and such major?” Irvine said. “What makes one good at a job?” One does not have to be an expert in philosophical jargon to think about one’s worth in life and in one’s career. To be an informed citizen, one first has to be informed about one’s self. The value of a philosophy major appears to be in the academic skills it develops, and the personal enlightenment it can help to blossom. Everyone may not have an interest in philosophy, but philosophy has interest in everyone. Politics, ethics and daily life all have underlying philosophical issues to be explored. “I’m not just the being that eats, works, sleeps, has sex and watches tv,” Irvine said. “I’m the creature who can think about these things.”

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