First year student? Consider philosophy

Michael Bailey, Associate Professor of Government

Psssst. First-year students, gather around. You’ve mapped out your Plan4Ward, and many of you are flush with confidence in your shiny four-year college game plan. To you highly organized souls I offer a hearty congratulations, but you are free to go. Here I want to talk with those folks who are still pondering their future. Lean in, because I have some advice:

Consider majoring in philosophy.

Wait, where are you going? Come back! Give me five minutes, that’s all I ask.

Let’s start with what everyone knows. Everyone knows that you go to college to land a dream job, and to land your dream job you need to choose the right major.

The problem is that everyone is probably wrong. Your major likely will have little directly to do with your future employment. One 2013 study shows that three-quarters of college graduates in the United States land jobs not directly related to their major. But this isn’t a failure of the graduate, or the college, or the major; it’s likely not a problem at all.

Consider your BCC 100 common reading, Callings. A connecting thread in that book is that no single path—and certainly no particular major– guarantees anyone a satisfying job. Your own future career path will surely take unexpected turns because you’ll be on the lookout for promising new opportunities. According to a 2007 study, only 20 percent of persons who take jobs outside of their major field of study do so because related jobs weren’t available.

Rather, people pursue their current interests and ambitions. My own friends’ lives include a number of unpredictable stories: a medical doctor who majored in history; a dentist who majored in political science; an attorney who majored in aerospace engineering; a commercial airline pilot who majored in English; and an ecosystem educator at Yosemite National Park who majored in business economics. It’s no surprise, then, that the authors of the 2007 study implore students to think very carefully before choosing a major focused on a specific occupational skillset, for the “cost to changing careers after getting (such a) degree can be high.”

Given that the future is open-ended, why not select the major you find to be most intellectually stimulating? After all, you don’t go to college just to get a job. You come to college to get a life as well.

Enter Philosophy. What makes philosophy compelling is its world-altering and therefore self-altering character. philosophy aims at ultimacy and comprehensiveness; it seeks to understand the world taken as a whole. Moreover, it leads its devotees to dangerous places. It unsettles easy-breezy assumptions and upends comfortably cozy perspectives. It changes lives.

What is true for philosophy is true as well for history and English and mathematics and Physics and all of the other liberal arts majors. All of these majors introduce us to novel perspectives, counterintuitive insights and demanding disciplines. All of them expand the self by expanding our worlds.

Martha Berry was right to think that work was an essential human good. But Martha Berry also rightly understood that college has purposes beyond placing students on a career path. A good college prepares students for the cultural world they inherit, fosters in students an attitude of ministering unto others, and commits students down the path of ongoing intellectual growth.

Marketable skills, while crucial, are not the whole of life. We were made for work, yes, but we were also made for the play of friendship and the responsibilities and joy of family. We were made to create and appreciate art, to serve our community and neighbors, to wonder about our place in the cosmos, to yearn for truth, and to respond in grace and truth to the Divine.

First-year students, listen. Many of you are anxious about the future. College tuition everywhere is expensive and college debt is a growing problem. But whatever your path, keep in mind that decades of employment await you. College is a preciously brief occasion to explore what it means to be human and what it means to be you. Do not waste the opportunity.

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