Higher ed is a hot topic right now. College tuition prices are still climbing and with them comes even more student debt. Count me among the increasing number of people who are re-evaluating the value of a college degree, especially one that doesn’t offer an immediate and obvious path to a high-earning job.
This obviously means I regret dedicating my four undergraduate years to studying philosophy, right?
Not so fast. In fact, I find myself valuing my philosophy degree now more than ever before.
For me (and many others), a liberal arts degree is more than a prerequisite to a job. It’s the means to truly free the mind for higher thinking — and ultimately, living. And when used correctly, it can also be just as valuable when it comes to securing a career as any business or technical degree.
Here’s how my education in philosophy has prepared me for the real world.
Full disclosure: I actually had to ask what philosophy was when I enrolled at my university, so it wasn’t like I was seeking the thing out. But the more I learned about it, the more I liked it — and the more I realized that I’d been doing philosophy on some level for as long as I can remember.
What’s philosophy? Literally, the word means “love of wisdom.” But practically, philosophy helps us ask, Why? And you better believe I was that kid. I needed to know *why* we were doing all the things — at school as well as at home, even at basketball practice. What’s the point of this? Is this making me better? Is this the best use of my time?
In common parlance, philosophy tends to take on a rather ethereal tint: What’s the meaning of life? What makes humans any better than mice or even bugs? What if we’re just living in the matrix? But even the very first philosophers from thousands of years ago were concerned as much with these sorts of questions as with more practical things like math, science, and politics. That’s because when someone’s a lover of wisdom, asking “why?” never really stops.
Ideas are powerful
The more you spend time studying philosophy, the more you realize that this whole exercise is more than just a way to pass the time shooting the sh*t.
One of the 10 courses I completed for my philosophy major was an historical overview of philosophers and their writings — an incredible array of nuanced worldviews. It made me realize that there really is nothing new under the sun anymore.
So when a so-called new philosophy or way of living life, politics, or whatever comes along, it usually is just a re-packaging of an older school of thought, or some combination of several of them. Studying the great thinkers of history and their writings — ancient, contemporary, and everything in between — helps you better identify the underlying philosophies that gain popularity and better understand them, in their strengths and weaknesses alike.
Like it or not, ideas have consequences. Rare is the ideology that is simply neutral in value. Much more typical is a philosophy that ultimately carries an edge with which it aims to shape society. So in order to better ensure that society actually improves, it’s important to be able to understand the underlying ideas and evaluate them on their own merits.
Not all arguments are created equal
As you begin to scrutinize the philosophies and worldviews that are being propagated in the culture, a funny thing happens: You begin to realize some ideas are better than others.
Philosophy offers a framework for evaluating the value or persuasiveness of an argument based on standards of reason. In logic class, we had to learn how to build our own arguments from basic building blocks and understand how good arguments work, and why bad arguments fall apart.
One of the most basic (and popular) logical fallacies, for instance, is called the ad hominem. It’s an argument that attacks the person instead of his or her idea or argument. It’s possible that someone’s idea is bad because they are an immoral or stupid person. But it’s also perfectly possible they could be an imperfect person who also happens to have a good argument.
One of the greatest gifts of my philosophy training is the ability to think for myself — independent of the groupthink of popular trends and passing fancies. And this is only possible by nuanced evaluation of the ideas themselves, not just those who hold them.
Have an open mind
Once you have a framework for assessing arguments objectively, it’s easier to be open-minded about both your beliefs and those of others, and to earnestly listen to other peoples’ points of view. Again, training in logic allows you to assess the validity of an argument on its own terms. So, if you feel compelled to change your mind about a particular subject matter, there needn’t be any ego involved. In fact, if done thoughtfully and reasonably and with due diligence, changing your mind is a good thing because it means you were wrong before and now you are right!
Philosophy isn’t about winning an argument or persuading others, as fun as those things are. It’s about being truly open-minded — considering other viewpoints in the best possible light. After all, if what I believe is true, it will stand up against the greatest scrutiny. And if it can’t, then it’s not something worth believing.
This was the method employed St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps my favorite philosopher. Before he ever asserted any doctrines, he tried to come up with as many worthy objections as possible and then sought to address each of them, one by one. And after he did all that, and there were no objections left, it became ever more clear that the conclusion he proposed was worthy.
Argue with power
So yes, the point of philosophy is to gain wisdom. But in doing so, it also teaches you to think well — and, in particular, to argue well.
As my family and friends know all too well, I love to argue about, well, pretty much anything. But I haven’t always had the tools to do it well until I studied philosophy. My training in logic, among the other disciplines, honed my skills of debate and helped me discard faulty habits.
Now, when I’m at the workplace, I can better parcel out good ideas from the bad ones, and better defend and support the good ideas while dissecting and exposing the bad. In my relationships, I’m better able to identify overly emotional or biased thinking in myself before I find fault with or make unreasonable demands on others. And in my writing, I find that I’m better able to bring substance to a conversation as opposed to tired platitudes or overblown hot takes.
So yes, college is expensive. And specialized, industry-specific training can certainly accelerate a job search. But in my experience, clear, nuanced thinking is as valuable a skill as any these days, both in career development as well as in life more broadly.
And if that’s your end goal, then philosophy is the means to get there.