December 2011 Articles

Op Ed: Why Should I Take Philosophy?

The Case for a Liberal Arts Degree

 By Marcia Y. Cantarella ’68

Marcia Cantarella '68 discusses the value of a liberal arts education.

Marcia Y. Cantarella ’68 is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide. She has a Ph.D. from New York University.

In the current debates raging about the value of higher education, the liberal arts are being particularly savaged as impractical. The issue is about career preparation as a function of a college degree. In the Great Recession, the priority for graduates is jobs. What is the utility of courses that do not seem to relate to specific job tasks like data entry? Hence the question, “Why should I take philosophy?”

The question reveals the lack of understanding of the connection between what you get in an education and future work life. Learning data entry is a good skill for the short term in a particular job. But critical thinking—such as you would learn in a philosophy class—is a lifelong skill that could actually get you out of the data entry pool.

So what does a liberal arts degree prepare you for? It provides skills that can be used in many career paths. Graduate school is where students most likely will specialize in the arena where most of their work life will be.

Interestingly, many leaders in business have liberal arts degrees as undergraduates. Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, was a history major at Bowdoin. I was a political science major at Bryn Mawr before becoming a corporate executive at Avon Products for 15 years. Genevieve Bell ’90, M.A. ’92—who helps Intel Labs develop new products in the company’s consumer electronics business—majored in anthropology.

What you need for a career are certain broad-based skills. Employers need evidence that you are intelligent and teachable. GPA or grades signal that you are eager to learn and can learn new things. We are in a fast-changing, information- and service-based environment. The field that is hot today may be gone tomorrow and replaced by something completely new. Think of social media’s impact on the advertising industry or iPods on the record industry.

Employers seek really solid communications skills. You have to be able to write: presentations, memos, reports, speeches. They have to be clear, logical, literate (good grammar and spelling) and persuasive. Courses like philosophy that require students to read lots and write longer papers are good practice for an executive career path.

At a recent career panel at Bryn Mawr, alumnae from diverse majors and now diverse careers reported that their communications skills had been of the utmost importance in their career success. For example, Christy Allen ’90, English major with a minor in women’s studies, is now the assistant commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Health. Sally Bachofer ’97, a double major in classical and Near Eastern archaeology and classical studies is now the assistant commissioner for the New York State Education Department. Their communication skills had a direct line to their liberal arts degrees.

Firms want people with good people skills. Those who majored in people-centered subjects like sociology, psychology or anthropology, to name a few, will know more about human behavior when they begin their careers. History, literature, economics and political science are also studies in human behavior. All can help build skills that are useful in understanding situations and colleagues in the workplace and the world in which we function.

Employers seek people who have critical thinking skills and can solve problems even before they happen. All learning is about finding new knowledge and solutions to hard questions. Discovering how things work, why they work and how they have worked in the past is the essence of a liberal arts education. Engaging in research, whether in the library or the lab, is where the critical thinking skills are developed. The questions that professors ask to get students to think are designed to build this capacity.

People must have some degree of quantitative aptitude. Interestingly, the field of logic, which is highly mathematical, is found in the philosophy department. Whether you are managing a budget or developing a media plan based on data or designing a house, you will need math in some form—and that is typically a requirement in a liberal arts degree program.

Over the course of my career as a dean and senior administrator in a variety of schools, I have heard the same question, usually in a plaintive voice: “Why should I take philosophy?” You can substitute any number of courses into that question: anthropology, history, art, literature. The assumption is that these are not practical courses. Having made the decision to go to college, presumably to become job-ready and more employable, students look for the practical. You don’t want to waste time or money with frivolity like philosophy.

But it may not be a waste at all.

The value of a liberal arts education is not in doubt. The problem lies in how well the nation’s colleges and universities are carrying out their mission. According to a Peter D. Hart survey released by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, more than two-thirds of employers believe that four-year institutions are not doing enough to prepare students to be successful in a global economy.

The skills needed, the study found, include written and oral communication, critical thinking and analytic reasoning, the application of knowledge in real-world settings, complex problem solving and analysis; ethical decision making, teamwork, innovation and creativity; and the basic concepts in science and technology. Those are exactly the skills we are talking about as being embedded in a liberal arts degree.

We must do better—for every student. The liberal arts degree, long the purview of the elite, remains the path to leadership success at the highest level. To deny it or denigrate it when it comes to the masses of students is not healthy in a democracy. We need to support the best broad-based learning we can for all.

Comments on “Op Ed: Why Should I Take Philosophy?”

  1. Thanks Marcia for making these points. The liberal arts curriculum is taking a beating in the US and in the UK. The most common undergraduate major for graduating seniors today in the US is business. What does this say about our cultural values and about the future of our economy? I fear that most business majors are entirely unequipped to actually produce anything or invent or discover anything–which means we’re losing the underlying engines of economic growth. I might add that another survey of college students I saw recently asked how many hours they spend studying, and business majors reported the fewest, and engineering students reported the most. Lest you think engineering students are nerds with no time for philosophy, our daughter graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, and did indeed squeeze a philosophy course into her course of studies.

  2. Good message about the value of liberal arts for students from an employment perspective. I would encourage all of us, however, to reflect on the value of liberal arts to educate students as community and global citizens. Democracy in the U.S. is in crisis and climate change threatens the integrity of our planet. We need thoughtful, educated, and creative citizens to help lead the way into a brighter future. Teachers and administrators are in a good position to help students develop an appreciation of the liberal arts from a broader social perspective.

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