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What Is Value of a Major in Philosophy (or the Liberal Arts in General)?

I reviewed a question the other day on LinkedIn.  I thought I would share my response with you.

Here’s the question:

Is philosophy a good major?  Why?  Just wondering what you can get with a philosophy major or if it’s worth the time and money.

And here is my response:

Good question. I get this sort of question a lot in my line of work.

The answer to your question does not lie in the opinions of others. It must come from within yourself.

Let’s be philosophical. Some value college as training for a profession. Others, who tend to pursue degrees at liberal arts institutions, see college as a process of training the mind. As you may have experienced, most folks who hear your question immediately beghin thinking about the economic value of a philosophy degree–immediately upon graduation. But what they don’t know, is that plenty of philosophy majors at liberal arts institutions go on to very successful careers.

Did you know, for example, that statistically one of the best majors with the highest percentages of acceptance to medical school is (drum roll….) philosophy? Medical schools like people who have thought deeply about what it means to be human, to appreciate beauty, and to have thought theoretically. Medicine has plenty of technicians, but not an awful lot of deep thinkers. And medical schools value deep thinkers.

Furthermore, in a liberal arts context, I firmly believe that it matters little what you major in. What matters more is what you can do–the skills you acquire (a second language, computer programming skills, strong economics, scientific research skills). You can acquire some of these skills even as you complete a philosophy major. Or you may acquire them in graduate school or in the working world after graduation. It’s possible that you can prepare for several careers (as you are statistically apt to have at least seven before you retire) simply by training your mind to be flexible, creative, analytical, and quick. If you read Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, for example, you may be convinced that philosophy actually is a much better training for careers of the 21st century than accounting or marketing or biology, even.

Finally, you ask whether the degree is “worth” the time and money. Well, be philosophical: define “worth.” Certainly a philosophy major does not have immediate, tangible value that is easily calculated in “return on investment” (ROI) terms. Such a calculation is easier with a professional degree (MBA, JD, Engineering) or with a licensing program (e.g. teaching/education).

But if you define “worth” more broadly, you might agree with Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” So maybe you want to examine human nature, appreciate the concept of beauty, think about what constitutes the “good life.”

While I respect the opinions of those who pooh-pooh the value of a philosophy major, I wonder how many of them have actually ever taken a philosophy course. How many of them know successful people in business, the arts, the law, journalism, medicine, and other professions who pursued a liberal arts degree and majored in philosophy?

So to reiterate by returning to your question: “what can you get” with a philosophy degree? On the one hand, absolutely nothing. On the other, everything.

In the end, doesn’t the answer to your question depend on many variables well beyond your choice of major?

As was inscribed above the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi: “Know Thyself.” Start there, and the answer to your question will be come, well, self-evident.

Good luck.


Mark Montgomery
College Consultant
Defender of the Liberal Arts



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  1. Mark

    I can see that we can have some fun on this topic because we have such contrary opinions.

    The problem is not the college student with an IQ of 130 going to Stanford, majoring in Philosophy that can then gain entrance to medical school.

    The problem is the more average student who needs to go start a career after his/her college education. And if they have an IQ of 110 together with a Philosophy degree from San Jose State they are in big trouble in the job market. And so are we as a society since we have subsidized this individual every step of the way.

    Would love to hear from you on my blog at
    http://valueofcollege.blogspot.com

    John

  2. Hi, John,

    Actually, I think we disagree less than you might think. I agree that college is not for everyone, and that it’s unreasonable to make K-12 or higher education policy based on the assumption that every kid ought to go to college. I also agree that too many kids (and their parents) have binged on spending and debt without thinking carefully enough on their return on investment.

    I’d also point out that public subsidies to state colleges have actually been declining in most states–and in some cases, public money makes up only about 20% of university budgets. We could have a discussion about whether that figure is higher or lower than it ought to be. But we have to keep the figure in perspective. And our discussion would hinge on whether one believes higher education is a private or public good. And, I’m guessing that you think higher ed is a public good in some fields (science and engineering, perhaps) but not others (philosophy).

    One other area where we might have a fruitful discussion is on the value of a degree at some public universities. My feeling is that we have too much capacity in our state university systems. Here in Colorado, only about 67% of students who start at CU-Boulder actually graduate in 6 years. At some of our smaller state colleges, 6-year graduation rates range from 30% to 41%. And Metropolitan State College of Denver graduates only 23% of its students in 6 years. These figures are embarrassing.

    In part, these figures relate to one of your pet peeves: too many people think college is the key requirement to a successful life. I agree with you. Kids who don’t really like or enjoy school blindly enter college without considering whether a college degree is something they really want or need. But I also think that the quality of education at some of our institutions of higher learning is sub-par, and I think the public would do better to stop beating the drum for more access to higher education, and instead focus on better quality higher education.

    Thanks for stopping by, John, and for the conversation.

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