My experience at Molloy was not all that much different from young colleagues of mine at other institutions. There was the perception that philosophy was an obtuse, antiquated discipline that did little or nothing to prepare students for the real world. All around the country, the once revered discipline of philosophy was being treated like an unwanted step-child—abandoned, ignored, underfunded, and, as a result, underpopulated with majors.
But only a few years ago all that began to change. All of a sudden, talented students at Molloy literally began to knock down the doors of the department to inquire about becoming philosophy majors. From one major five years ago, the department has recently seen the largest increase in the number of philosophy majors in its history. We now have 26 majors and a dozen minors. More amazing still, these majors are some of the brightest students in the college, with some of the highest GPAs of any students at Molloy (Most of our current philosophy majors, in fact, are also members of Molloy’s highly selective honors program). Within four years, we went from a situation in which it was virtually impossible to offer classes for majors, because there were so few of them, to one in which fifteen or twenty majors will be in classes together discussing Plato’s metaphysics or the ethics of Kant at such a lofty level that one might think that they had entered a graduate program in philosophy.
But the question that I continually get asked when I loudly proclaim these achievements to my colleagues is, “what accounts for this rather amazing turn of events?” During one of the worst down-turns in our American economy, at a time when one would expect student s to flee from humanities majors like philosophy in favor of much safer vocational majors, why is it that so many students at Molloy are intentionally choosing to major in “the first science?”
I think that there are many answers to that question.
First and foremost, the Philosophy Department in recent years has benefited from having one of the strongest collections of faculty members in its history. Besides Drs. Yanovitch and Mayo, two charismatic teachers who have been beloved by students for decades, the department recently added two dynamic younger members—Dr. Howard Ponzer and Dr. Eliza Rapaport—both of whom just happen to be outstanding educators and who have made it their mission to convince students that a philosophy major is worth considering.
But the Philosophy Department is also benefiting from a nationwide trend in which some of the best and brightest students in the country are choosing to major in philosophy because they recognize the major has a cachet that can actually help them achieve goals like getting into Law School or Medical School or securing a job with a Fortune 500 company. And they’re not wrong in this perception either. Philosophy majors, in fact, are now among the best prepared students entering graduate and professional schools (National Institute of Education study). They consistently score higher than any other major in the verbal, math, and analytic sections of standardized test (Graduate Record Examination data). Finally, it has also been reported that joint philosophy-business majors typically advance more rapidly than co-workers who possess only a business degree (New York Times).
Ironically, the major that just a decade ago was perceived to be useless and irrelevant seems to have become the very discipline that is needed most by the American economy, because a degree in philosophy assures the kinds of strong critical thinking and oral and written communications skills that businesses, hospitals, law firms, and governmental agencies are looking for in college graduates.
For the first time, this positive message about the benefits of a philosophy degree seems to be getting out to students, which, I believe, in large part accounts for the boom in philosophy majors and minors at Molloy. Stephanie Iwanciw, a dual philosophy-psychology major, for example, reports that, since she wants to go into a doctoral program in psychology immediately after college, “majoring in both psychology and philosophy sets me apart from other applicants for graduate school and offers a better opportunity for jobs in a highly competitive field.” Eric Haslbauer, an Accounting major, agrees with this assessment. Eric, who was convinced to minor in philosophy after taking a class with Professor Ponzer, says that being a philosophy minor has proven to be a resume-builder and credits getting a desirable USB internship to the great interest that his interviewer had concerning his minor. “Presentation, speaking, critical-thinking, and writing clearly are vital to my career-goals,” he says, “and being a philosophy minor shows that I have mastered all these skills.”
In the end, however, I think existential and moral motivations may play as big a role in whether students decide to become philosophy majors than even financial ones do. The philosophy majors that I’ve had the pleasure to teach recently are certainly intelligent and also highly ambitious. But, living through the recent financial crisis that our country has experienced and witnessing the toll that it has taken on those around them has made these students perhaps more reflective and self-aware than typical college students. Like all other college students, philosophy majors are definitely interested in getting a decent job after college, but they’re also deeply concerned with questions about the moral good, truth, human freedom, and justice—questions that unfortunately seem to have fallen out of favor in our recent past.
In this sense, I think that the Philosophy Department’s gain in majors over the past few years is ultimately society’s gain. And, I for one, am delighted to be part of the resurgence of an ancient discipline that has proven once again just how much it has to offer human society.