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In defense of a philosophy degree: Learning to think critically will always be valuable

Milam's Musings,

Majoring in philosophy at Miami has been a waste of my time and money, as I'll now go forth after graduation unprepared for the "real world."

At least, that seems to be the conventional wisdom regarding a philosophy degree or any degree in the humanities, for that matter.

When I tell people I'm a philosophy major, I'm often met with, "What are you going to do with that?" I now expect such questions from my peers, coworkers and family.

However, I find it particularly baffling that public intellectuals can be so wrong about the humanities and what they can offer a college student.

On February 23, Bill Nye (you know, the "science guy") released a new Big Think video on YouTube to answer the question, "Does science have all the answers or should we do philosophy too?"

To which, Nye answered, in part, "Just keep in mind, if you're spending all this money on college ... philosophy degree may not lead you to ... on a career path. It might, but it may not."

Likewise, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking have all been disparaging of philosophy and what it can contribute to the world as a discipline. Hawking even said philosophy was dead back in 2011.

When I watch Nye's Big Think video, it makes me cringe because he clearly seems out of his depth and is relying on common notions about what philosophy is and even repeats Descartes,' "I think, therefore I am," line that every non-philosopher could likewise repeat.

I don't understand why there has to be a clashing of disciplines. Throughout history, science and philosophy have overlapped and informed the other.

For Nye to even make that video and muse on the merits of philosophy is to do philosophy.

In short, science does not have all the answers and I don't think any respectable scientist would argue that science does. Philosophy, as a discipline and a way of thinking, can help fill in the gaps.

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Yeah, I get it, though - the scientists/philosophers debate is only for an incredibly niche group of nerds to banter over, but it should matter that public intellectuals are being so dismissive of philosophy since what they say often carries weight.

Therefore, let me return to Nye's point, which is essentially that a philosophy degree is useless once I'm out of Miami.

I could present an argument that, in fact, a philosophy degree could enable me to make a reasonably good income.

In one of the Republican presidential debates back in November, Senator Marco Rubio made the comment that we need more welders, not philosophers. To which, many fact-checkers pointed out how well a philosophy major can do on the job market.

However, that's not my concern.

When I came to Miami, it never occurred to me to think, "Will I get a good job?" I just wanted to learn and think and engage with ideas that differed from mine.

None of that has changed. I don't believe I made a mistake in selecting philosophy as a major.

Moreover, with the field I'm actually intending to go into - journalism - the tools supplied to me by philosophy (critical thinking, ethical frameworks and skepticism) will greatly inform my maneuvering within that field.

One of the problems with philosophy and the humanities in general is we don't have a brand ambassador like science does. In other words, we don't have a "Philosophy Guy" or a Neil deGrasse Tyson-type or a "Cosmos"-like show on Fox to talk about philosophy and its influence on all of Western thinking and development.

Tyson also has a way of making complex science digestible, which is something philosophy is lacking, as it's largely confined to niche academic journals and discussions.

Believe it or not, when I walk into a philosophy classroom, I often recoil at the off-putting way in which fellow philosophy majors (undergraduates and graduate students) talk about philosophy to one another. It's not hard to see why that would be off-putting to someone not steeped in the material.

The predominant focus on the STEM fields at the cost of the humanities is what happens, not just when public intellectuals, like Nye or Tyson are dismissive of the latter, but when government at all levels has more control in education.

Which is to say, the government wants to turn out ready-to-go workers, not thinkers, not learners, not skeptics of authority.

One of President Obama's main initiatives is to increase the number of students engaging in the STEM fields. There are a number of programs and incentives (like federal grants) to increase student engagement in the STEM fields, as they are seen as the priority.

Additionally, when it comes to federal and state grants to universities, those grants are often tied to universities that churn out students ready to go in the economy, not ones reading Aristotle and Locke.

None of this is to say that the STEM fields aren't important or that our preschool through 12th grade education generally does a poor job of introducing those subjects to students.

But if the goal is a well-rounded education and not merely to create a ready-to-go worker, then the humanities are vital to that endeavor, too.

This trend toward job-ready rather than mind-ready is not surprising, however. It's the inevitable result of what happens when public money gets involved with education.

Lawmakers and taxpayers alike suddenly get the ability and the voice to say, "Yeah, I'm not willing to subsidize your Plato reading because I can't see a tangible way in which that'll contribute to the economy in the future."

One of Bernie Sanders' biggest campaign planks is to make college tuition free in the United States.

"In a global economy, when our young people are competing with workers from around the world, we have got to have the best educated workforce possible. And, that means that we have got to make college affordable," Sanders said, in an excerpt from his College for All Act.

Yet, even his focus is ensuring workers for a strong economy.

I attended Miami to invest in my mind's development and to grid it against challenges from my ideological differs.

Sure, as a result of that, I now have the tools needed to be a productive contributor to society, no matter what I go on to do.

But the first reason was always for its own sake.