The Collegian
Monday, August 08, 2022

Students choose philosophy for critical thinking skills

The number of students choosing to major in philosophy has risen dramatically over the past few years, according to the New York Times, but the trend has had only a small effect on numbers at the University of Richmond.

There are consistently at least 10 philosophy majors, but the department has been doing better, said Geoffrey Goddu, an associate professor of philosophy. The number has increased from 4.4 percent to about 7.9 percent of the student body, he said, citing statistics from a recent self-examination by the philosophy department.

"We're small to begin with," he said. "So even with an increase, we're still going to be small."

The New York Times suggested that students were studying philosophy as a way of trying to make sense of the world around them -- "from the morality of the war in Iraq to the latest political scandal."

Goddu agreed that studying philosophy was a bit counter-cultural in America's economically focused, consumer-driven society. Some branches of philosophy have critiques of consumer culture and what it does intellectually, he said. "There's a serious worry that American consumer culture is having a definite effect on intellectual ability.

"Certainly that's one of the things that philosophy is trying to combat. But philosophers have always been challenging fixed assumptions. Socrates got punished for questioning ... but philosophers will continue doing that for a long time."

Goddu said he suspected that one of the reasons that philosophy at Richmond was less of a focus than it might be somewhere such as Williams College or Rutgers University was that there were many other well-thought-of and nationally recognized options at Richmond.

"Here, there is a Jepson School and Business School, and it is career and business oriented," he said. "Students that come in with that orientation are less likely to choose philosophy. Students don't come here to do [philosophy]."

Some students do change their minds though. Senior Michael Torres came to Richmond with plans to major in biology, but will soon graduate with a double major in philosophy and religion.

"I was thinking a bio major, so I took a chem course -- 141 -- all stuff I've learned before," Torres said. "But I would've rather smashed my head on the table repeatedly than sit through morning classes and labs.

"But then I took a religions class with a girl I had a crush on, who's now my fiancee, and I was hooked. It was by far my most enjoyable class. I think philosophy was an outgrowth of that."

He said it was the professor and the subject matter that made the class interesting, not his fiancee. "Professor Davis is far less attractive than she is, but had a way of speaking that kept me engaged," he said.

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Torres said he didn't know yet what he would do after graduation. He had been thinking about non-profit work, work at the New York Public Libraries or maybe law school.

Many students at Richmond, like Torres, pair philosophy with another major, even though many professors actually would discourage double majoring, he said.

"It's pretty trendy to double major," Torres said. "Philosophy nowadays is a pretty hot major. For people looking to go into business, they'll take it in conjunction with classes in the business school.

"Companies are looking for people that can present critical thinking skills to supplement."

Goddu agreed that many students double major, but noted that there was not a particular field of study that students commonly paired philosophy with.

Students might double major in anything. Some students have chosen to focus on philosophy because of the intellectual tools it helped develop.

Junior Alex Malatesta, who said she planned to major in political science with minors in both philosophy and law, said she had chosen philosophy because of the writing and critical thinking skills that it would help cultivate as she prepared for law school.

Goddu said: "Laws schools love philosophy. Students have to read really hard, challenging texts, and then they're decoding and trying to write, even if they don't believe the text. Lawyers have to present cases whether they agree or not. "Skills in philosophy do transfer directly to law school."

But he doesn't think that was what had been causing the increase [nationally], because it had always been true.

"Students aren't suddenly realizing 'philosophy is my ticket to law school,'" he said.

An increase in the study of philosophy is perhaps a backlash of the career-oriented mindset, especially at Richmond, he said, but there's no particular type of person that is usually attracted to philosophy.

Said Goddu: "There's a philosophy bug, I like to call it, and it's hard to tell when it'll strike"

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