Sunday, February 10, 2008

The value of the so-called "impractical"

A few months ago I took my mom to see Monday Night Raw in Topeka. While we were there, we ran into a woman who was in my Ethics class at KCKCC (let's call her "D"); we got to talking about our majors:

D: I'm finishing my journalism degree. Yep, that's what I want to do. Are you still in school, Chris?

Me: I started at KU this semester.

D: What are you majoring in?

Me: Philosophy.

D: Oh... so what are you gonna do?

Me: I don't know yet. Really, I'm not worried about a career right now; first and foremost, I want an education.

D: I'm not saying it's a bad thing, it's just that--going into philosophy--you really limit your options. You're not going to have a lot to choose from.

Perhaps the biggest problem with America's college (and overall education) system is that it's centered around vocation rather than higher learning. The mentality seems to be: you go to college, so you can get a degree, so you can get started on a career. This is not the value of a liberal arts education.

In his Rules for the Direction of the Understanding, Descartes wrote:

"Indeed it amazes me, how most people study with the greatest diligence the customs of men, the properties of plants, the motions of the stars, the transformations of metals, and the objects of other such disciplines, while at the same time almost no one gives thought to good sense, or to that universal knowledge, although as a matter of fact all other things ought to be valued not for themselves but because they contribute something to it."

Aristotle said that it is the job of the philosopher to theorize about all things; echoing the above sentence from Descartes. A good philosopher doesn't limit his studies to any one particular field, since his concern is not necessarily with the field itself, but with what the field contributes to that "universal knowledge;" that general understanding of the world. The value of a philosophical education is that it arms you with the most core, fundamental reasoning skills--it arms you with a foundation of understanding upon which everything else you learn is built. And without that initial foundation, the structure in question will be riddled with all kinds of problems.

To put it tersely (and bluntly), having a lot of information, or knowing a lot of facts, is useless if you can't think properly about that information. Having all the dots in front of you will likely lead you down the wrong path if you can't connect them. That said, here is the value of philosophy: it's the one area of study that teaches you how to think, rather than what to think. That "how" is all the difference in the world.

The claim "philosophy really limits your options" is actually rather absurd. Philosophy can do nothing but broaden them. On the contrary, it's dedicating all your learning to ONE NARROW FIELD that limits your options. As a journalism student, the only thing D will ever be able to do is journalism. But as it turns out, many of the best writers have been philosophers, specifically because of their philosophical background. Philosophy of science is every bit as important (if not moreso) than science itself, simply because it's philosophy that enhances and directs every crucial paradigm shift; not only in science, but in every area of our understanding.

Aristotle wrote about the liberal education as a distinction between free men and slaves. Where liberal education treats men as ends in themselves, "illiberal education" (vocational) treats them as means; training them, like slaves or domesticated animals, to perform some specialized function. Essentially, one becomes trapped within their specialty.

This is not to diminish the value of vocational education; but it is to say that it should be our secondary concern. Without a good foundation, a knowledge of how to think, we have nothing upon which to build our structures of facts, information, and skills. Philosophy is unique in that it gives us that foundation. Someone properly educated in philosophy (even self-educated) has the potential to excel in life, in ways no one else can.

My philosophical education is not a burden; it's not limiting and the only way it could narrow my options is if I had no dots to connect. So, my answer to D's question ("what are you gonna do?") is the only one I can give: "with a degree in philosophy, I can learn, do, and excel in whatever the hell I want!"