Help wanted: Serious thinkers

Once considered an academic pursuit of little practical value, philosophy is becoming an increasingly popular choice of major among university students. This is good news because it shows the ability to think critically is still valued.

Enrolments in philosophy programs have been increasing in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States for much of the past decade. From 2000-01 to 2003-04, for example, the enrolment in the philosophy program at Montreal’s Concordia University jumped by 56 per cent. Rutgers University, in New Jersey, has 100 philosophy students this year, up from 50 in 2002. The number of British philosophy graduates doubled between 2001 and 2006.

This resurgence is due to several factors. One is that universities have made efforts to integrate philosophy with other disciplines, allowing students to double-major in philosophy and something else, like economics or political science. This has attracted people interested in acquiring practical skills as well as enlightenment. Also, many philosophy professors have changed how they teach, grounding their lessons in real-world issues to make curriculum more accessible.

Some students are entering philosophy programs because they are interested in exploring major societal issues, such as how globalization or technology is affecting the world. Others, realizing they will likely work in various professions during their lifetimes, believe studying philosophy will provide them with broad, transferable skills.

In the past, philosophy graduates uninterested in careers in academia often struggled to find employment. That’s no longer true. Between 2002-03 and 2005-06, the number of British philosophy graduates employed within six months of graduating increased by 13 per cent, compared to an increase of nine per cent for all other graduates. The professions increasingly looking to hire newly minted philosophers range from property development to social work to advertising and marketing.

It’s not surprising, really, that people trained in philosophy perform well in the workplace. Their education stresses quick learning, clear writing, critical thinking, logical analysis and public speaking. Philosophy students are expected to be open-minded, able to consider diverse points of view — an attribute that is valuable in the modern, ever-changing workplace.

Moreover, a post-industrial society needs people schooled in ethics, a core component of philosophy programs, to help us manage responsibly our technological and scientific know-how. Answers to some of the questions doctors face, such as when to remove a patient from life support, can’t be found in an anatomy text. Scientists and engineers are changing our world, but we need ethicists to ensure those changes advance rather than damage human civilization.

We will always need people with technical skills, those trained to fix faulty hard drives and faulty heart valves. There is also room for deep thinking, an ability to see beyond the mechanics of day-to-day business, to ask not just “How can we do this?” but “Should we do this?”

As more employers are discovering, a rational mind is always a valuable find.