The Resurgence of Philosophy on the Modern College Campus

The New York Times has a story out today about the surge in interest in philosophy among contemporary college students. Here’s the key quotation:

“Once scoffed at as a luxury major, philosophy is being embraced at Rutgers and other universities by a new generation of college students who are drawing modern-day lessons from the age-old discipline as they try to make sense of their world, from the morality of the war in Iraq to the latest political scandal. The economic downturn has done little, if anything, to dampen this enthusiasm among students, who say that what they learn in class can translate into practical skills and careers. On many campuses, debate over modern issues like war and technology is emphasized over the study of classic ancient texts.”

There’s much to analyze about this phenomenon. For now, it’s enough to note just a very few things. First, I think that the interest in philosophy is a direct response to the lack of classes in religion and theology in many college curricula today. In schools that do have such programs, these programs are often not required, and thus many students simply do not take them. Yet though we may a monolithic idea of college education today, many students are asking the higher questions of life. Philosophy classes give them such an opportunity.

Second, we can note that while interest in philosophy is a good thing, as it tends to self-examination and the asking of important questions that only Christianity can adequately answer, it is also taught as a secular exercise by many professors. Perhaps such classes may still be used to point out the flaws, however unintentionally, in certain philosophical and theological systems. One can hope that this is so. It could also lead students only farther away from true philosophy, that which is based in and bounded by Scripture. There doesn’t seem to necessarily be a clear-cut answer here, making this question an inherently interesting philosophical and theological question in its own right: is the study of philosophy in itself a positive endeavor? I’d be interested to see what others think. Note that I’m not talking about Christian philosophy here; I’m asking whether the mere study of philosophy at a secular school taught by a non-Christian is a positive sign in the culture. I tend to think it is, but I’m sure that others will disagree, and I’m guessing that they’ll make some good points.

Third, whether this rising interest in the discipline is positive in a spiritual sense, I think that it certainly is in a social sense. That is, philosophy is a rigorous discipline that requires one to think, argue, and write well. It’s much harder to coast in philosophy than it is in other disciplines. I would encourage students to study philosophy far before I would encourage them to study other wildly popular subjects like sociology or psychology. It’s one thing if you want to work in these fields. But if you merely want to study a subject that interests, I would personally encourage students to study a more rigorous discipline like philosophy, history, or the like.

Of course, there’s always another reason to study this timeless discipline, as found in the NYT article:

Jenna Schaal-O’Connor, a 20-year-old sophomore who is majoring in cognitive science and linguistics, said philosophy had other perks. She said she found many male philosophy majors interesting and sensitive.

“That whole deep existential torment,” she said. “It’s good for getting girlfriends.”

If the above didn’t convince you, my single male friends, I’ve got nothing else for you.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Well put, Owen.

    I think there are two key values when a student studies philosophy.

    First, as you mention, it causes them to ask the deep and central questions of life, to think and articulate clearly, and to recognize flaws in arguments.

    Secondly, it provides a common vocabulary. I have a much easier time discussing the claims of the gospel with those who are able to understand philosophical structures and terms.

    I had one class in college with only 8 students- a Christian (me), a nominal Catholic, an atheist, an agnostic, a very devout Muslim, and three “normal” kids-Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. We had some terrific discussions about faith, the gospel, the meaning of life, etc. in class.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm. It’s hard to pass up this question, but I don’t think I have a terribly decisive answer. To narrow your question: is the study of philosophy as an undergrad as in 2008 in America at your average university likely to make a young man morally better and/or wiser with respect to moral truth?

    Our inarticulate (and incomplete) natural moral knowledge, our traditions and our laws are better guides to moral truth than perverse reason. In some philosophy classes, particularly where readings are primarily drawn from contemporary academic philosophy, peverse reason is the teacher. Persuasive but flawed arguments undermine students’ confidence in their inarticulate, traditional, customary moral knowledge. So I’m inclined to say a student is likely to be made worse, not better, by such study.

    But if a philosophy class is historical, if it surveys major thinkers western canon, then I think the likelihood of real moral learning is higher. The canonical thinkers (as a group) are wiser than contemporary thinkers (as a group). They have more to offer in terms of moral guidance.

    So what’s all this mean? I think it means that content makes the difference in how we answer the question. Philosophy is not one of the neutral arts.

    KC

    *”Morally upright life”: This needs to be qualified in all the ways a Reformed Christian would demand.

  • Tyler

    Girls?

    . . . should’ve been a philosophy major . . .

  • Al

    Owen, Here’s a thought.

    For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

    1Co 1:18-25 (ESV)

    Only the gospel fixes the soul. Philosophy may have some good impacts upon individuals or upon culture, but all roads lead to damnation, even ones that present some moral encouragement.

    Al

  • Reid S. Monaghan

    Personally, I prefer thoughtful unbelievers to unthoughtful ones…so I like phileo sophia. Of course its ultimate ends are not always good, but I find the process important…it has a long tradition in the Christian west which is unfortunately almost completely unknown to many Protestants. I personally find works such as the Proslogian both intriguing and reverant…and it is still most likely read by ever philosophy student at University. Personally, I first read Augustine in source in a philosophy course at Va Tech – so I am thankful for this trend.


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