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.