Is It a Bad Idea to Study Philosophy in College?

Here’s an interesting report from the Washington Post that examines median salaries for college graduates of various majors.  The study, conducted by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, offers the following data:

According to the study, the median annual earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree in engineering was $75,000. The median wage was $47,000 in the humanities, $44,000 in the arts and $42,000 in education or in psychology.

The individual major with the highest median earnings was petroleum engineering, at $120,000, followed by pharmaceutical sciences at $105,000, and math and computer sciences at $98,000.

The lowest earnings median was for those majoring in counseling or psychology, at $29,000, and early childhood education, at $36,000. Workers with a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature, the most popular major within the humanities, have median earnings of $48,000.

This data led one professor (a poet!) to conclude that the humanities do not make cents (excuse me–sense):

“Education is so off-the-charts expensive now,” said poet and Florida International University professor Campbell McGrath. who noted that his son is considering an anthropology degree. “You are making a really weird decision if you decide to send your kids off to study philosophy. It would be a better world if we all studied the humanities. But it’s not a good dollars-and-cents decision.”

The article is worth considering in full.

This makes me think on a number of levels.  I went to a liberal arts college and studied history, a humanities discipline.  The study applies to me and many of my peers.  It strikes me that it could be a bad decision to study the liberal arts.  If you must take on a great deal of debt to do so, you might want to go elsewhere.  Too many college students make decisions about college based on emotional, not practical, criteria.  This is bolstered by a boosterist self-esteem culture that celebrates dreaming and denigrates rationality.  Those who need a slogan, in other words, to back up a perhaps irrational decision can find one.  “You only live once,” “live in the moment,” “don’t let the dream die,” and so on, all maxims that would make excellent classic rock song titles (which should be a major source of concern).  The problem with following such slogans when it comes to four-year collegiate decisions is that you can wake up the morning after with a blistering headache and a $100,000 tuition bill.

That may not be a huge problem if you’re planning on working as a chemical engineer for the rest of your life.  But many who would make such an ill-advised gamble won’t be making six figures within two years–or perhaps ever.  Debt is a far-off, weightless proposition when young, and a cold, hard, steely reality when old.  The descriptor often attached to it is “crippling,” and it is so for a reason.

How does this relate to the topic at hand?  Parents and students need to be a bit more practical about the decision to go to college.  Does this mean, though, that one should not study philosophy?  I say no.  The traditional liberal arts curriculum is a sensational way to learn.  It exposes the mind to all sorts of important ideas that one would not otherwise encounter.  But perhaps one should not study such a course at the most expensive school possible.  Perhaps one should take out less debt and earn a slightly less prestigious degree in order to be able to live and move and have one’s being in the future.

The problem, it seems to me, is not studying philosophy.  That’s a great major.  The problem comes when one studies philosophy and goes $95,000 into debt to do so.  That is a very tricky matter, because only the creme de la creme will earn enough in a reasonable amount of time to pay back such a sum.

In a period that still experiences the effects of a recession, Christians are reminded of just how practical such a course is–and how biblical.  We sometimes read Scripture to enfranchise our ambitions, inflate our hopes.  But the Bible is on-the-ground practical.  There is a time to roll the dice, so to speak.  There are risks worth taking.  But we do well to remember Proverbs 22:7: “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.”  We have been freed from slavery to sin by the cross-work of Jesus Christ.  We should be very wary of other masters who would rule us, promising perfect fulfillment, the achievement of all our dreams, and a degree that will open every door.

  • Michael Metts

    I’d be curious how business degrees are fairing right now.

    Also, the article demonstrates our western socio-economic values. Rather than a degree being about the virtues of education and growth in themselves, and making contributions to the betterment of humanity, its about the piece of paper and salaries.

  • owenstrachan

    Great point, Michael. That’s another matter entirely to develop from the piece.

    There is one thing to consider, though. It’s great to seek personal growth, but I do think too many people have a high-flung view of such ends and do not give enough attention to how crippling debt might complicate such growth. The very brief case I make here is intended to champion a love for ideas while at the same time speak a word on behalf of wisdom. The Post piece should have considered the point you raise more fulsomely.

    Growth need not be impractical. Indulging one’s love for the life of the mind need not be crippling.

  • Mark

    Yes. It is a bad idea. If personal growth is all your after, order up some Teaching Company CD’s, get a library card, and save yourself 35k a year.

  • Michael Metts


    I’m not using the term personal growth. I’m saying that if our education was structured more toward the intrinsic values of education, and its many promising virtues, and structured less toward obtaining a sheet of paper for socio-economic reasons, such as the attitude your own remark readily demonstrates, we’d have fewer crooked executives, our NASA space program wouldn’t be defunded (killing 20,000 associates jobs), etc, etc.

    But people just want what they can get out of it without care for another.


  • owenstrachan

    Michael, I’ll jump in again, though I’d like to hear Mark’s response. Your comments resonate with me. The socioeconomic value of education is an unavoidable motivation for students and the families who love them. But I do think that you are onto something and that we need to repristinate education as inherently worthy in itself. Of course, I think we find education most valuable when it is connected to a theocentric purpose.

    I love the idea of seeing education as a means to serve others. Nice point.

  • Mark

    I agree that we should value education for knowledge’s sake. I don’t think we disagree, Michael.

    I was advocating education. Teaching Company cd’s and books will educate you. But if you are paying/borrowing 35k per year for something, I just think you may want to do some cost-benefit analysis on the economic side of things. A philosophy degree at that cost doesn’t add up. There are cheaper, and sometimes better, ways to learn Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche.

    I think we could have a similar conversation regarding some extremely costly seminary education.

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  • CO

    Reblogged this on CO and commented:
    Liked!!!!! “This is bolstered by a boosterist self-esteem culture that celebrates dreaming and denigrates rationality”