Last week, philosophy professor Scott Carson linked to a New York Times article on how Philosophy is increasingly seen as a good major from a career perspective -- at least relative to the complete irrelevance it was generally accused of before. Scott asked, and rightly, I would say, whether this really is philosophy (as in love of wisdom, the examined life, etc.) if one is studying it under the assumption that it will give you the skills to "get ahead" in the working world.
The NY Times article further opened itself up for this criticism by noting that "philosophy has attracted students with little interest in contemplating the classical texts, or what is known as armchair philosophy." Somehow I doubt that the insights derived from neuroscience and modern analytical philosophy really provide so much more value than Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus, etc. that their writings need be consigned to the dust heap, or even a dusty shelf.
Still, it was this "get ahead by studying philosophy" idea which was still percolating in the coffee maker of my head when I came across a Wall Street Journal article about the class of 2008 looking for jobs. And what should that article include but a chart showing average first-job-out-of-college salaries by college major. Philosophy comes in dead last. Now my own major, Classics, isn't listed, but I did indeed score exactly 28k as my starting salary out of college, so I think I can claim to have picked a major with equal earning potential to philosophy -- and perhaps even less trendy!
I'm not surprised by this. While I agree with the NY Times article that a solid education in Western thought and culture (if the philosophy departments described are still given that) will provide one with better stronger analysis skills and thus become a job benefit in the long run, one needs to expect before taking this route that taking a major in one of the humanities will probably cost you about five years of "catch up" if you go out into the business world before you find yourself making as much as the Math, Computer Science and Economics majors -- much less the engineers.
On a side note: I noted with interest that Business/Marketing majors make about the same as History majors. This fits, generally, with my doubtless elitist impression that many Business or Marketing majors simply didn't know what they wanted to do but figured they'd get a job by pursuing one of those fields. The fact is, there is no such thing as "business" in the general sense. Adaptation to any one particular company invariably means learning about its type of business in detail, and as such a familiarity with learning the details of something is always going to be better than a preference for generalities.
In the long run, the reasoning and categorizing skills one gains from "contemplating the classical texts", the skills one builds when learning rigorous and structured languages (whether ancient or modern), and the cultural and historical perspective one develops from studying history and literature all serve to make one not only a better person, but also in the end a better business person -- if that is the career on chooses to follow. I would heartily recommend to everyone studying the humanities, it not as a major than at least as a hefty sideline to a technical degree.
But if my personal experience is anything to go by, it will then take five to eight years of catch-up until you're making as much as the person who took a Computer Science or Engineering or otherwise job-specific degree. It can also take a certain amount of scrambling and worrying, since there isn't an obvious "person with humanities degree" industry for you to step right into. However much it may be the case that a philosophy major could (if sufficiently adaptable in mindset) be just as productive in a first job as an economics major, it generally takes a few years to prove it -- and once you prove it, it takes a few years of good annual raises to actually catch up.
Sadly, this sometimes leads to a bias in conservative religious circles towards strictly technical approaches to education. In the Catholic homeschooling group my family belonged to when I was in high school, there tended to be an idea that guys who intended to be priests could study philosophy or ancient languages, but guys who wanted to get married should study engineering so they could get married right out of college, have a good job, and have lots of kids.
So study the humanities -- but understand that to everything there is a cost.
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