Years ago, a high school student asked me about majoring in philosophy in college. This is my answer.
My own education should not be a model. I made many mistakes I hope you will not repeat.
The Great Books
The best kind of education is a liberal arts education, particularly one emphasizing great books, East and West. Such works have stood the test of time. Contemporary authors and trends have not, and most of them will not. Since the tradition of liberal education is long and your life is short, you will save time if you allow it to winnow out the bad works for you. While contemporary academia measures progress in terms of the multiplication of trivial and trendy options, the great books will introduce you to the most momentous options in thinking about yourself and the world.
If you would like a list of great books, check out St. John’s College in Annapolis or Santa Fe. St. John’s has the best curriculum in the world. I would not, however, recommend attending St. John’s, because its dogmatic commitment to teaching by discussion encourages superficiality. Only the surface of the student’s soul is brought into contact with the surface of the text. Deep understanding and deep personal transformation happen only by accident.
A liberal education will not just prepare you for a specific career, it will prepare you for life as a whole. Since most people change majors and careers, many specialized classes become wasted classes. But nobody ever looks back and regrets a class on Plato or Dostoevsky or Dante. Nobody ever regrets spending time learning to appreciate classical music and fine art. Nobody regrets taking courses in psychology, for these help one gain self-knowledge. Finally, nobody regrets studying classical and modern languages like Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian.
I recommend a liberal arts education even to students who think they may eventually pursue careers in business, law, medicine, and other professions. Undergraduate degrees in business, pre-law, or pre-med are not necessary prerequisites for graduate or professional school, and they take time away from liberal studies. The freest time in the lives of most people are their undergraduate years. Explore, create, and prepare yourself not merely for working, but for living. You will have to spend the rest of your life being “practical” anyway. So why rush into it?
Majoring in Philosophy
If you plan to major in philosophy, and particularly if you plan to go to graduate school, you must be aware that most philosophy departments are terrible. A lot depends on finding the right place.
First, go to a program that is pluralistic and oriented toward the history of philosophy. Pluralism simply means that a number of different philosophical traditions is represented on the faculty. The main philosophical traditions today are Anglo-American “analytic” philosophy, “Continental” philosophy, which encompasses such schools as phenomenology, structuralism, deconstruction, Marxism and neo-Marxism, “American” philosophy, including pragmatism and process philosophy, and Thomism, which is confined almost entirely to Catholic universities. A commitment to teaching the history of philosophy means that all other philosophical schools, from the pre-Socratics on down, are represented as well.
Such departments give their students the most freedom to grow intellectually. It would be terrible to become interested in Hegel or Nietzsche in a program entirely oriented toward contemporary analytic philosophy, or interested in analytic philosophy of mind in a program with no faculty in that area.
The best pluralistic and historical department in the country is Boston University’s. Other top departments are at Emory, Vanderbilt, and Penn State. Most of the major Catholic universities also have pluralistic and historical departments.
The second best kind of department is predominantly Continental. Although such programs can be trendy and politically correct, at least one can study the history of philosophy. The worst kind of department is entirely analytic. Unfortunately, this includes all the “top” departments in the country, from the Ivy League to Stanford and Berkeley. Such programs are caught up in ephemeral trends, intolerant of alternative viewpoints, and shallow in covering the history of philosophy. Moreover, the history that is taught is usually distorted by the analytical perspective of the teachers.
An analytic department is less of a problem for undergraduate studies. I took my undergraduate degree from an analytic department. I found it bearable to the extent that I took history of philosophy classes. The best history of philosophy classes, however, were offered in the political science, history of science, and intellectual history programs. As for graduate study: Judging from the results, analytic programs are intellectually stultifying and should be avoided, no matter where they are or how much they promise.
Second, when choosing a department, you’ll need to look into the availability of funds, not only for scholarships, but also for travel abroad, summer language study, etc. The richer the university, the better the funding. This is an especially important consideration for graduate study. There is nothing more alienating than working part-time while trying to study.
Third, the “placement” of students coming out of a department is very important. Undergraduates should find out how well students do in getting into the graduate program of their choice. Graduate students should find out what percentage of Ph.D.s are getting jobs, and where.
Finally, one should ask to look at current course descriptions, which often are very different from what is found in the catalog, and find out just how much teaching a department’s leading scholars actually do.
Be Open to Change
The best advice about college is not to assume that you will be the same person coming out that you are going in. A real education will make you aware of new aspects of yourself and the world. You will become more aware of your own talents, temperament, and interests. You will acquire new values and discard old ones. You will learn about options for thought and action that you never dreamed of.
You will never realize this potential for transformation, however, if you enter college with the assumption that you are fully mature and that the purpose of college is simply to satisfy your present preferences. That assumption will lead you to seek out only classes that reinforce your present thinking and values rather than challenge them. You will discover fewer options — and since awareness of real options is part of freedom, you will be less free.
As a human being, you will never be omniscient and infallible, and you will never be perfect. Therefore, you should never act as if you are — particularly at the age of eighteen! Omniscient, infallible, perfect people are also, of course, ineducable people. There’s no point in getting out of bed in the morning, much less going to college, if you are convinced that you are good enough the way you are now.