A recent article on Yahoo News stuck in my craw. Vicki Lynn, the Vice President of Universum, a “global talent recruiting company that works with many Fortune 500 companies,” lists five academic majors she insists are “useless” and will lead invariably to unemployment. The list includes philosophy, of course, so I am deeply invested in this argument as you might guess!
Philosophy is linked with Religious Studies by Ms Lynn and the list also includes Architecture, Anthropology or Archeology, Ethnic Studies, and Information Studies. In each case Lynn recommends alternative fields that she is convinced are more marketable. I cannot speak about the rest of the disciplines in the list except to make the general point that education is not about career choices, it’s about enabling one’s mind and doing what you love to do the rest of your life. How many people “out there” are in deadly dull jobs because they majored in a narrow field where there were job openings at the time and are now stuck in a dead-end with no real chance of any significant change? The data suggest the numbers are very high indeed. In fact, by the time most people have reached their mid-forties they have changed jobs five times. The only thing we know for certain is that things will change: education must prepare young people for change, not for a job.
My advice to my students was always take a variety of courses in their first couple of years in college and find something they really like and major in that — then minor in something useful like business or computer science and the jobs will be out there when they graduate. More importantly they will be happy. My younger son majored in history (not on Lynn’s list, but I daresay she would be happy to include it) and is now a District Sales Manager for a large company. My older son majored in Creative Writing (again not on her list, but I expect she would he happy to add it as well) and he works for a medical insurer as the editor of their in-house publications. They both seem successful and happy. And I have heard from a number of former students who followed my advice, graduated, and are doing very well, thank you very much.
But when it comes to philosophy or religious studies (which Lynn links together for some reason) there are good reasons to major in these fields. For one thing, philosophy majors score high, on average, on the LSAT tests and make successful attorneys. They can also teach or go to Seminary — as can those who major in religious studies. Or they can do any number of jobs that require an active and analytical mind. When I was a tennis pro at a country club West of Chicago I met a very successful investment broker who majored in philosophy and insisted that his college major was invaluable to him in his work. Garry Trudeau, creator of “Doonesbury,” reportedly majored in philosophy as did Steve Martin. I wrote a blog not long ago about Phyllis Billington who graduated with a major in philosophy from Northwestern University. She brags about her “useless” major and attests to the fact that it stood her in good stead in what was a remarkably varied and successful career. As she said in an interview: “I never could have gotten through life without it. Philosophy taught me to analyze, to see what was important, to keep my mind open but not to be afraid of convictions.”
But I do realize the data support Lynn’s claims. She doesn’t work with anecdotal evidence and her field of vision is much broader than mine. There may indeed be many a philosophy major out there serving hamburgers at McDonald’s [WHY do you want fries with that?]. But that’s only how they make a living. What about their quality of life? What do they do in their leisure time? I know of a creative writing major who works as a janitor at a local hospital so he can earn enough money to get by as he writes, which is what he loves to do. And that’s what this is all about: finding something you love to do and being happy. It’s not about jobs.