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Indiana University Bloomington

Undergraduate Program

The Practical Value Of Philosophy

(by William Rowe and Rodney Bertolet)

Philosophy often appears to be an obscure discipline, profound perhaps but of little practical value, surely not the sort of thing a student planning to pursue a career in medicine, law or business should study. But one of the things philosophy teaches is there is a difference between appearance and reality: things sometimes appear to be a certain way, when in fact they are not that way at all.

Suppose, for example, that a rope was stretched around the earth at the equator. If this enormously long rope were cut, a three-foot length of rope added to it, and then rejoined, how far away from the earth's surface would the rope be at any point? A moment's thought will tell you that it won't be very far away at all. Surely the addition of just three feet won't make much of a difference. The rope will still be very close to the earth at every point. On the other hand, if a rope were stretched, tightly around a golf ball, cut, and a three-foot length added, there would be some significant distance between the golf ball and the rope. Or at least that is how things appear to be. In fact the distance between the rope stretched around the earth and the earth would be exactly the same as the distance between the rope stretched around the golf ball and the golf ball — almost six inches. Things are not always as they appear to be.

Philosophy appears to be of little value to the student interested in a career in medicine, law or business. The facts, however, suggest otherwise.

The acceptance rate of philosophy majors who apply to medical schools is greater than that of any of the following majors: physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, history, English, and political science. Of thirty-two undergraduate majors listed, only four have an acceptance rate equal to or higher than that of philosophy (Medical School Admission Requirements, published by the Association of Medical Colleges, 1981).

Law schools expect their students to be capable of careful analysis and deductive reasoning, precisely the skills emphasized in the study of philosophy. The recently revised Law School Admissions Test now contains sections on logic, reasoning and analysis, which have replaced sections on math problems and English grammar. The Philosophy Department offers logic courses, which deal exclusively with these skills, but in fact all philosophy courses involve, and allow students to improve these skills.

It is difficult to measure the success of philosophy students in the business community, but it is clear that employers value articulateness, clarity of expression, logical rigor and analytical skills: skills which the student has ample opportunity to sharpen in philosophy courses. (Indeed, a recent study of three years of test results of the Graduate Record Examination shows that of the 98 fields of study, students in philosophy placed 8th overall, ranking in the top 2% of the fields on basic verbal skills and the top 9% of the fields in analytical skills.) And one should not lose sight of the fact that companies do not hire majors, they hire people with a particular major and particular skills. A Michigan State University survey of executives from 428 of the nation's largest corporations rated a student's academic major 42nd out of 70 factors they considered significant in hiring college students. Those executives ranked such factors as ability to get things done, writing skills, initiative and dependability significantly higher than the applicant's academic major.

Although philosophy is an attempt to answer basic questions about values, human existence, and the nature of reality, the skills developed in these inquiry help philosophy majors find careers in medicine, law, publishing, marketing, computer science, etc. Philosophy is quite suitable as a major for pre-professional students, and it may well be an ideal major for those who plan to enter law school. The study of philosophy has practical value.