My philosophy degree has given me far more than I previously realised

March 7, 2023 6:05 pm(Updated 6:06 pm)

Arts degrees are entirely useless, goes the current thinking, with English literature and philosophy take-up rates plummeting across the UK and America. Having graduated with a BA in both over a decade ago, I’d have until very recently said that was a good thing. Now, however, I’ve come to see that my four (undeniably paltry) hours of weekly tuition have given me far more than I previously realised.

Perhaps that’s something to do with age – I’m sure Cicero said something about it sparking wisdom (or did I read that on a tote bag?) – but philosophy in particular has proven itself invaluable in work and life. As hard skills go, yes, it’s pointless. On the “soft” ones people actually use day-to-day, though – like clarifying a point, judging the moral implications of decisions or considering views outside one’s own – there is little else like it.

That’s likely why Santiago Iñiguez, the Oxford-educated president of Madrid’s International University, argues in a new book that would-be business moguls are far better off studying ancient philosophers and reading classic novels than staring at the stock markets.

His recommendation will likely mean little to a cohort who are now choosing business degrees in record numbers; such courses are seen as the most reliable means of converting coursework into jobs. Employability is a crucial part of higher education, certainly – but creating adults who are actually capable of navigating the world, both in a job and around one, is a metric we’ve become all too ready to ignore.

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Besides, what use is a generation with the same, inflexible skill set? Cerebral thinking might not be an asset that so simply translates to an enlarged bank balance in today’s job market, but edging it out of modern life is leaving us far poorer. The value of everything now comes down to productivity; of just doing – even if you’re doing nothing useful whatsoever – over giving adequate time to the things that matter.

It’s exactly the opposite of what philosophy and literature espouse. And the more we enforce that idea of consideration being a frippery, rather than a crucial component in enhancing knowledge and understanding, the more it’ll become the preserve of the wealthy alone – which does nothing for the diversity of thought required for those areas to thrive.

In France, philosophy is mandatory for schoolchildren; a non-negotiable in the creation of well-rounded minds. Britain’s interest in the subject seems to have fizzled from little to nought since the death of Bertrand Russell 50 years ago, an ethos visible on school curricula, as well as modern discourse. No wonder we’re caught in an innovation gap in the UK, which the swelling ranks of university-trained business moguls have as yet done nothing to assuage.

There wasn’t an exact “a-ha” moment where the benefits of my philosophy degree became obviously useful. There never is. That isn’t how most things work – our brains aren’t Uber, designed in black and white to enact instant demands, but unwieldy things prone to taking the long way round. The sooner we stop seeing that as a problem, the better.

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