Advice for Undergraduates

Advice for Undergraduate Students

Sometimes I teach in a business school, and I hear the question "Why should I study philosophy" or "Why should I study cognitive science"? I'm not much inclined to answer--people should do whatever they want. But I also teach many students who come from immigrant families or are immigrants themselves and have to worry about making money. I had the same worries, from a similar background. The fact is only a very few things one can study can come close to providing a straightforward path to a middle-class existence. If you find these things interesting--say engineering, or accounting--then OK, do that. Still when you're in college, you are given an opportunity you rarely get anywhere else--to be able to think about whatever you'd like and expose yourself to things you wouldn't otherwise get exposure to. Thus regardless of what one majors in I'd recommend taking classes outside of your comfort zone and knowledge base (whether in philosophy, psychology or art history or geology--you never know what will catch your attention). You'll be exposed to a broader array of subjects in college than at any other time in your life--take advantage of the opportunity.

Most people don't know what they want to do, and most people who do something very interesting with their life didn't get their by following a straightforward path. Even if you take a rather straightforward path--say you go to law school--you aren't guaranteed any job, and you are most likely to have huge loans (also I know many lawyers, but very few happy lawyers). Skills are what matters. I'd recommend getting statistical or programming skills, as they are useful in a host of fields. Equally useful is thinking clearly and not being a moron--that is eminently transferrable (except in politics). I think that's a pretty good reason to study philosophy, but I see no reason to be dogmatic about it. But I'm sort of pained to add: philosophy students do better than most other majors on many metrics people deem important. I won't rehash the data here, but see Dan Kelly's page where he walks you through a bunch of links and data to this effect.

Lastly, I cannot help but add this thoroughly unoriginal opinion: I find David Foster Wallace's advice in his commencement speech (republished as This is Water) heartbreakingly accurate. Evolutionarily speaking, negativity biases make sense: it's more important to be sensitive to negative stimuli than an equally arousing positive one [in absolute value terms]. But this makes one's instinctual dispositions lead to an awfully sad existence. Being self-centered is bad for one's own flourishing, but not being self-focused is hard work. Figuring out how to keep these dispositions at bay by giving yourself other things to think about is a central part of staving off the misery that plagues so many of us. DFW's insight--that we all worship regardless of whether we have made a conscious choice about what we are worshipping--is one I find insightful and empowering. At its best education allows us to consider step back and consider why we are worshipping what we are, and opens up other options. I'll leave you with his words, since they are weapons-grade eloquent:

β€œAnd I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”