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To Be or Not To Be a Philosophy Major, that is the Question Bobcats Face

July 25, 2018
Philosophy majors learn to hone their reasoning skills.

According to a recent Forbes magazine article, tech companies throughout the U.S. have discovered something universities have known since they began: Liberal arts thinking makes employees stronger.

Students who choose the new philosophy major at UC Merced — officially launched in the spring— will emerge with the broad foundations employers are seeking, including critical thinking and data analysis skills.

“In developing this major, we combined the best features of classical philosophy with cutting-edge approaches to applied philosophy,” Professor Jeffrey Yoshimi said. “That is a particular strength of this program.”

The six main philosophy faculty members and two affiliates have research backgrounds in philosophies of the mind, of science, of action, morality, politics, entrepreneurship, literature, language and ethics, as well as neuroscience, game theory, phenomenology, ancient philosophy and history of philosophy.

To make sure students can apply what they’ve learned, Yoshimi and the major’s co-developer, Lecturer David Jennings , included a capstone course for seniors, to check comprehension and fill any gaps in understanding before students graduate.

"Philosophy is a vital field of study in its own right, of course, but students may be less aware of how a major in philosophy can prepare them for a variety of careers. The understanding of human nature and the specific skills that students acquire by studying philosophy — logic, critical thinking, and argumentation — are essential for success in law, politics or business,” School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts Dean Jill Robbins said. “At UC Merced, where the important philosophical questions about how we engage with the world and one another are embedded within cognitive science, majors may also go on to careers in science, medicine or psychology.”

Philosophy graduates often pursue careers in law, but are increasingly finding jobs in the tech sector, for example as programmers or data scientists, Yoshimi said.

“The reasoning skills associated with philosophy naturally transfer to those domains. A philosophy major is also associated with strong salary outcomes and high scores on standardized tests for graduate studies,” he said.

Philosophy and cognitive science faculty members include (from left to right) professors Carolyn Dicey Jennings and Jeffrey Yoshimi and Lecturer David Jennings.

“For those looking at law school, medical school, graduate school or business school: A higher percentage of philosophy majors are admitted to medical school (50 percent) and law school (75 percent) than any other major,” philosophy and cognitive science Professor Carolyn Dicey Jennings added. “Philosophy majors get some of the highest scores on the GRE, GMAT, LSAT and MCAT.”

Though the campus has always had philosophy courses and has had a philosophy minor since 2007, the major took time to develop as the number of faculty members rose. Yoshimi and fellow founding faculty member Professor Teenie Matlock collaborated from the beginning to integrate philosophy and the cognitive sciences, and to develop an interdisciplinary philosophy curriculum.

Now, the philosophy major is housed within the Cognitive and Information Sciences department, which makes it unique among all American university philosophy programs. Carolyn Jennings sees this as an advantage.

“While many campuses have links between philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, the organizational structure at UC Merced especially encourages collaboration between these and other related fields, such as linguistics. This collaboration makes UC Merced a very exciting place to be a student — we are right on the cutting edge,” she said.

The philosophy major touches each of the campus’s three schools and aligns with a number of areas where UC Merced is emerging as a leader: sustainability, inequality, power and social justice, public health, entrepreneurship and management, and computational science and data analytics.

Yoshimi and David Jennings said they expect the philosophy major at UC Merced to be as popular as it is at other universities, or maybe more so because of the unique nature of the program. It’s open to anyone who is interested, and both professors said they get an array of students from other disciplines in their classes.

“A lot of the students get a little exposure to the kinds of questions philosophers ask and they find they are hungry to know more,” David Jennings said. “We examine the big questions of human existence.”

Philosophy also gives people a way to look at topics of the day.

David Jennings said one section of his course last fall focused on free speech and free expression just as those issues were coming to the fore on college campuses and around the country.

“This work connects to the questions of our real lives,” he said.

The next area of study likely to grow within the major is applied ethics — examining complex situations and considering all their ethical implications.

Yoshimi credits his philosophy studies with teaching him how to analyze issues and think about them at a fundamental level. Philosophy employs rigorous methods for considering and analyzing ideas, and that methodology is applicable in just about any situation.

Beyond the utility of a philosophy major in terms of skill acquisition and job opportunities, David Jennings said philosophy has intrinsic value as an area of inquiry.

“People naturally wonder about these fundamental questions about the structure of reality, whether God exists, what the sources of right and wrong are, how we should live,” he said. “A philosophy major provides the opportunity to pursue these questions in a disciplined way.”

Lorena Anderson

Senior Writer and Public Information Representative

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