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Uncertainty

Your Major is What?

A while back I observed that the most e-mailed story from the New York Times online edition was about the popularity of philosophy as a major at Rutgers and other universities. Philosophy majors and graduates doubled over the past five years. It’s a trend that is evident at other colleges and universities according to Winnie Hu, an education writer for the Times.
There are more colleges than ever before offering philosophy majors. In schools with well-known programs like UMass, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Texas A&M the number of majors has doubled just like Rutgers.
The attraction? Surprisingly pragmatic. Students say the major is equips them with tools for success.
David Schrader, executive director of the American Philosophical Association says, “It’s a major that helps them become quick learners and gives them strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking.”
That gets my attention as a futurist and it’s a parallel with the courses I teach in executive education sessions that target leaders at large companies. It identifies two of the most common shortcomings I see in those executives:
1. The lack of perspective for the big picture. Myopic expertise and a lack of awareness of how major forces are affecting their own functions, teams, and organization is too often present.
2. An obsession with quick and often reckless problem solutions and especially fast action when confronted with a challenge. An emphasis on speed over contemplation is a bad practice. But I see it again and again in corporate America and, too often recently, in our political decision-making.
We can all use a better grounding in the principles from philosophy.
Philosophy programs have changed over last couple of decades. Today the major is less about old texts and more about cutting edge, interdisciplinary fields like cognitive science. It’s often followed as a double major by students planning on careers in the law, medicine, finance, and even investments.
Students say philosophy has a couple of other attractions. It helps them make sense of the big questions that face society like globalization, the environment, war, and technological adoption. Even more pragmatically, it is a field that helps them with a set of skills that can be applied in the range of uncertainty that faces many graduates.
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