Like many philosophy majors, Jamie Flaherty ’12 (Harvard, Mass.) didn’t know she wanted to be one until she took a class, Philosophy 102, Basic Social Questions. The curriculum challenged her, she says, and taught her how to deconstruct and evaluate the strength of an argument.
“Some of the essays we read were so complex,” says Flaherty, who is also majoring in government and law. “It really improved my writing and reading. I saw it as an opportunity to give me the skills for law school.”
She thought right. In the fall, Flaherty will head to Boston College Law School, and is one of several graduating philosophy majors poised to enter some of the most prestigious law and graduate schools in the country.
She is joined by Marquis Scholar Caitlin Flood ’12 (Bellerose Terrace, N.Y.), who after fielding offers from several top law schools chose New York University School of Law. Alexander Imel ’12 (Millersville, Pa.), who has aspirations of a career in politics, selected Columbia University School of Law, and Megan Feeney ’12 (Webster, Pa.) will pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy at Rutgers University, a program ranked second in the country.
This latest cohort isn’t an anomaly. Graduates of Lafayette’s philosophy department have gained access to such tier 1 institutions as University of Virginia School of Law, UCLA School of Law, Berkeley Law, Duke, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania.
“We tend to attract intellectually adventurous students and once they get here they thrive,” says George Panichas, James Renwick Hogg Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy.
About 20 students are graduating this year with a major or double major in philosophy, one of the largest in recent history, he says. Last year there were seven majors and 13 in each of the preceding two years. This year’s jump mirrors a nationwide trend where the number of students pursuing a four-year degree in philosophy is on the rise, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Jason Pang ’10, who is finishing up his second year at UCLA Law School, is not surprised.
“I think my generation has seen two different societies; one before the economic crash of 2008 and one after. It raises questions about everything. Philosophy allows us to pursue the underlying questions of fairness and equality in society,” he says.
Joseph Shieber, associate professor of philosophy, says today’s students recognize that “given the pace of technological and economic change in the 21st century,” the jobs of tomorrow will require more than what they learn in a course or major.
“In an increasingly uncertain job environment, in which workers can expect to tackle a variety of different job responsibilities over the course of their working lives, the intellectual acuity and flexibility that a philosophical background affords students will be invaluable once they enter the workforce,” he says.
Like Flaherty, Flood is double majoring in government and law and philosophy. The winner of the Olmsted Prize in Ethics, Flood’s honor’s thesis questions whether juvenile offenders should be transferred to criminal court, a topic she became familiar with after interning last summer in the youthful offender division of the Manhattan Supreme Court.
“The states have gotten more and more punitive in their treatment of juveniles,” says Flood, the recipient of the 2012 George Wharton Pepper Prize, awarded to the senior who exemplifies the Lafayette ideal. “Some are tried as adults at age 13.”
Imel, a Marquis Scholar whose ultimate goal is to enter politics, says studying philosophy changed his world view. During his junior year, he spent a semester working in the Scottish Parliament with 23 other American students.
“Very few of us worked with parties aligned to our political beliefs,” says Imel, a philosophy and history double major. “We had to adopt the policies of our parties.” His philosophy training served him well, he says, because it gave him the mental framework and confidence to assess viewpoints—even if he didn’t agree with them—for validity.
“Philosophy teaches you how to think,” he says.
Stewart Inman ’10, a first-year student at the University of Virginia Law School, attributes his academic success to having majored in philosophy.
“Having already developed some ability to analyze and make arguments puts philosophy majors at an advantage compared to most majors, especially those that focus on facts and remembering information,” says Inman, who has his sights on becoming a trial lawyer because it appeals to his “competitive nature.” “You already understand how to think like a lawyer.”
Not all philosophy graduates are headed to law school.
Feeney, a Marquis Scholar who is graduating with a 4.0 grade point average, hopes to teach philosophy at the collegiate level. The questions of philosophy are important to everyone, she says, especially in today’s uncertain and media-saturated world.
“Political discourse in this country is so messed up,” she says. “You need to critically evaluate the claims politicians are making.” Becoming a professor would allow her an opportunity to help her students think more deeply about important questions. “It might enrich their lives in some way,” she says.