My first day as a freshman began with the Honors University course, The Origins of Modern Thought: Justice. In our small group of 14 students, everyone was allowed to introduce themselves. Unsurprisingly, more than half of the class, myself included, said they intended to major in international business with a special concentration. But one student in the group said, “I major in classical studies, like ancient Greece, Latin and philosophy… that sort of thing.
Wow – classical studies and philosophy? Why study something so old? How will this be relevant to any future career? Like probably many college students, I figured that besides going to college, a major in classical studies is pretty pointless. Clearly, I still had a lot to learn.
A semester later, after dipping my toes into philosophy, I also considered pursuing a major in classics. I have decided not to change majors, but I intend to add philosophy to my major in international politics, since the two disciplines are actually quite similar – philosophy has humanized the theories emerging in my International Relations and Political Science classes and allowed me to dive deep into how individuals are inclined to act in times of war and in times of peace. While not all majors should, or even should, be taught completely with theory, students can benefit from integrating philosophy into career-focused studies and everyday life. So much for my useless assumption.
Besides the Philosophy and Classics majors, only a tiny minority of students take Philosophy courses, usually through special programs like the University Honors Program among other academic or religious groups, like the Maimonedes Fellowship of the MEOR, a discussion group on Jewish philosophy. Students who are part of UHP – 500 out of approximately 12,000 undergraduates – make up only 4% of GW’s student body. Although political science courses incorporate some classical theory, they barely scratch the surface. GW has many avenues through which students can explore classics and philosophy, so GW should definitely exceed this 4% baseline implemented across all fields of study. Students will benefit in every facet of their lives, from school to career, and in their relationships with each other.
The slow death of classical studies among the broader humanities is nothing new. Universities across the United States have drastically reduced these programs due to financial reasons and the rapidly declining demand for these courses in recent years. On the other hand, career-focused majors, especially STEM, have seen explosive growth. Advancements in the fields of medicine and science have reached their peak. Academic administrators must recognize that at the base of these sciences – both for the hard sciences and for the social sciences – is philosophy. This is the basis not only of the field itself, but also of how to engage with it to achieve effective results. Goals are weakened by merely possessing knowledge without the critical thinking and analytical skills to execute that knowledge.
The philosophy is personified in the workplace, where human interaction, teamwork and critical thinking are essential to a productive environment. Today’s hyper-competitive and stressful environments tend to show people’s true colors, and understanding how human beings tend to think under pressure can help students better manage their own conduct. Studying philosophy can teach you how to handle challenges in the workplace by mitigating personal reactions and communicating with confidence and respect. Knowing the facts is helpful, but with people management skills and critical thinking absent from its application, the results are mediocre or, at best, mediocre.
Developing different ways of thinking through stressful situations arising from school, work, relationships, and general interactions can be an effective tool for coping with day-to-day issues. Therapists and guidance counselors see mindset shifts—from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets—as the antidote to the growing anxiety students and adults experience in the workplace today. These shifts in mindset are actually philosophical models applied to their respective situations and specific issues. I speak from experience and I can tell you that studying philosophy has given me a resilience of mind like nothing else.
Reading Stoic philosophy, for example, helped put aside frustration by ignoring external forces outside my sphere of influence and focusing on actions within my immediate control. For example, rather than stressing over exams, I came to recognize that I studied as best I could and the results were not in my control. Each exam is just a test of certain knowledge, where the grade can often be a subjective representation, so as long as I make a solid effort to study, the rest is out of my control.
Classical studies and philosophy should be integrated into the curricula of all majors. Each major requirement should involve at least one core philosophy course and be taught through the lens of how certain philosophies are applicable to that particular area of study. Students will learn skills in critical thinking, respectful and assertive speech, and relationship management to enable them to better navigate their current academic life and future careers. Most important are the tools students will acquire to lead happier, fulfilling, and confident lives.
Although many people may view philosophy as abstract and out of reach, people philosophize daily as they contemplate decisions and deal with adversity. To help students succeed in all aspects of their lives at GW and beyond, GW should integrate classical studies into University curricula.
Sabrina Soffer, a freshman in international affairs, is an opinion writer.