In Defense of Philosophy

João Sedycias, Ph.D., the Dean of the William J. Maxwell College of Arts and Sciences, selects a seat in the airy, sixth-floor conference room in Karnoutsos Hall. Once settled in, he smiles like Mona Lisa, leans forward in his chair, and perches his forearms on the edge of the table in anticipation. Relaxed and ready, he begins to preach his personal gospel.

A relatively new addition to NJCU, Sedycias brings a long history of experience to the position he holds. He has taught at colleges and universities in both the U.S. and abroad. He was the chair of the Humanities Division at Essex County College; chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville; and, most recently, served as the Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities and Professor in the Department of Modern Languages at the State University of New York College at Oneonta.

He is also a true believer in the value of a Liberal Arts education. With a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish, master’s degrees in Spanish and English, and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, Sedycias has practiced what he preaches. This is what he is eager to discuss at the conference table—or pretty much anywhere, really. And with anyone.

“A liberal arts education builds and develops skills that are essential in today’s world,” he says. “Without these skills, no professional can truly succeed. Period.”

The historical definition of “liberal arts” goes all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. Liberal, or liber, means “free” in Latin. This is not a coincidence. In antiquity, the liberal arts consisted of subjects considered essential for a free person to learn, as well as to be able to play an active role in civic life.

“Obviously it was not an ideal world,” Sedycias says. “Women were marginalized. People owned slaves. But that idea, that concept, however limited, was very lofty. It all had to do with your ability to function as a member of a society. In ancient Greece, that included participating in public debate, defending oneself in a court of law, serving on juries, and performing military service. The goal of the liberal arts was to produce a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person.

Today, these qualities are at the very heart of our democracy.”

These qualities have also remained more or less the defining principles of the liberal arts, central to majors such as the arts, languages,mathematics, natural science, social science, religion, psychology, and, yes—that stereotypical pursuit for the unemployable smarty-pants—philosophy.

But, to Sedycias, “philosophy major” is not a punchline. Far from it. “It is the oil in the machine of the liberal arts,” he says. “Philosophy provides three skills that play a central role in all modern professions.”

The first, he says, is critical thinking, a skill not only important for the individual, but also good for society asa whole. The second is creative and ethical problem solving—the application of critical thinking to come up with solutions that are responsible, practical, and morally sound. The third is cogent and effective communication. “For what good is critical thinking and problem solving if you cannot express your ideas properly and effectively?” Sedycias asks.

“This is the essence of philosophy. It is also the essence of many other liberal arts.”

The three skills Sedycias mentions are certainly important. The world would be a far better place if more people possessed them. But there comes a time in every student’s life when he or she needs to address the elephant in the room: Can a liberal arts degree get me a job?

The data speaks for itself.

A 2015 study from The Association of American Colleges and Universities surveyed 400 employers from both private sector and non-profit firms across the country. Nearly all of them—91 percent—assert that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.” A whopping 96 percent agree that “all college students should have experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own.” And 78 percent agree that “all college students should gain intercultural skills and an understanding of societies and countries outside the United States.”

A study by The Chronicle of Higher Education mirrors these results, with many employers expressing frustration that most college graduates lack “written and oral communications skills; adaptability; and [the ability to] manage multiple priorities, make decisions, and solve problems.”

These studies—and there are plenty of them—have no outliers. Even Forbes, a publication that would seemingly have little time for such touchy feely majors, published a column this past November titled, “A Liberal Arts Degree is More Important than Ever.”

“Ask the captains of industry,” Sedycias urges, his eyes wide with enthusiasm. “Ask the leaders in the financial world in the great investment houses. What was their major? What did they study as undergraduates? In very technical areas like engineering, you need an engineering degree, of course. But in other areas, especially those areas where you make lots of money—business, management, investment—you see a common trait.

“I met a CEO of a major financial firm in New York City who announced that her undergraduate degree was not in management or finance or investment. It was philosophy.

“Now, she didn’t go into philosophy thinking, ‘I’m going to be a CEO of an investment firm.’ But the skills she acquired as a philosophy major opened many doors and, once those doors were opened, she chose to continue on that particular path.”

That CEO was not an anomaly. Steve Ells, the Chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle, majored in Art History; Christopher Connor, the Chairman and CEO of Sherwin Williams, majored in Sociology; Richard Anderson, the CEO of Delta, majored in Political Science; Robert Marcus, the Chairman and CEO of Time Warner, majored in Political Science and Government; Kenneth Chenault, the Chairman and CEO of American Express, majored in History; and Patrick M. Byrne, the CEO and Director at Overstock.com, got his undergraduate degree in Asian Studies—and his Ph.D. in Philosophy.

Yes. Philosophy. Again.

And the list goes on and on.

“Of course, it isn’t just the degree. You need other things, too,” Sedycias says. “You need a healthy work ethic. You need to have determination. You need to have persistence. In certain fields, you need to grow a thick skin. Many other things like these come into play. But my contention is that even if you check all of the other boxes, if you do not have the three skills that are central to the liberal arts, your chances for success are greatly diminished.”

Sedycias draws on another anecdote. When he worked at SUNY Oneonta, he met an alumna in her 60s at a university event who served as the financial director of public hospitals in New York City. “Not just one hospital, mind you” he says. “All of them. She managed a budget of billions. And I asked her ‘What was your major?’

“Her major was political science. She told me that political science trained her for the intricacies of the job. I replied, ‘I thought you would’ve focused entirely on business or finance.’ She said ‘No, no, no. Those people with business and finance majors work for me.’

“So, a liberal arts degree may be the difference between being a leader and being a follower.”

A liberal arts minor could do wonders. “Getting an MBA? Take theatre classes, too,” says Sedycias. “That’s what I told my son. He wants to go into international business. When he told me that, I said, ‘Great! But also take drama.’”

This is not something you hear most parents say. But as far as Sedycias—and pretty much every business executive on earth—is concerned, it should be.

“I’m not telling him ‘International business?! No! Go into theatre!’ I’m telling him that theatre will make him a better international businessman. Every time he engages in international business he will be on a stage. His performance may be tough or gentle or sweet or deferential. He’ll need to know and understand the cultures he is dealing with, as well as the people who live in those cultures. He will need to
understand and embody those cultures the same way an actor embodies a role.

“It’s about developing marketable skills,” he continues. “And that’s at the heart of a liberal arts education. It’s inclusive. It involves many different skills. Businesses understand this. They might say, ‘yes, I need the technician,’ but a corporation is an organic being. It’s not just about the technician who knows how to screw in the dilly-bob. It’s someone who can step back, see what’s going on, and be able to say, ‘We can do this better or cheaper or not do it at all because it does more harm than good.’

“That’s what we need more of.” Sedycias nods. “And that is what you learn in the liberal arts.” NJCU