My first day as a freshman began with the University Honors Program course, The Origins of Modern Thought: Justice. In our small group of 14 students, each was allowed to introduce themselves. Unsurprisingly, more than half of the class, myself included, said they intended to major in International Affairs with a particular concentration. But one student in the group said “I’m a classical studies major–like Ancient Greece, Latin and philosophy… that kind of stuff.”
Wow – classical studies and philosophy? Why study something so ancient? How will that be relevant to any future career? I, like probably many students would, thought that besides becoming an academic, a classical studies major is pretty useless. Clearly I still had quite a bit to learn.
One semester later, having dipped my toes into philosophy, I’ve considered pursuing a classics major too. I’ve decided not to switch majors, but I intend to add philosophy to my International Politics major, given that 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 both times of war and peace. While not all majors have to, or even should be taught completely with theory, students can benefit from incorporating philosophy into career-oriented studies and everyday life alike. So much for my useless assumption.
Besides philosophy and classics majors, only a tiny minority of students take philosophy classes, usually through special programs like the University Honors Program among other academic or religious groups, like MEOR’s Maimonedes fellowship, a Jewish philosophy discussion group. Students a part of UHP – 500 of approximately 12,000 undergraduates – make up only 4 percent of GW’s student body. While political science courses do integrate some classical theory, they barely scratch the surface. GW does have many pathways through which students can explore the classics and philosophy, so GW should definitely surpass that 4 percent baseline implemented across all fields of study. Students will benefit in each facet of their life, from school to their 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 substantially cut such programs due to financial reasons and the rapid decline in demand for this coursework in recent years. On the flip side, career-oriented majors, notably STEM, have seen explosive growth. Advancements in fields of medicine and science have peaked. Academic administrators must recognize that, at the base of these sciences – for both hard sciences and social sciences – is philosophy. It’s the foundation for not only the field itself, but how to engage with it for effective outcomes. Objectives are weakened by merely possessing knowledge without the critical thinking and analysis skills to execute that knowledge.
Philosophy is personified in the workplace, where human interaction, teamwork and critical thinking are key to a productive environment. Today’s hyper-competitive and stressful environments tend to unveil 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 how to navigate workplace challenges by mitigating personal reactions and assertive, respectful communication. Knowledge of the facts is useful, but with people-management skills and critical thinking absent from its application, outcomes are poor or mediocre at best.
Developing different ways of thinking through stressful situations arising from school, work, relationships and general interactions, can be effective tools to deal with day-to-day issues. Therapists and guidance counselors consider mindset shifts – from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets – the antidote to the surging anxiety that students and adults in the workforce experience today. These mindset shifts are actually philosophical models applied to their respective situations and specific issues. I speak from experience and can tell you that studying philosophy has enabled me to obtain a resilience of the mind like nothing else has.
Reading Stoic philosophy, for example, has helped set frustration aside by disregarding the external forces out of my sphere of influence and focusing on actions within my immediate control. For instance, rather than stressing out over exams, I have come to acknowledge that I studied the best I could and the results are not in my control. Each exam is just a test of some knowledge, where the grade can often be a subjective representation, so as long as I give studying a solid effort, the rest is out of my control.
Classical studies and philosophy must be integrated into the curricula of all majors. Each major requirement should involve at least one basic philosophy class and be taught through the lens of how certain philosophies are applicable to that particular field of study. Students will reap skills in critical thinking, respectful and assertive discourse, together with relationship management to allow them to better navigate their present college lives and future careers. Most important are the tools that students will gain to lead happier, fulfilling and confident lives.
Although many people might consider philosophy to be abstract and out of reach, people are philosophizing daily as they contemplate decisions and manage adversities. To help students succeed in all aspects of their life at GW and beyond, GW should incorporate classical studies into curricula across the University.
Sabrina Soffer, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is an opinions writer.