Philosophy paints the bigger picture of life after university
University can be a daunting experience for most. Students are confronted with important choices that will determine the direction of their lives. After jumping through the much guided subject ‘hoops’ of secondary school, you are given free reign when trotting towards the busy buffet of academic decisions.
Don’t be fooled by the brevity of registration and curriculum approval. It is not as straight forward as simply choosing an accounting and bookkeeping degree. It’s the process of interrogating your choices and mapping out ‘the (uncertain) future.’
South Africa’s youth is faced with the harsh reality that characterises life after university. You can consider it an existential anxiety caused by the distinctly high unemployment rate that averaged at 51.14 percent from 2013 until 2016. Students are, fearfully, motivated by this throughout their academic careers because they understand that they will eventually compete with other highly qualified graduates in the job market.
Imagine years of hard work, personal sacrifice and financial investment could possibly amount to the frustrating situation of sitting at home for months on end while job hunting—looking for something, anything (degree related or not). It’s every graduate’s nightmare. You shake your head at the unfortunate idea because you are, like every other ambitious student, determined to have a bright future that is bursting with opportunities. The most clichéd advice you’ll receive before formally choosing your subjects is, “Follow your passion!”, but this leads to many personal and challenging follow-up questions.
What are you going to do with a [insert a Humanities subject] major?
This question actually translates into: “How are you going to monetize your qualifications in, say something like, philosophy to pay your bills, provide for your potential future dependents and live comfortably?” The short answer could simply be: I don’t know. This is a fair reply because secondary schools offer a limited and basic selection of Humanities subjects for study such as English, History, Art and Drama. What is the prospective Philosophy or Classics student to make of this personally uncharted academic terrain?
Francis Williamson, philosophy lecturer at Rhodes University, suggests that philosophy is fundamentally at the core of academia because of its presence in almost every subject. “There’s a sense that at the core of every discipline are a bunch of philosophical assumptions and unless you come alive to those philosophical assumptions and questions you have not fully come alive intellectually,” Williamson continues, “It’s both at the foundation of every discipline but it’s also the crowning achievement because it is what puts things together. So, philosophy is both the micro-assumptions but also the broadest picture. It’s a ‘sandwich’: in between are all the other special disciplines but philosophy puts it together.” With this understanding, more ‘lovers of wisdom’ (the translation of the Greek word philosopher) might be emboldened to pursue philosophy as a major.
Rene Descartes, a French philosopher, once said: “It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.” Studying philosophy is the figurative stone which one uses to sharpen their mind. Reasons for studying philosophy include captivating subject matter that encourages the critical engagement of not only posing questions but suggesting viable answers. Studying philosophy develops one’s set of intellectual skills to effectively problem solve, organise ideas, understand different perspectives, and improve the quality of your writing in the interpretive, comparative, argumentative, analytical, and descriptive senses.
With minds as intellectually sharp as swords, where do philosophy majors fit into the grander scheme of society? It is easy to see how philosophy as a discipline develops a range of skills that characterises graduates as flexible, therefore employable. Here are a few careers/professions that philosophical studies can prepare you for:
- Local and national government, national health services, police forces and the armed forces at an administrative level
- Publishing and journalism in editorial, production, marketing and sales positions
- Law in research, secretarial and paralegal positions
- Psychotherapy and counselling
Seeing as philosophy exists in almost every aspect of professional life to some extent; then it is natural to wonder what sort of distinctive contribution does philosophy offer people in South Africa today? Williamson shares his thoughts on the matter: “Politically, I want to say, in fact there is no such thing as ‘South Africa’. We are a motley collection of people with a motley collection of views bound together […] In this context, it would be good for all of us to step back and ask ourselves questions about ‘What is it to be a people? What is it to be a culture? What kinds of principles are negotiable? What are non-negotiable? What are the foundational things?’ Otherwise we are going to fragment into separate regions and enclaves which are going to be hostile to each other.”
There is the shared understanding that the youth are the country’s future and students pursuing philosophy as a major might be the key to a more cohesive South African society in the future.
By: Ayanda Gigaba
Francis Williamson: F.Williamson@ru.ac.za