Learn Philosophy

The classic discipline can help with contemporary dilemmas and modern careers.

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The questions are ripped from the daily head-lines: Should illegal immigrants be barred from enrolling in public universities? Should courts declare surreptitiously gathered DNA off limits as legal evidence?

No, it's not another spinoff of Law & Order. It's Ethics Bowl, an increasingly popular intercollegiate tourna-ment where competing teams reason their way through thorny case histories. The winners are judged not on the sound and fury of their responses but on the thoroughness of their consideration and understanding of differing points of view.

If it all sounds a tad philosophical, you're right. The growth of Ethics Bowl competitions—which began in 1993 at the Illinois Institute of Technology, have since spread to 94 colleges nationwide, and are now filtering down to high schools—is emblematic of a burgeoning interest in philosophy and applied ethics. "To see 10th graders think this deeply just floors me," says Valerie Gallina, grant specialist in Florida's Pinellas County Character Partnership. "It shows our youth are thinking globally."

David Schrader of the American Philosophical Association sees "a growth in the number of students majoring in philosophy." The reason, he speculates, is that "in a world where people change careers many times, the skills that philosophy teaches you are wonderfully transferable." Those tools include critical thinking, logic, and analytical writing, which have practical applications in a range of careers—such as law, teaching, medicine, business, and management—and are valuable to have in times of economic (and employment) uncertainty.

Moreover, experts say, logical skills can be taught starting at an early age. In Springfield, Mass., philosophy Prof. Thomas Wartenberg and his students from Mount Holyoke College expose second graders to philosophy not through Kant and Descartes but by discussing children's picture books like the Frog and Toad series. Engaging youngsters in open-ended conversations helps them "see that there are wrong answers but no right answers, that you can disagree and you can have different points of view," says Wartenberg. "This is really philosophy in the Socratic tradition, thinking deeply about very puzzling issues and concepts that are present in your life."