The Love of Wisdom
While walking in an outdoor mall the other day, I spied an old gentleman sitting alongside a young lady on a bench by a fountain. He wore a blue jacket, a lettered T-shirt, and cap, each distinctly marked in maize-colored letters. As I came closer, the word “MICHIGAN” stood out clearly on items of his dress. I shifted my course a bit, stopped nearby, and greeted him with the cheery, “GO BLUE.” Though he seemed surprised, sitting here in Minnesota, he returned the greeting in good form. The old gent (referred to here as “Sven”) said that he had graduated from the university in 1950 with a chemistry major. His life work had been with the Dow Chemical Company. We chatted a little, and I said I had taken a master’s at UM in 1952, majoring in philosophy.
The young lady with him spoke up and said her son, Sven’s grandson, had just graduated from high school, and was planning to major in philosophy at a college or university. At that, I sensed some disappointment in the old UM chemistry grad as he said, mostly under his breath, “What’s he going to do with that?”
I said my studies at the UM were quite challenging, and that I appreciated the opportunity to study the big questions of human existence under a distinguished faculty. I read the history of philosophy, worked at critical thinking, explored questions of truth, value, beauty, God and the world, political theory, and economics. Such studies helped me think more deeply about what it means to be human, to examine and formulate arguments, and so forth. He seemed unimpressed, though his daughter showed some interest and asked about my own career. I said I had taught philosophy at North Park College in Chicago for 38 years.
Following those words, what came across from Sven to me was: “Studying philosophy certainly didn’t get you any farther than teaching philosophy. In contrast to industry, technology, engineering, and business, philosophy majors are utopian, theoretical, and unproductive. Who would bother wasting their education on such a loser major?” It was as though the only point of going to college is to find a job.
It was time for the old emeritus professor of philosophy to respond. “Loving wisdom is not the impractical, other-worldly dreaming activity which some people criticize and like to joke about. The study of philosophy allows one time to think about reality, truth and justice. It is highly relevant in many different kinds of work.” To illustrate, I mentioned a couple well-known people who had majored in philosophy — Jay Leno, host of the Tonight Show, and Steve Martin, actor. Were there time, I might have added Pearl Buck, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner; Alex Trebek, Jeopardy host; Stephen Breyer and David Souter, Supreme Court Justices; NFL quarterback John Elway; former Pietisten editor Phil Johnson; Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City; film critic Gene Siskel; lawyer Karl Klockars; novelist Iris Murdoch; former Czech President Vaclav Havel; NBA coach Phil Jackson; CEO Carl Icahn; Pastor Bruce Metcalf and his wife, Kristine Metcalf; Nobel Prize winners Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Elie Wiesel, and others.
For Sven, none of these names would have cut it. In contrast to chemistry and engineering, philosophy still seemed a second-rate major to him. He could, but thankfully didn’t, ask: “What winning plays did John Elway ever learn from Aristotle or Immanuel Kant?”
Nonetheless, there was a gleam in his daughter’s face. How might a study of philosophy help her son understand what it means to be in this world? What might her little boy achieve in the arts, education, medicine, law, science, ministry, or politics with this classical major?
Muriel was waiting for me at the beauty shop, and this serendipitous moment came to an end. Maybe another time, should our paths cross again, Sven might tell some about his work at Dow Chemical in Midland, Mich.
As I left, I wished their son and grandson the very best as he continues his love of Sophia academically. I assured them that it is a timely, significant major that will help young people find the good life. “Encourage and support him as he goes for it.”