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DESCARTES WAS RIGHT

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The boom in philosophy

Bridget Rynne ’03 and Paul Tellier ’06. By Lee Pellegrini

This past spring, the number of undergraduate majors in philosophy climbed to a record 292, continuing a nearly decade-long surge. According to outgoing department chair Professor Thomas Hibbs, Boston College "has always been among the top two or three schools in the country in terms of the number of philosophy majors. Now, there's no one close."

Currently, 3.2 percent of the University's undergraduates are philosophy majors—as compared with 2.4 percent at Notre Dame, 1.7 percent at the University of Chicago, and less than 1 percent at Stanford University. (The most popular major at BC? Communication, with 12.5 percent of students.) The relatively high interest in philosophy is likely due to the wide range of exposures to the subject that Boston College offers, says Hibbs.

All undergraduates have a six-credit requirement in philosophy, which many fulfill with the "Philosophy and the Person" core class. But students also come to the major through interdisciplinary courses. About 400 students each year participate in PULSE, a program that integrates philosophical and theological study with community service. Or students can take one of several versions of "Perspectives," which pairs philosophy with disciplines ranging from the fine arts to the natural sciences.

"People don't start out as philosophy majors," says PULSE professor and new department chair Patrick Byrne. "For some of them it's a brand-new thing." The major becomes a means to work through the "cosmic questions"—how best to live one's life, how to make a more just society, or more basic still, "How can we know anything truly and objectively?" There is no defining profile of the philosophy major, Byrne says. "Half the time I can tell," but "other times it's people who have never really thought about these things" who surprise him by committing to the major.

Paul Tellier '06, a political science/philosophy double major, says he was lured by philosophy's call to "not just look up facts but look in yourself." Bridget Rynne '03 entered BC intending to major in math but wrote her senior thesis in philosophy; to her, "philosophy is a way of learning. It has developed me—organized my thoughts." According to the department Web site, philosophy majors at BC consistently rank in the top percentiles among students taking the LSAT, the gateway exam for law school admission.

Professor Hibbs, who will assume a new post at Baylor University in the fall, says that during his time at Boston College there was one question he never heard philosophy majors struggle with: When will I use this knowledge? "They see philosophy as contributing decisively to their pursuit of who they are and where they're headed."

Nicole Estvanik


Photo: Bridget Rynne ’03 and Paul Tellier ’06. By Lee Pellegrini


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