My name is Lauren Mandaville, and I graduated from Harvard in spring of 2017. I am currently serving as a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy. Today I had this conversation with a sailor – one of many almost-identical exchanges.
“Where did you go to school?” he asked.
The usual response: “What are you doing here?” And then, “what did you major in?”
“Oh, that’s why.”
The uselessness of philosophy, in his mind, overrode the usefulness of a Harvard degree when it came to job-hunting. In point of fact, though, philosophy was one of the most useful majors I could have chosen.
At first, I studied philosophy just because it was interesting. Questions my three-year-old self had pondered were suddenly treated as worthwhile: If I were born as someone else’s child, would I still be me? If everything is made up of the same quarks and nucleons, what makes one thing separate from another? Who made the rule that we should follow the rules? I learned to engage with such questions – with all questions – in a contextualized and critical manner.
More than simply helping me to think critically, though, philosophy helped me to feel critically, to put names to my intuitions. The questions I had mentioned above were now connected with theories and bodies of thought: possible worlds, metaphysical essentialism, criteria of identity, et cetera.
You may be thinking, “these questions are hardly useful,” but I would beg to differ. As someone who has studied abroad multiple times and moved between the Ivy League and the US military, I have personally struggled with questions of identity and belonging, and I have seen my friends and my culture do the same. We must consider “the big questions” thoroughly and in context.
Philosophy training also has more immediate and tangible applications. Being able to break a description or explanation down to its essential assumptions and logic is as helpful when considering gas turbine engines as when considering Gorgias. More importantly, however, when heading into combat, asking the big questions is essential. As I wrote my thesis on civilian casualties, themes like the interplay between belief and action, morality and law, and idealism and practicality became quite real.
This lesson extends beyond the military to any career. The Navy will teach me everything I need to know about network security and, later on, nuclear engineering. This involves content – the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of things – and is basically memorization. But that comes later. For the ‘what’ and ‘how’ to matter, you have to ask ‘why’. Why am I giving my time and energy to this? Why are we reacting to this situation in this way? Why will this matter in the end? This is the foundation of everything else. It is worth taking a few years – or a few classes – to clarify.