I studied Philosophy as an undergrad. Philosophy is defined as: a love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline. As an academic discipline, it falls under the university Science and Liberal Arts curriculum and consists of logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics and epistemology.
I regularly attended Philosophy colloquiums, where professors would present papers on a given theme and then defend their position during a Q&A session with the audience, comprised mainly of Philosophy Department students and faculty. For students, it was a chance to see the tables turned on their professors and engage in what was more often than not a lively, intelligent and entertaining debate, particularly when the professors went after each other. At one of these colloquiums, on the theme of education, a professor stated “education should break down our prejudices, not reinforce them.”
By prejudice, I believe he meant “a preconceived preference or idea.” Prejudice also means “an adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts.” Prejudice literally means to “pre-judge” something. For the purpose of this article, by prejudice I simply mean: a preconceived judgment formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts.
Neither of my parents have college degrees. In fact, I was one of the first in my family to earn a college degree. So it was somewhat of a disappointment to certain family members that I chose to study Philosophy rather than business or some other career-track subject, since there are no “philosophy jobs” out there. Unlike lawyers and accountants, philosophers are not in high demand and there certainly doesn’t seem to be any money in it. After all, what is the point of getting a degree, if not to secure high-paid employment after graduation?
This begs the question: is a college degree a prerequisite for a lucrative and successful career? And more importantly: is the role of the university simply to prepare students for careers in a chosen field?
We all know that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs dropped out of college. These two individuals have impacted the lives of everyone alive on planet Earth today. But did you know Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Frank Lloyd Wright also had no college degrees? Again, these are people who fundamentally changed history, and arguably, the course of human civilization. Without Edison and Ford, there would probably be no Gates or Jobs. Clearly, success can be achieved without a university education. Passion, vision, diligence and an entrepreneurial spirit seem to be far more indicative of future success.
This is not to say that a university education is merely pedantic or even frivolous. On the contrary, if the goal of education is to break down our prejudices, it would seem to be a vital aspect of our personal development. Anyone who attends a university simply to earn a degree that will, in turn, “qualify” them to do a particular job and earn a particular wage is fundamentally misunderstanding what the university experience is all about. People like this should attend vocational-technical schools specializing in their area of interest. Unfortunately, the American education system does not offer such opportunities. If you seek a career in business, why waste your time (and money) studying anything other than business?
David Ewing, a member of the Harvard Business School faculty for four decades, wrote a book published in 1990 titled Inside the Harvard MBA, in which he lists 19 HBS “superstars” who “made it to the top.” About ten years after the book was published, business and management academicians Henry Mintzberg and Joseph Lampel decided to check up on these so-called superstars to see how they were doing. They reported that “nine, including Lou Gerstner of IBM (Harvard, ’65), seem to be doing fine. But ten had run into major problems. A number were forced from their jobs. In some cases, like that of William Agee of Morrison Knudsen (Harvard, ’63), their companies declared bankruptcy soon after their departure.” It would appear that, even for those privileged few with access to what is widely considered to be among the “best” institutions of higher learning America has to offer, a university education is no guarantee of success. Surely, the findings of Mintzberg and Lampel reflect the personal failures of individuals and are not indicative of an institutional failure at Harvard University?
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) just published a report titled “A crisis of culture: Valuing ethics and knowledge in financial services.” This report “examines the role of integrity and knowledge in restoring culture in the financial services industry and in building a more resilient industry.” One of the more salient findings in the report is that “industry executives champion the importance of ethical conduct, but they struggle to see the benefits of greater adherence to ethical standards. While large majorities agree that ethical conduct is just as important as financial success at their firm, 53% also say that strict adherence to such codes would make career progression difficult.“
A 2013 article in The Guardian provides a first-hand account of the battle between profit and morality. The piece is apparently written by a former Wall Street trader, who describes how his firm reacted to the regulator’s attempts to enforce legal compliance:
“Every employee had to complete a yearly compliance training, where he was updated on things like money laundering, collusion, insider trading, and selling our customers only financial products that were suitable to them.
By the early 2000s that compliance training had descended into a once-a-year farce, designed to literally just check a box. It became a one-hour lecture held in a massive hall. Everyone had to go once, listen to the rushed presentation, and then sign a form. You could look down at the audience and see row after row of blue buttoned shirts playing on their Blackberries. I reached new highs on Brick Breaker one year during compliance training. My compliance education that year was still complete.
By 2007 the idea of ethics education fell even further. You didn’t even need to show up to a lecture hall; you just had to log on to an online course. It was one hour of slides that you worked through, blindly pushing the “forward” button while your attention was somewhere else. Some managers, too busy for such nonsense, even paid younger employees to sit at their computers and do it for them.”
The article goes on to say:
“After a few years on Wall Street it was clear to me: you could make money by gaming anyone and everything. The more clever you were, the more ingenious your ability to exploit a flaw in a law or regulation, the more lauded and celebrated you became.
As Wall Street grew, fueled by that unchecked culture of risk taking, traders got more and more audacious, and corruption became more and more diffused through the system. By 2006 you could open up almost any major business, look at its inside workings, and find some wrongdoing.”
As that last paragraph implies, it is important to point out that circumventing compliance and engaging in corrupt and unethical practices is not limited to Wall Street. This is a systemic problem in the United States and every other country in the world. Corruption is at the heart of everything that is or has ever been wrong with human civilization. It is man’s fatal weakness. If only there were some way of combating corruption on a individual level. A way to ensure that each one of us is equipped with sound ethical principles and a sense of morality that would prevent us from engaging in corruption and compel us to stamp it out where ever we find it. But what could it be…?
I think one answer may lie in my family’s prejudice regarding Philosophy. It is true, there are no philosophy companies, and outside of academia, few if any jobs for philosophers. The idea that Philosophy is a pointless field of study with little or no applicability to one’s career nor any relevance to our journey through life is patently wrong. To think this way it to misunderstand what Philosophy is and the vital role it should play in our lives.
Logic tells us that corruption is unethical. Ethics involves examining the moral value of human conduct and the rules and principles that ought to govern it. Prejudice can be broken down through epistemology, which studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity. We may never know what, if any, meaning our existence has, nor any objective Truth, but Philosophy is an indispensable tool for approaching the understanding of both. It is also helpful for logical thinking and ethical behavior.
I am not arguing here in favor of the validity of Philosophy as a major in college. Rather, I believe Philosophy should be a required subject, from universities down through primary schools. The Greek philosopher Socrates said “the un-examined life is not worth living.” By this he means the true value and meaning of life is found by looking within, not outside, of ourselves. From this idea we get the Socratic Method, defined as: a pedagogical technique in which a teacher does not give information directly but instead asks a series of questions, with the result that the student comes either to the desired knowledge by answering the questions or to a deeper awareness of the limits of knowledge.
How many of us question any aspect of our daily lives? Why do we believe what we believe in? How did we formulate our personal ethics? What is behind our motivations in life? We assume that we need a college degree to get a good job and earn lots of money, but who says earning money is the ultimate goal of life? Why is working for someone, or following a leader, or adhering to rules imposed on us conditions we acquiesce to without question? Wouldn’t we be happier living an autonomous life where logic and ethics determined our actions? Shouldn’t we all be free to pursue the realization of our ideal selves, as long as our actions tend to promote human happiness and well-being?
It’s never too late to start breaking down prejudice and living an examined, ethical life. How different the world would be if we did.