By Cliff Ennico
Maybe it’s the change of seasons (I’ve always been a big early fall fan), maybe it’s because I just turned 60, but I’ve been spending more time than usual reflecting upon my past.
Whenever you reflect on “things you should have done differently,” you almost always end up going back to your high school and college years. A lot happened during that eight year period that made you the person you are today (some social psychologists believe our personalities are 99% fully formed when we reach our early 20s). Often the paths we chose back then were triggered not by careful planning, but by some stupid little thing that didn’t seem important at the time.
In my case, that little something was the decision not to take a high school calculus class.
Back in high school, I wanted more than anything to be an engineer. I excelled in math and physics, and I knew – without a single doubt – that I didn’t want to be a doctor. That left engineering. Hey, I even wore a pocket protector and short hair – “geek chic” long before it became fashionable.
When I got to senior year, I figured I would sign up for calculus just like all the other geeks. But there was a problem. The calculus teacher at my high school insisted that if you took his class, you also had to take another class he taught on statistics, probability and finite mathematics (the sort of math you need if you’re headed to business school). And that second class was offered at the exact same time as a fourth-year Spanish class I needed to take in order to “exempt out” of college foreign language requirements.
I decided to put off taking calculus. “After all,” I remember thinking, “every college in America offers freshman calculus. I can always take it when I get there.”
Famous last words . . .
I matriculated at a college that, at the time, had the most formidable mathematics department in America (its professors had developed the BASIC computer language, among other achievements). I dutifully signed up for freshman calculus, along with 300 other young men and women who were aspiring to pursue careers in medicine, engineering and the sciences.
Every single one of whom had had calculus in high school.
Midway through my freshman year, it became apparent that I was not going to follow the engineering track. It was simply too competitive. I was working 80-plus hours a week to keep up and coming home with B’s and C’s in math courses for the first time in my life.
I had to change my plans, but didn’t have a “Plan B” in mind.
Late in my freshman year, I signed up for an introductory philosophy course. I don’t remember why I chose that course – probably a friend of mine talked me into it, or maybe I felt you shouldn’t graduate college without reading some Plato and Aristotle.
As they say in romantic comedies, philosophy had me at hello. While most of my fellow students found subjects like metaphysics, ethics and existentialism too abstract and theoretical, I “got them” instantly. My mathematics background turned out to be an excellent preparation for formal logic and analytical philosophy. I even found my Spanish language fluency to be helpful: my senior thesis, on the influence of late 19th century Spanish thinkers on later continental European philosophers, was circulated to academic journals for publication.
Upon graduation from college I was offered (but politely declined) a fellowship to study abroad with the goal of joining the college’s philosophy faculty once I obtained a Ph.D.
Having decided against becoming a professional philosopher, I did the next best thing: I went to law school. While many of my fellow students found it hard to read and dissect legal cases, I found it a snap. A legal opinion is, after all, nothing but a logical argument, and I had had four years’ experience tearing those apart.
A discipline where you learn to “question everything” and read texts both critically and closely was also the best possible preparation for a career spent drafting and interpreting legal contracts.
Virtually every day in my professional life I make use of the skills I learned in my college philosophy classes. Which is why it depresses me when I read that today’s college students are turning away from the humanities in favor of more “practical” courses designed to look good on their job resumes. And that college recruiters no longer value the (admittedly, sometimes intangible) skills that students develop in literature, philosophy, and language classes (that Spanish also came in handy, let me tell you).
It’s important, of course, to develop useful, marketable skills. But what good is a doctor or software engineer who doesn’t understand human nature, a politician with no grasp of ethics, or a citizen who accepts uncritically everything the media says? A little philosophy never hurt anyone. And it’s more fun than calculus.
Cliff Ennico (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist, author and host of the PBS television series ‘Money Hunt’. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2014 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.