Feb. 17, 2005 • Volume 13 Number 11

Adj. Assoc. Prof. Paul McNellis, SJ (Philosophy), leads a Perspectives class, cited by faculty members as a major reason for BC undergraduates' strong interest in philosophy.

Getting Philosophical

Number of philosophy majors ranks BC at or near the top in US

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Befitting a Jesuit school named for the Athens of America, Boston College has droves of philosophy majors - quite possibly more than any other university in the country.

Some 400 BC undergraduates list philosophy as a first-, second- or third major, according to the Philosophy Department's most recent count, about two weeks ago.

The figure is believed to top that at any other school. An informal survey of universities taken by the Chronicle lends support to the claim. [See sidebar and numbers.]

How has Plato come to have such pull on the Heights?

"I think a lot of kids are hungering for truth - they're asking important questions in their life," says the Philosophy Department's undergraduate program director, Assoc. Prof. Ronald Tacelli, SJ.

Underclassmen lured by the intellectual give and take of freshman core courses in philosophy are drawn back for more by the department's strong teaching and esprit de corps, Fr. Tacelli said.

"We're very hands on. We have get-togethers, we have block parties just for majors, we have movies. And we have some great teachers.

"We really have a huge stable of very fine teachers, people like Fr. Paul McNellis, SJ, Marina McCoy, Peter Kreeft, Fr. Bill Richardson, SJ, Richard Cobb-Stevens, Vanessa Rumble, Brian Braman, Kerry Cronin and John Millard, just to name a few.

"Take [part-time faculty member] Debby Hutchins: When you get a person who can make logic not only an interesting subject, but a fun one that undergraduates are dying to take, you've got a gem on your hands."

Adj. Asst. Prof. Brian Braman (Philosophy), director of Perspectives, an interdisciplinary program in the great books, music and fine arts of Western culture, said: "The department is fortunate to have a lot of quality teachers who get kids excited in the life of the mind."

Braman said the freshman core course Perspectives on Western Culture I, rooted in the Great Books, sparks students' interest in philosophy early: "It gets freshmen involved in the conversation that's been going on for 2,000 years."

Department chairman Prof. Patrick Byrne emphasized the "incredible role" played by Fr. Tacelli as undergraduate program director.

"Fr. Tacelli does a lot to build a community," said Byrne. "He has dinners and a film series, and brings speakers to campus, drawing about 150 people to each lecture. He puts an enormous amount of time and personal concern into it."

Byrne credited "extraordinary teachers in the philosophy core," such as those in Perspectives and in PULSE, the service-learning program in which students combine studies in philosophy and theology with field work at soup kitchens and homeless shelters.

Requiring freshmen to take a two-semester sequence in philosophy has ensured professors "really build a relationship with the students," Byrne said, while "a rich array of electives allows students to explore questions across the philosophical spectrum.

"Most of these students aren't going to become philosophy professors," Byrne said, "but they're given the opportunity to explore questions related to their lives and careers."

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