On the Consequences of the Examined Life

'A Surfeit of Good Teachers' Helps Fuel Rise of Philosophy Majors

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

He clears 23' in the long jump and 13' in the pole vault. He runs the metric mile in 4 and 3/4 minutes.

And he can hold forth with the best of them on Hegel and Nietzsche.

Gabriel Verdaguer '03 is heir to the all-round Hellenic spirit not only as the decathlete on the Boston College track team, but also as a philosophy major.

"The thing that attracted me to philosophy was the versatility of it," said the Patagonia-born senior from Newton, the 2002 Romero Scholarship winner. "It teaches you to understand the human character, which is very complex."

Verdaguer is not alone. More BC students than ever are opting for the examined life, according to enrollment figures, and the numbers are said to be the highest in University memory.

According to Assoc. Prof. Ronald Tacelli, S.J., director of the philosophy department undergraduate program, 301 students had declared philosophy majors as of early March. Another 58 had declared philosophy minors, and of those "a good half will become majors," Fr. Tacelli confidently predicted.

What is luring undergraduates by the hundreds to concentrate in a challenging and often difficult subject, long a foundation of Catholic higher education, whose rewards are primarily intellectual?

The answer: outstanding teaching that brings Socrates and Plato and Aquinas to life.

The BC philosophy faculty is home to Prof. Peter Kreeft, among Catholicism's premier apologists, and Prof. Thomas Hibbs, the Aquinas scholar and culture critic; Kierkegaard scholar Assoc. Prof. Vanessa Rumble; Lonergan scholar Prof. Joseph Flanagan, S.J.; ethicist Prof. Jorge Garcia and his wife, Adj. Asst. Prof. Laura Garcia; and Assoc. Prof. Francis Soo, a specialist in Oriental philosophy, among other talented scholars.

To their Kant and Heidegger, Arendt and C.S. Lewis, BC philosophy students can add such courses as Religion and Science with Assoc. Prof. Ronald Anderson, S.J., and Philosophy of Self-Knowledge with Prof. Patrick Byrne, Kreeft's Philosophy of Tolkien and Hibbs' Nihilism and Popular Culture.

"Kids are attracted to a non-practical major by a surfeit of good teachers," said Fr. Tacelli. "One of the great things is, we don't have just one star. We have a large number of extremely popular teachers. That is the key to our success: we have a lot of thoroughbreds." Adj. Asst. Prof. Paul W. McNellis, S.J., an infantry officer in the Vietnam War who went on to become a Jesuit priest, and now teaches in the Perspectives program, a four-year interdisciplinary program in the great books, music and fine arts of Western culture, was credited by Fr. Tacelli with winning a number of converts to philosophy.

"We get a lot of his students as majors," said Fr. Tacelli. "He gets them excited about philosophy.

"We have a heck of a lot of kids who get turned on to great ideas, and that's something we should be very proud of."

Philosophy chairman Hibbs said he was cheered by the "serious intellectual curiosity" driving up enrollments in his department.

"We seem finally to have incredible word of mouth among students," said Hibbs. "Simply to show up on students' radar screen as a desirable major is an achievement for a discipline such as philosophy, which almost none of our students have studied before coming to BC and which is not chosen for utilitarian reasons.

"But the word is out! This is testimony to the magic worked by Fr. Tacelli, the full-time faculty who are clearly as devoted to undergrads as they are to their own research, and to the creative energies of our doctoral students who teach many a BC freshman."

Gina Helfrich, a senior from Lubbock, TX, said she was drawn to philosophy "because of the kinds of questions it asks about the way we think - or fail to think - about our everyday lives.

"It's easy to train someone to perform a certain job in a business, but it's difficult to find independent thinkers - and those are exactly the people that philosophy is best suited to produce," said Helfrich, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. - in the classic sense of the term - after she graduates with a bachelor's degree in philosophy this spring.

"Philosophy appeals to me because I think it can have a genuinely practical impact on people's lives."

Philosophy major David Storey '04 said a great need exists for reflective thought amid the hype and flash of today's consumer culture.

"We have more devices and gadgets for saving time, and yet we seem to have less of it," said the junior from Clinton, NJ. "This over-proliferation of media, technology and white noise is all distraction that is trying to fill a void - and people are gradually realizing that all it does is expand the dimensions of the hole."

"It follows logically that people would seek out a discipline that goes beyond the scope of Joe Millionaire and Temptation Island: philosophy. Because there are so many little questions crowding people's heads these days, they are starting again to remember the big ones."