Ten years later, looking back on a philosophy major
 
Trees, dirt, goats "Why the hell did I major in philosophy? For this?"

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, biking fifteen miles up the road from my village to town. There wasn't much to look at along the way except for a few small villages, termite mound pastures and mango trees, but there was plenty of time for reflection.
 

The best place to be when it hits 120 degrees -- in the shade
 
Market day in Keleya Biking along, I tried to remember why I had decided philosophy was going to help me live my life. It didn't seem to have much relevance in Mali. Day after day, it was nothing but heat and cows and dirt and dust and scrubby trees. Postmodernism, Aristotle, Metaphysics, Hermeneutics -- I knew they had meant something to me at one point, but they had nothing to do with my life now.
 
Karite nuts for cooking oil and skin lotion
 
I saw this scene every day in Mali Philosophy had nothing to do with honey co-op meetings, doing laundry, learning Bambara (the local language), or hosting trainee events. Philosophy could not help me figure out why, when a cow got hit by the car of the richest man in town, the poorer owner of the cow had to pay the rich man. All those hours of studying philosophy would not haul water from the pump, soak corn to soften it, or bring grain to the mill.
 
Why is it that the women are always working and the men always goofing off?
 
Millet, corn, beans, peanuts -- there was always something that needed pounding Was having been a philosophy major making any difference in my life? It didn't seem like it. In Mali, surrounded by a foreign context, I could hardly remember anything I had studied in school.

What was I thinking?

This was a celebration day
 
I had come to Haverford intending to be an English major because I loved to read and write. But I was disappointed by the English department's attitude, which seemed to be that students were base raw material to be processed, en masse, through the Freshman English machine. I found the philosophy department had more flair, more interesting students as majors, and the professors, more lively.

Ah, the professors!

  • There was Kathleen Wright, my intro philosophy professor, who I admired greatly because she was so quiet and so smart. She had spent years studying in Germany and she would write the philosophical terms on the board in the original Greek.
  • There was Richard Bernstein, who had a reputation so elevated I had never heard of him.
  • There was Paul Desjardins, whose white hair flew every which way in the wind, and who had us bow to each other before every East-West Philosophy class.
  • I also had Valentin Mudimbe, whose prominent forehead would gleam as he invited us to read the latest assignment in Existentialism.
  • There was Aryeh Kosman, who was dating my Classics professor/freshman advisor, and who was said to have been a vaudeville performer previously, and a very good one.
  • There was Lou Outlaw, who lived in a house with his family off Duck Pond and who seemed the most ordinary of the lot, and thus, the most subversive.

And I remember Aryeh saying he hated the word "lifestyle"

I spent a lot of time in this room, looking at Professor Gangadean's shoesEach philosophy professor at Haverford had their own style: not just their teaching style, but their personalities, which extended to their way of speaking, of dressing, the way they treated you outside the classroom, their personality. Even if my grasp of the subject was shaky, by the end of the year I knew quite a bit about the professor. I couldn't name five things about the Dhammapada without checking my notes, but I remember Ashok Gangadean had excellent taste in clothes, particularly his shoes.

Why philosophy?

I wasn't looking for a "practical" major. I thought the point of going to college was to get a broad education rather than a narrow one. College was the time to read things and study things you weren't going to be reading on your own, to study the basic underpinnings, and to help form the way you thought about all the other things you had to do. Having a whole semester to read the Confucian Analects, or study Rawls' Theory of Justice, that was the luxury of higher learning. At eighteen, I didn't know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. There was no specific preparatory course for my job. In fact, it didn't even exist at the time.

 

Magill Library, a sanctuary for learning I never swam in the duckpond, but I knew someone who did Lisa Marie Cloutier, philosophy major

 

Of course, it was all subjective

Trees are important, at Haverford as well as Mali and everywhere else The time of day that a class was held, the time of year, the room it was held in, and the smell of the room, all contributed to the total effect of the subject. For example, in Paul Desjardins' class we met early in the morning, when it felt like we were the only ones awake. I can still recall his lean, tall figure -- always in a suit -- hands behind his back, no visible books or papers, striding up the path to Gest. We met in those beautiful but odd high-ceilinged rooms with the light coming through the wooden windows, where I could see my fellow students walking up towards the dining center, and the trees outside on the green. I'd settle into the wooden chair, waiting for Paul to begin his extemporaneous, beguiling, non-stop stream of thoughts. That was all part of the experience.

I loved the architecture at Haverford I may be biased in thinking that philosophy was the essence of the college, but weren't we all engaged in the pursuit of, and love of, knowledge? I sensed a consistent philosophy underlying the way things were done at Haverford:
  • We sat around tables facing each other, encouraging students to participate and feel responsible for the direction of the class.
  • The buildings were plain but very much suited to the overall spirit of the place.
  • We didn't have a football team, or fraternities.
  • We took a perverse pride in being not so well known.
Marinating in Honor Code fluid

The lacrosse team debating about the Honor CodeDuring the annual Plenary and consideration of the Honor Code, the college's philosophical core was revealed most obviously, when we debated at length and passionately. We talked about the social Honor Code more than the academic Honor Code; the academic part was like a job that you did correctly, whereas the social Honor Code was fluid, and more challenging.

At Haverford, part of the "love of wisdom" and the pursuit of wisdom was also about learning how to handle and understand people, as much as it was about understanding ideas or understanding oneself. Being surrounded by beautiful grounds and buildings, and people who had been there for a long time, like the professors, the groundskeepers, the staff, made Haverford a special place to study philosophy. It was all part of what I learned.

Moving to the Fine Arts camp

I loved the seasons at Haverford, especially spring and fall I was a content and happy philosophy major for the first two years at Haverford. I didn't know what I was going to do with philosophy, but I was okay with that. Then, in my junior year, I took a photography course from Willie Williams. Essentially, I became a photography major for the last two years at Haverford. It's hard to explain, but photography really appealed to me and challenged me, and I felt that if I worked at it hard enough, I could do some good work with it.

When I returned from the Peace Corps, I enrolled in the three year Master of Fine Arts program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. In the last year there I moved into creating work for the internet. Again, it was hard to explain. I had no predisposition toward the internet but it appealed, challenged, and interested me. I found my niche.

In my spare time, I read, exercise, and surf the web.

Today I am a website developer. I work for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, building and maintaining their website. As an independent contractor, I've designed several websites for non-profit organizations and small companies over the past two years.

Actually, the job of website designer is still evolving. Mostly I format material to upload onto the internet: editing text, cropping and adjusting graphics, figuring out how users will approach the website and arranging the pages into a coherent, navigable scheme.

Just answer the question, please

So why the hell did I major in philosophy?. Now I can ask why the hell did I major in photography? too. And why the hell did I study Bambara?

My answer is, It's good to have had the experience. Even if I never speak another word of Bambara again, I learned skills that I can use when I learn another language. In the same way, graduate photography theory was easier after having studied philosophy in undergrad, and in some cases having read the same texts.

I think it's legitimate to say that studying these things enriched my life. All those philosophy papers where I had to explain a text or line of reasoning, gave me the ability and confidence to write well and explain my ideas. This is a valuable and not entirely common skill.

We had some great dinners in college. That's Katherine Roller, Paul Mecklenburg, and Christopher YoungOnce in awhile the ocean currents in my brain will cast flotsam from the past onto the sand of consciousness. When I introduced the redesigned website to the folks at Presbyterian, I began with the quote from Heraclitus that you cannot step in the same river twice. Another time, I spent the better part of a forty-minute run explaining to my running partner the story of the cave, from Plato's Republic.

But just as having had a good basic grounding in the way photographs are made, manipulated, and deployed is valuable in this media-saturated world, it has been valuable to have had a basic grounding in ways of thinking and analysis. I especially appreciate having had the opportunity to study not just the classics of Western philosophy but also Eastern and Indian philosophy. I believe that a grounding in Native American philosophy and African philosophy (which I understand Haverford to now offer) would also have been worthwhile.

Still pursuing wisdom

Besides that, I've retained a love of learning. As I go through life, I am interested in the accounts of others going through the same journey. Part of why I am so enamored by the internet is because it offers the possibility of connecting to others and communicating my thoughts to a broad audience. To me it is very much in the tradition of the things I was taught: valuing knowledge, trying to understand others, and accepting experiences as part of the broad work of building oneself.
 

We used to talk ...
 
...sometimes it seems that's all we ever did
Leanne Yanabu,
Website design and development
Haverford College asks:
Was your philosophy major valuable?
If you enjoyed reading this essay,
you might enjoy reading one on crushes

All contents Leanne Yanabu. All rights reserved.
Created: November 1, 1999. Last updated: March 10, 2009