Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Studying Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London

Heythrop College is 400 years old in 2014.

I have been teaching philosophy at Heythrop College for seventeen years. This was my first full time teaching appointment after leaving Oxford. Unlike many academics keen to climb the career ladder, and who consequently tend to migrate from one institution to another at the beginning of their careers, I have stayed put. Why?

The answer lies in what I discovered when I arrived here. I quickly discovered just how unique and valuable an institution Heythrop is. We are a specialist college focussing on just philosophy and theology. We are small too, which means that students and staff not only share a passion for the same subjects, they are also known to each other. Wander the corridors of Heythrop and you’ll find people deep in conversations about philosophy and theology. Irrespective of their religious belief - or lack of religious belief - students and staff are bound together by shared, deep interested in fundamental questions about reality, morality, and the human condition. Despite our obvious differences, we form a closely-knit intellectual family.

Coming straight from Oxford, I also very much valued Heythrop’s Oxbridge-style tutorial system and the opportunity it gives students to really explore a topic with someone who knows it inside out. When the New College of the Humanities was announced, Dominic Lawson wrote in the Guardian that the New College was charging for was the tutorial system offered by Oxford and Cambridge Universities – which is "the single most valuable aspect of their educational offering". But Lawson was wrong to claim that one-to-one tutorials are only offered by Oxbridge. They also form a significant part of Heythrop’s undergraduate programme.

Heythrop’s philosophy department is a hive of activity. World-class research is being done, but I soon learned that the staff also have that rare quality: they actually enjoy teaching. That shows in the results our students achieve.

Heythrop is a unique and valuable institution. Philosophy is a unique and valuable subject. These are obviously “challenging times" for humanities degrees such as philosophy. As fees increase and the economy flatlines, prospective students with a passion for philosophy may find themselves drawn by the siren voices of those who say philosophy is an impractical, “head in the clouds” subject of little relevance to real life. The irony is that, by choosing the subject they love, philosophy students are also choosing one of the most career friendly degrees. The skills it fosters are highly transferable and valued within, for example, the business sector.
In support of this, take a look at GRE exam scores of those pursuing fifty different science and humanities degrees in the US. The GRE exam is sat in the third undergraduate year, and has three parts: verbal, quantitative (mathematical) and analytical. How do philosophers fare? Out of fifty science and humanities programmes, philosophy ranks first on the analytic component. It also ranks first on the verbal component. Philosophy also ranks first out of all humanities degrees on the maths component (with only maths-heavy science subjects scoring better). Philosophy also ranks first out of fifty degree programmes on the LSAT – the law school entry exam. Those studying religion also do well on these tests. The attached graph plots how the different degrees do on two of the three GRE scores. Where is philosophy? Philosophy graduates are smart all-rounders. They possess a wide range of highly transferable skills that employers value. Spread the word, please.

Heythrop is an extraordinary place. It’s time the college received the recognition it deserves. The approaching anniversary gives us an excellent opportunity to make the college better known as a hive of intellectual activity that really is both unique and of enormous benefit to the wider society in which it is located.

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