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The Gift of Intellectual Cheerfulness: How Philosophy Has Prepared CUA Alums for Medicine, Web Designing and Even Snow Plowing

SocratesThe term “philosopher” usually conjures up images of a thinker, a scholar, a sage. Philosophers are men and women equipped with the ability to reason. They study ethics and logic and what it means “to be.”

Which calls to mind a question that the parents of a philosophy major might ask: What is their son or daughter planning “to be” when they graduate?

Catholic University requires its undergraduates to take philosophy, and approximately 3.5 percent of them major in the subject — a percentage that equals or exceeds that of any other university in the United States, according to Rev. Kurt Pritzl, O.P., dean of the School of Philosophy. But once these graduates earn degrees in philosophy, what do they do then?

While Father Pritzl says he wants to see “scholars of a high caliber” graduating from the School of Philosophy, he also knows that, logically, there aren’t enough jobs in academia for every philosophy graduate.

“We want to see [all our philosophy majors] figure out how to use the gifts they’ve been given and figure out the Truth,” Father Pritzl says. “Philosophy teaches people to think very clearly and present their ideas really well. That’s a huge advantage in any career.”

Do philosophy graduates agree with Father Pritzl about the career advantages of their university major? How about those who have ended up in nonphilosophical careers such as medicine, Web design or even landscaping? How would they say their philosophy studies have helped them in their work?

One such alumnus, emergency room physician John Safranek, M.A. 1992, Ph.D. 1997, has a ready answer: Studying philosophy has not only bolstered his Christian faith, helping him appreciate the wisdom of the Church over two millennia, it has also made him a better, wiser medical practitioner.

As a medical school graduate in the early 1990s, Safranek was interested in medical ethics, but he wanted a background in philosophy that extended beyond ethics. He achieved his goal via a CUA master’s and doctorate in philosophy.

“Medical training is so focused on the sciences,” he says. “So many physicians are not able to analyze moral questions in a critical manner. People assume their medical knowledge provides expertise in these issues, but in fact it is lacking. Philosophical study is a source of knowledge and insight that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. More and more ethical issues arise and the majority of
physicians are not equipped to analyze those issues.”

His background in philosophy helped him stand up for ethical practices when the community hospital he works at wanted to institute a policy to prescribe the “emergency contraceptive” morning-after pill. Safranek says philosophy “gives you the courage to stand on your principle because you’ve come to see the truth on the position. It gave me the knowledge to understand the issues at stake and the courage to stand up publicly.”

Safranek told hospital administrators he would have no part in prescribing the morning-after pill and took the matter to the hospital’s board of directors. The board agreed and overrode the protocol.

“When various ethical questions arise in my job, philosophy allows me to see the critical issue under the issue at hand,” he says. “When someone is trying to decide whether they should undergo treatment, there are all sorts of issues that intersect — what the family wishes, what the patient wishes and what medicine has to offer. Philosophy teaches you to stand back and examine the fundamental issues so you’re not so caught up in the emotional aspect of it.”

Another philosophy major, Phil Miller, M.A. 1976, Ph.D. 1980, says he chose to transfer to CUA because his former university’s philosophy program focused more on the analysis of language than on asking the big questions. “The people in the philosophy school [at CUA] were asking the most important and compelling questions — questions about knowledge, ethics and politics that get to the heart of our human concerns,” he says.

Initially he planned to pursue a career as a tenured philosophy professor, but found that such positions were hard to come by. His interest in higher education eventually led him into textbook publishing, and he is now publisher for world languages at Prentice Hall in Upper Saddle River, N.J. His division publishes college-level language-learning textbooks.

“My job does not directly require that I know philosophy,” Miller says. “But philosophers ask fundamental questions about a lot of different disciplines. This was a good preparation for the kinds of questions we ask in textbook publishing: for example, what are the essential things that need to be communicated [in language textbooks] and how do we convey those to students?

“Philosophy forces you to think clearly, express your ideas clearly and assess the ideas of other people,” he continues, echoing Father Pritzl. “It’s that drive for clarity that is at the heart of philosophy and it’s very relevant in other pursuits — certainly in publishing and in my career.”

The European focus of CUA’s philosophy program required Miller to study several languages, which has helped him in his publishing specialty. For his studies, he was required to have a reading knowledge of French and German and he says he also developed an understanding of some Greek and Latin.

In addition, Miller values the scope of the topics the School of Philosophy taught him. “I am a big believer in the value of a liberal education,” he says. “If you have that background [and breadth of knowledge], you can learn skills on the job.”

For her part, Mia Petree, B.A. 1987, chose to study philosophy because she was looking for meaning in her life and her faith, and she says philosophy “got to the most basic questions.

“I really didn’t worry about a career path,” remembers Petree, who transferred to CUA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I felt like the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was more important than answering the question, ‘Where will this get me in three or five years?’ I was never at a loss for what to do. The people around me in the School of Philosophy were so intelligent that I felt like every one of them would be a success.”

Although Petree says she hasn’t found a use for Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in her job as a webmaster for Deloitte & Touche LLP, she says that the logic she uses in her work was developed while studying philosophy.

“I think I have an ability to perceive relationships among the information that I have to organize and present to the viewer,” she says. “I take technical information and present it in a nontechnical way. People who only have a technical education in this field have a harder time doing that.”

Petree met her husband, Mark Hurley, at CUA while doing some graduate work in philosophy. He also studied philosophy. The couple has three children and Petree says philosophy plays a huge role in raising a family.

“As a parent, gosh, all sorts of things come into play — ethics, theology, logic,” she says. “Kids can smell the untruth from a mile away. Philosophy helps me help them discern the truth. For a parent, what’s more important than that?”

Philosophy has also helped to strengthen the family’s faith.

“Faith and reason go hand in hand for Catholics,” she says. “Studying philosophy provided me with the key to finding meaning in my own life and directing my life in a way that would bring me peace.”

Though the careers chosen by Petree, Safranek and Miller are “non-philosophical,” it’s not difficult to see how philosophy informs their work. More unusual is the case of a philosophy alumnus whose job is squarely in the world of manual labor.

“I don’t understand the mechanics of the snow plow any better because I studied philosophy,” admits Mark Rasevic, who runs a snow removal and landscaping business in Bethesda, Md., and who studied philosophy at CUA from 1991 to 1994. But philosophy has influenced his career in other ways, he says.

“The philosopher is not a practical person in the world,” muses Rasevic. But, studying philosophy “gives you a unique vantage point from which to view the world.”

Rasevic Landscape Co., which employs 14 people, brings in $1.5 to $2 million annually, while Rasevic Snow Services does snow removal for such customers as the International Monetary Fund, the British Embassy and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The landscaping and snow-removal entrepreneur earned undergraduate degrees in philosophy and biology at Duke University and worked in the gardens of that campus while a student. He enjoyed the work and before he finished college he had decided he wanted to be a landscaper. He also loved philosophy, however, and decided
to do graduate studies at CUA.

He says his background in philosophy helps him in subtle ways in his career. He finds himself calling upon the wisdom of the great philosophers, either directly or indirectly, while working with his customers.

For example, the landscaper says he makes use of Socrates’ statement that education is not a matter of putting sight into blind eyes, but a matter of tweaking vision. If Rasevic is talking to customers about grading and land elevations and they don’t seem to understand, he will try to find out if they understand at all, or if they are “blind” on the matter. If they have the slightest grasp of the concept, he will try to educate them by presenting the situation in a different way — tweaking their vision. If they are “blind” and admit to him that they do not have the ability to comprehend what he’s talking about, he will ask them to trust him as an expert in his field.

Many philosophy alumni do end up in the teaching profession, of course, regardless of whether philosophy becomes the focus of their instruction. When Paul O’Herron, B.S. 1965, M.A. 1975, got his CUA undergraduate degree in physics and decided to pursue a master’s in philosophy, he knew he eventually would be returning to his family farm in New York and that jobs in philosophy would not be easy to come by.

“The attractiveness of the subject pulled me in rather than the practicality,” he says. “Fortunately, since I had [the undergraduate degree in] science, I could go into teaching science and math.”

O’Herron taught physics and science at the high school level, and philosophy part time at Mount Saint Mary College, until his retirement two years ago.

He says that having a background in philosophy helped him as a science teacher because he could see things in a more unified way. That helped him to present material to his students with a logical, ordered approach.

“Philosophy itself is kind of fun,” he says. “It makes you more ‘intellectually cheerful,’ makes you more whole or round. It’s stimulating and that effect remains with a person.”

Philosophy relates to many different topics, and studying it can lead to understanding many other things, he adds. O’Herron explains that philosophy is supposed to include the study of every part of life, “and in society, we need generalists who see the whole picture.”

Like O’Herron, Beverly Whelton, M.S.N. 1978, M.A. 1987, Ph.D. 1996, put her philosophy education to use in teaching. Also like O’Herron, she teaches courses related to both philosophy and a second subject she majored in at CUA — in her case, nursing.

A moral crisis led her to study philosophy. While working as a nurse in Washington, D.C., Whelton witnessed second-term abortions and, deeply troubled, turned back to God. After seeing doctors ending lives, she felt she had to find out how a separation could have occurred between these physicians and their ethical duty to save lives.

“I knew there was something in philosophy that led to the answers,” she says.

Whelton was raised a Seventh Day Adventist but became a Catholic in 1993 as a result of her study for a master’s and doctorate in philosophy at CUA. Her turning point was studying St. Thomas Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God.

“I had been brought up in a church that says you cannot reason about God,” she says. At CUA she learned that Christianity is not anti-rational. “Studying philosophy grounds my life in the truth of the world, the truth of God. I can see the unity in the world, the unity in nature, all leading toward God.”

Whelton currently teaches the philosophy of nursing — the ethics of health care — at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, W.Va. Broader than bioethics, the philosophy courses she teaches focus on the complete care of a patient, not just issues related to the beginning and end of life.

Whelton has used her education to discern the Truth and to utilize the gifts she has been given, fulfilling the hope that Dean Pritzl has for all philosophy alumni.

“My daily life as a teacher of philosophy is who I am,” she says. “There’s an integrity when a person finds what they’re supposed to be, and that’s fulfilling.”

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Revised: March 2007

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