Boston College is home to a discipline that is flourishing intellectually. Embodied by students and faculty, its active presence has made a significant impact on the university, coinciding with its Jesuit-Catholic mission. The notable collective I am referring to is BC’s Philosophy Department.
While philosophy remains somewhat small in comparison to more sought-after degrees like business or communications, it has become increasingly popular at BC with the department’s unique and thoughtfully-constructed course curriculum. Although the study of philosophy as a discipline has appreciably developed in the last decade, there are distinct aspects of BC’s program that make it unconventional and one-of-a-kind.
Patrick Byrne, professor in philosophy and former chair of the department (2003-2010) explains the transformation in the study of the discipline in the last few decades.
“Many years before I became chair, philosophy was taught purely around ‘theory of knowledge,’ but around 1980, the department shifted from this epistemological and metaphysical interest to more ethical, social, and political issues.”
This shift said goodbye to scholastic manuals and introduced a more broad-minded, open form of philosophy, paving the way for an interdisciplinary framework.
The department integrates three main areas of philosophical study: historical, continental, and practical (the latter of which includes applied ethics and explores political and social justice issues). However, BC’s department has received the most considerable attention from its two most compelling programs: PULSE and Perspectives.
Both undergraduate programs were created under the guided leadership of Rev. Joseph Flanagan, professor and department head from 1965 to 1993. Flanagan’s initiative was indispensable in establishing and progressing the foundation of BC’s philosophy program. Flanagan passed away in 2010, leaving behind a 47 year teaching legacy that inspired the hearts and minds of students and faculty alike.
PULSE started in the 1970’s during “a time of social ferment and dissent,” says Byrne. The program grounds its mission in the words of Aristotle who claimed, “We learn by doing.” Consequently, the program goes beyond the classroom by way of community service placements where students are directly engaged in social justice issues. This includes after-school programs, health clinics, and homeless shelters, to name a few. The ultimate goal of this unique program is to foster a connection between in-class learning, reflection, and community service.
Another unique component of the department is the Perspectives Program: a four-year interdisciplinary course of study that incorporates both natural sciences and the humanities. The first question asked in Perspectives is: What is the best way to live? This question is consistent with the program’s mission for self-reflection and examining “who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.”
Director of the Perspectives Program since 1998, Professor Brian Braman, describes the vision and strength of the program.
“What I have tried to do is build up the profile of the program so more students are aware of the unique opportunity to experience a significantly integrated liberal arts education.”
The greatest strength the program has to offer, however, is its dedicated teachers.
“We’ve got a tremendous faculty who are great teachers,” says Braman. “The passion they have and the way in which they can communicate what they do philosophically excites students about how to think significantly about their own lives.”
Undergraduate Program Director Eileen Sweeney emphasizes the outcome of this teaching, particularly the way in which it cultivates relationships between students and teachers.
“One of the pieces of genius was the full year two-semester sequence,” recognizes Sweeney. “I realize what the experience is being with and seeing the same students. What we share is time and experience together.”
Sweeney concludes her point by referring to the deep insight of Rev. Flanagan who once said, “you can’t let people argue with each other until they become friends.”
In addition to creating that close student-teacher dynamic, Byrne reiterates the program’s multi-faceted curriculum.
“We offer a range of courses across department lines—theology, economics, romance languages—which help students see connections between philosophy and other parts of their studies.”
This interdisciplinary intent is not lost on students pursuing philosophy, as reflected by MCAS ’19 student Jessie Shaw, double majoring in theater and philosophy.
“I felt it complemented my theater major really well,” admits Shaw. “I’ve chosen to save my soul with Perspectives,” she says light-heartedly—something Professor Braman tells his students. “Perspectives is literature, it’s history, it’s art. I’m so indecisive academically, but the program fulfills all my academic needs,” something she claims has deepened her understanding significantly.
When asked about his favorite part of philosophy, economics and Perspectives double major Alex Gardiner, MCAS ’19, admits, “I like how it makes you stop in your tracks. It makes you think about why. To me, philosophy is the progression of human understanding and is just as much a part of everyone’s life whether they accept that or not.”
Sweeney points out a certain kind of temperament that distinguishes philosophy students from others—namely, their “ability to be open to new thought and have substantive conversation about truth, reasons, and values.”
The breadth and depth of BC’s philosophy program creates an outlet for students to grow, reflect, and explore the most fundamental questions of human existence. With its dedicated faculty, passionate teaching, and integrative curriculum, the department continues to thrive, catching the eye of both students and educators.
According to Sweeney, students will not leave BC remembering lines from Plato. Instead, it is the deep insight of meaningful questions such as “what values are important to me” and “how do I want to live my life”—questions students will long reflect upon beyond their BC experience.