This New York Times article is making the rounds among those in the philosophy profession. Nationally, enrollments in philosophy are increasing. This is good news for the profession. I hope it translates into increased enrollments at Rockford as well.
The article speculates that the increase is in large part due to students' increasing awareness and curiosity with the ethics involved in things like the Iraq war, political scandals, technological advances, and the environment. No doubt that's a factor, but I am skeptical if this is what it is really about. Maybe these things get the students initial attention, but I think there are other important factors. Of course this is purely anecdotal and speculation.
Some of this might just be a pendulum swing from more trendy and career-focused majors to the broader, more traditional majors in humanities. Students wanted very specific majors that tied directly to a job/career upon graduating. Possibly, now they are looking for majors that teach broad-based, more universal intellectual skills: critical thinking and writing, effective communication, and the ability to understand and deal with ideas in general. These skills give one wider opportunities in the future; as opposed to the training in a specific skill that may become obsolete or outsourced.
One factor in this might be the realization that what is needed in the student's search for a career is adaptability and flexibility. This requires a more broad-based ability to think and reason; not just some particular job skills. Philosophy teaches one how to critically and analytically read a text; how to pick out the important ideas; how to understand the ways these ideas connect; and how to communicate this. These skills are effective if you are reading Aristotle or the CEO's annual corporate plan.
Philosophy, of course, is not the only major to teach these skills. Ideally, all BA majors do this, but specifically humanities majors are good at this. I think philosophy does this the best because it is often primarily focused on doing just this. You don't read Descartes to find out about how the mind actually works. You read it to understand what Descartes is doing; how does he get from point A and to point B. As such, philosophy is focused on the process; not so much the results. (This is not to say the results aren't important: they are the goal, the point of all the work, but philosophy as a discipline is focused on the question and the how of answering it. The answer is left for the philosopher himself to figure out.)
In my experience, the students who become philosophy majors fall into three groups (these are not mutually exclusive nor jointly exhaustive). The first group are the geeks--like myself--who just love to discuss ideas no matter the context. They will gravitate to a philosophy major because in philosophy there are really no restrictions about what can be talked about. (The restrictions are in the manner--reason and logic, not in the content.).
The second group are those that see philosophy as great training for law school. Philosophy majors, as a group, are almost always near the top of the listing of majors that do the best on the LSAT (and other standardized tests).
The third group are late-comers to philosophy. They've tried other majors--this might even be there second BA--and are dissatisfied. The other majors were filled with classes that involved just memorization or the uncritical employment of formulas. These courses usually just required them to return back to the professor what was said in class or the text. Now this might have been just bad teaching and not the disciplines themselves, but for these students, philosophy was like a breathe of fresh air. It challenged them, for the first time, to think about the world, about themselves, and about their ideas. It is as if they have been using a computer for years just as a word processor, but suddenly discover that it can connect to the internet.
I think it is the latter group that might be a large factor in the swelling of philosophy enrollments. Most students come out of 12 years of school that is more and more just about standardized exams. There are force-fed all kinds of content, with little in the way of integration or explanation of the importance of the content. They are largely not taught to think as such, just to absorb the content and then provide that content on the exams. This in reinforced by a wide-spread cultural relativism that views anything other than brute facts as one's opinion and not subject to evaluation or criticism.
Then they take a philosophy course. The teacher, annoyingly I'm sure, keeps asking them "Why do you believe that?" or "Why do you think that is the case?" Their usual responses of "That's just my opinion" or "That's the way I was brought up to believe" are no longer enough. Many don't care. Others suddenly start to wonder, why do I believe that? And a philosopher is born.