Zaid Shaikh was chosen for the Mackensen Award in Philosophy for the spring 2023 semester. Established in 1970 by part-time philosophy instructor, William Mackensen, the award is given to an outstanding senior student, based on academic excellence, outstanding service, and quality of philosophical writing.

Zaid recently took the time to answer some questions regarding his journey in studying philosophy thus far. The interview below was edited for continuity and clarity:

  • What drew you to study philosophy?

While I’d always been interested in studying Philosophy, I think what really cemented my pursuit of a philosophy degree is the AP Literature class I took in my senior year of high school. This was during a period of time when the transition to college was actively happening, with an imminent graduation and college applications in the works. Thus, choosing a major was a decision that was very much heavy on my mind, and I must say that, when the time came to apply to USM, I did not hesitate whatsoever. I knew my strengths and weaknesses—my likes and my dislikes. My SAT scores and high school grades were a clear indicator to me that while I struggled with mathematics, I was skilled in critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and reading comprehension.

“I genuinely believe that the way I think about our world has shifted entirely ever since I pursued philosophy. I’d like to think, at least, that I’ve become far more open-minded and reason-driven.”
— Zaid Shaikh, senior in Philosophy
Photo of Zaid Shaikh standing in a forested area

As I mentioned, my senior year experience was quite revealing, too. While I absolutely detested my time in AP Physics, AP Chemistry, and Honors Pre-Calc, I found respite in the AP LIT course. This was a space where my peers and I were encouraged to be open-minded and think more critically about our culture, about the world around us. We read books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next, which led to a rich discussion about mental health issues and the morality of psychological institutions. I thoroughly enjoyed the difficult questions we’d approach and dissect together as a class. As with my previous English classes, I realized that I simply did not mind writing essays—they were far easier for me than taking exams. And so, I chose Philosophy as my main course of study to explore more dilemmas and expand my mindset. Also supporting this major decision was my hope to one day become an attorney, so I enrolled in the accelerated law pathway, as well. I am glad to affirm that I’ve gotten just about everything I expected and wanted from the major, especially the tools I need to find success in law school.

  • Has studying philosophy changed your mind-set?

Absolutely, I genuinely believe that the way I think about our world has shifted entirely ever since I pursued philosophy. I’d like to think, at least, that I’ve become far more open-minded and reason-driven. With the number of argumentative papers I’ve written, I’ve truly come to realize that there are a plethora of routes one can take with a dilemma, and what ultimately matters is one’s reasoning. I’ve certainly come to terms with what I’ve found to be at the center of philosophical thinking: not all inquiries have a right or wrong answer. It is often for the philosophical community to conduct discourse over a dilemma to, progressively, come closer to the most reasonable answer—the one that stands to be the most resistant to objection. Over my time in the philosophy program, I strongly believe my argumentative and critical thinking skills have developed considerably. Altogether, the sheer amount of knowledge I’ve acquired being a philosophy student has undoubtedly allowed me to look at things with a wide-ranging, diverse perspective.

  • What advice would you give to students who are interested in philosophy but may feel intimidated to begin?

My advice to prospective philosophy students who feel intimidated would be to simply go into the major with an inquisitive mindset and the semesters will fly by. Know ahead of time that your greatest tools to succeed in this major will be strong reading and writing skills, and an ability to think openly and critically about philosophical subjects. You should know that you will have to write countless papers, with substantial expectations and page counts. You should know that this major will, expectedly, take a great deal of your time and that you will be spending many hours reading scores of assigned texts—almost all of which will be incredibly dense and complex. I know all of this sounds intimidating, but that’s part of the philosophy package. Know that if you are genuinely interested in philosophy, in learning about a wide variety of topics ranging from reality, existence, morality, death, knowledge, and so much more, then these intimidating aspects will only be a minor nuisance. If you would like to tap your feet into philosophy before committing to it, I highly recommend you read Plato’s The Republic. It was the first philosophy book I read and, after all of this time, it remains my most beloved. I think it perfectly encapsulates everything one can love about philosophy, in a text that really is entertaining and extremely easy to follow.

A few final words for any potential philosophy student reading: know that you will be in good hands, that you will have plenty of freedom to choose your course of study, and that everything you learn will be fruitful in some way—whether it be for tackling other courses or our world as a whole.