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In Defense of Philosophers

During Tuesday’s GOP debate on Fox, Senator Marco Rubio made two controversial statements that fueled a social media fire for much of the night. First, he argued that “Welders make more money than philosophers”—a claim that was quickly shot down by fact checkers. He quickly followed up that statement by saying, “We need more welders and less philosophers.”

Now, first, it’s worth noting that—unless your definition of “philosopher” is very broad—we probably don’t have nearly as many philosophers as we do welders here in the U.S. But that’s really beside the point. Within Rubio’s statement are a series of assumptions about education and vocation that we should consider carefully.

The first claim Rubio seemed to be making was that technical work such as welding—perhaps the sort of work one might call “blue collar”—is more important and valuable than the ideological, intellectual work of a philosopher.

This could’ve been a statement made primarily to appeal to populist GOP voters. It fits with the “us vs. them” rhetoric that tends to dominate our politics recently—the idea that elites in Washington are out to get you, that the snobby media care little for the lives of everyday Americans (echoed in Cruz’s later statement that journalists would care more about illegal immigration if their jobs were the ones in jeopardy).

But honestly, I don’t think we ought to question the important role philosophy plays—or at least, ought to play—in our political and cultural lives. Those who study ideas and try to transmit them to the larger public are often (though not always) performing an important societal role. Not all of them will be famous or world-changing. But as New York Times columnist Nick Kristoff put it,

So yes, welders are important. And we need them. But philosophy matters too—and oftentimes, ideas (and their consequences) get tossed by the wayside all too often in American political debate. We need voters who are also deep thinkers, who are asking the question Rand Paul repeatedly asked Tuesday evening: What does it mean to be a conservative? What are we trying to conserve? 

Perhaps what Rubio really meant was that we need fewer college kids to pursue “impractical” majors like philosophy or the humanities, and rather should encourage them to get simple vocational training. His claim seemed to indicate that profit and practicality should be the primary motivators behind the job or major one chooses.

But not only do welders not make as much as philosophers, as has already been pointed out—Rubio’s statement constitutes an assumption about education that is both fallacious and potentially harmful.

While there is nothing wrong with pursuing a technical degree, there is nothing wrong with pursuing a classical liberal arts education, either. In fact, as TAC contributor and George Washington University professor Samuel Goldman pointed out on Twitter on Tuesday:

Granted, we have problems with student debt and degree completion that indicate it wouldn’t be a bad thing if more people pursued vocational training. Too many students graduate from four-year universities with mountains of students loans weighing them down. But this isn’t the only answer, or the best one, to this problem. Classical liberal arts education trains the mind and soul of a person. It gives them a breadth and depth of knowledge that extends beyond the realm of career, and helps make them better thinkers, communicators, and responders. These are skills a person can bring into any job setting. 

Take, for instance, Carly Fiorina: regardless of what you think of her as a political candidate or businesswoman, it’s worth noting that she got a degree in philosophy and medieval history from Stanford University… then went on to become CEO of Hewlett Packard. It’s not exactly welding—but it’s a high-paying job in a technical field, which seemed to be what Rubio was getting at.

Or we could talk about Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soul Craft and The World Beyond Your Head—he has a Ph.D. in political philosophy, but after experiencing the doldrums of desk work, decided to become a motorcycle mechanic. Yet does this mean he spurns academia or the education he received? It does not appear so; as he puts it in Shop Class as Soul Craft, “When the point of education becomes the production of credentials rather than the cultivation of knowledge, it forfeits the motive recognized by Aristotle: ‘All human beings by nature desire to know.'”

Ultimately, the best sort of education is one that does not just make you a better worker, but rather, the sort makes you a better, fuller human being. The sort that informs your soul as well as your mind, your understanding of ethics and prudence as well as your understanding of a given skill set. The classes that correspond with a philosophy major or degree are the very sorts that help cultivate phronesis—prudence—an understanding of the world and its workings that helps us make the best decisions in our homes, our workplaces, or at the ballot box. 

To be a “philosopher” is to be a lover of wisdom, if we are to take the Greek literally. And that is not something to be despised. It’s a virtue even a welder can put to good use.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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