In Tuesday’s GOP debate, Marco Rubio quipped that “We need more welders and less philosophers.” For context, here is a longer chunk of his answer regarding the minimum wage and the topic of well paying jobs overall:
“…and make higher education faster and easier to access, especially vocational training. For the life of me I don’t know why we stigmatize vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”
“We need more welders and less philosophers” is a nice attention-grabbing soundbite, but it is sorely lacking in substance. There are a few fundamental assumptions behind this, and the larger quote regarding the topic of education which are just plain wrong. The first major claim is that we supposedly “stigmatize vocational education.” This is simply not the case. The general perception of the public by and large is that it’s better for someone to major in the STEM fields than it is to study the humanities or liberal arts in college. It’s not all that often you hear a joke about STEM majors being unemployed or underemployed, but the stereotype that goes with majoring in the humanities in college only qualifies the graduate to work as a barista at Starbucks has been around for a while, and the jokes have grown stale. If anything, vocational studies are propped up as the way to go, and the study of the arts is treated as a waste of time and money.
It’s certainly true that there are some silly arts and humanities classes and majors offered in public universities, and college educations are incredibly expensive at most universities but this doesn’t mean that studying philosophy or literature or any of the arts is necessarily a waste of time. There is an idea that a college education only exists for the sake of acquiring a high paying job, and therefore that the only worthwhile majors are those that lend themselves towards employment in higher paying fields. This idea, however, is simply not true. Higher education has traditionally been viewed as a means to develop well-rounded, well-informed adults. This doesn’t mean that the only purpose of higher education can be to study the humanities, but it should give us some insight as we look at the purpose of education and how it can best be used. When we stigmatize a humanities focused higher education, we face the danger of losing out on a massive amount of the stored capital of human history. The good things which have been passed along to modern humanity are not simply limited to technological advances (wonderful and useful as they may be). They also include Aristotelian logic, the beautiful art of Michelangelo, the virtuosity of Mozart’s music, and our overall understanding of the human condition.
There is an economic side to this quote which we need to look at also. It’s possible (and likely true) that the market demand for welders relative to the supply of welders is currently higher than it is for philosophers, but when the claim becomes that “we need” more of this and less of that in the market, it informs us that the speaker makes the massive assumption that he knows what’s best for a market consisting of hundreds of millions of unique people with unique desires and needs. Ultimately nobody needs an education in philosophy, and nobody needs a STEM or a vocational education. Instead people are able to make a choice for what helps them make the most progress towards whatever desires they may have.
In the grand scheme of things, there’s nothing more inherently valuable in being a welder than there is being a philosopher (and vise versa). There is an inherent dignity in work, and the dignity of that work does not vary from job to job (with the exception of jobs that require sinning to perform the work). When Marco Rubio assumes to tell people what “we need” he either comes to that conclusion based on a belief that one job is more honorable than another, or that he knows better than all kinds of people who have all kinds of specific and varied desires. We don’t need more welders and less philosophers, we need to have a solid understanding of the purpose of higher education, and the wide variety of jobs which people perform within a huge market of individuals. Welding is important if you want two metals fused together, and the humanities are important if you want a better understanding of humanity. Prosperity doesn’t come from any one particular job, it comes from serving your neighbors well and trading freely with them.