Marco Rubio has inspired plenty of chin-stroking over his recent remarks about welders earning more than philosophers.
“We need more welders and less philosophers,” he concluded in a recent debate.
The fact-checkers proceeded to fact-check, with many quickly declaring falsehood (e.g. 1, 2). Yet the series of subsequent quibbles over who actually makes how much continue to side-step the bigger issue. Though the liberal arts are indeed important and ought not be viewed simply in terms of “vocational training,” mainstream American culture is certainly fond of pretending as much.
The individualistic dream-stoking rhetoric, inflated expectations, and subsequent angst have become all too nightmarish a cliche among my generation, joined by ever-increasing attempts to secure more government goodies to keep the machine humming along. Surely there are many who approach the liberal arts with a healthy perspective, but at the same time, the jokes about the barista going for his third Master’s degree aren’t exactly jokes.
Rather than approaching each individual as a creative person with unique gifts and educational aspirations, we continue to pretend that one vocational or educational track ought to apply to all. At the same time, rather than approaching the so-called “job market” as an ecosystem of creativity and collaboration, filled with countless human needs waiting to be met, we revert to thinking only of ourselves, self-constructing our preferred vocational destinies while we move through the college assembly line.
Put simply, we have demonized the trades (and more) for a view of vocation and economic stewardship that is detached from the diversity of human gifts and the host of human needs. And yet, harmonizing these parts need not mean we embrace a narrowly utilitarian or efficiency-minded approach.
To connect these dots, TV host Mike Rowe once again offers a refreshing perspective, cutting through the more trivial aspects, and reminding us that this needn’t be “either-or.”
Personally, I’m convinced that more and greater opportunity exists in welding than philosophy. But I would not encourage one at the expense of another. That’s precisely how we’ve wound up with a workforce that’s both over-educated and under-trained. Never mind obscenely indebted. Also — it’s dangerous to conclude that one profession is superior to another simply because it pays more. Those kind of generalizations are fun but meaningless.
Having said that, I’m glad Rubio said what he said, because I know for a fact that employers are clamoring for welders. And I also know with certainty that a talented welder who is willing to go where the work is has an excellent chance to earn a six-figure salary. I have no idea if the same is true for a philosophy major, but I can assure you of this: an excellent welding program will cost a lot less than a Philosophy Degree from an excellent university…
…I don’t think we need fewer philosophers — I think we need more philosophers who can weld. Or better yet, more welders who can philosophize. Welding and Philosophy are not opposites – they’re two sides of the same coin. Likewise blue and white collar. Labor and Capitol. Employer and Employee.
There’s nothing magical about learning a skill or earning a degree. What matters most is the same stuff that’s always mattered. A willingness to work hard, to master a skill that’s in demand, and to go where the demand is. Work is not about the color of collars, or the relative size of the paycheck. It’s about pursuing opportunities where they exist, and creating them where they don’t.
Given this sort of framework, it’s unfortunate that Rubio’s refrain wasn’t better articulated, for my hunch is that he actually sees the world similarly. Still, the bigger-picture significance remains.
While Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton continue traveling the country promising “free” 4-year degrees to Be Whatever You Want to Be™, Rubio is at least attempting to challenge the status quo of blind, cookie-cutter educational consumerism.
As both Rowe and Rubio concur, the range of possibilities needs to be opened up, both practically and philosophically. Just as our approach to vocation ought not neglect our individual gifts and God-given dreams, it also ought not be divorced from practical concerns or the range of human needs and circles of exchange.
We ought to integrate a holistic view education with a realistic view of our prospects — economic, vocational, or otherwise — fighting for policies and institutions that affirm and channel that activity accordingly.