… make higher education faster and easier to access, especially vocational training. For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.
Marco Rubio is mistaken about the purpose of studying philosophy. The purpose is not mainly to earn a big salary as a professional philosopher. It is to give student a broader perspective on life. This is important for everyone, whether a welder or a United States Senator.
Everyone has a philosophy, whether they know it or not. Everyone operates on certain assumptions about how you know what’s true and what’s false, and what’s right and what’s wrong. Some people get their basic assumptions about life from parents, teachers or religion. Some get them from peers. All too many get them from the mass media.
The study of philosophy helps you to look at your assumptions and decide how well they stand up. It helps you to understand the assumptions of people different from you and where they’re coming from.
And it gives you a kind of cosmic perspective that helps you escape the limits of the here and now. It can be a kind of spiritual practice.
Once the study of the liberal arts—including philosophy—was reserved for the upper classes to give them the perspective they needed to be successful rulers. Education for the lower classes, what there was of it, consisted of basic literacy and vocational skills.
With the rise of democracy, many Americans had the dream that the kind of education once limited to the aristocracy could be made available to everyone. Thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey believed that American citizens could not be both ignorant and free.
That’s why Americans established free public schools and free or cheap public universities. It was also a reason for the eight-hour work day and five-day work week—to give people time and energy to engage in something else besides labor.
I fear we’re reverting to the older idea—liberal education for the elite, vocational education for the masses.
Of course vocational education is important. It shouldn’t be stigmatized. Rubio is right about that. The intelligence and knowledge required to be a good auto mechanic, electrician, plumber or other skilled crafts worker is not to be despised. And they contribute more to the well-being of society than hedge fund managers, political consultants or bond salesmen.
And it also is true that there is a limited market for professional philosophers. Rubio is right about that, too. I have friends who are professional philosophers, and they all think the field is overcrowded.
Some of Rubio’s critics have pointed out that philosophy professors on average earn more than welders. But I think that is weighted by older faculty members with tenure, whose successors aren’t necessarily going to be in the same pay grade. The earnings of entry-level professional philosophers are not good. Of course entry-level blue collar workers are not doing well either.
The formal study of philosophy in a college setting gives you expert guidance and a group of peers who are studying along with you. But anybody with access to a good public library has the resources to study philosophy on their own, or with a group of friends.
Many of the great philosophers of the past had day jobs. The study of philosophy doesn’t have to be limited to the taking philosophy courses in college—which, the way things are going, may be less and less of an option.