“The purpose of philosophers is to show people what is right under their noses,” longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer noted. Marco Rubio, looking down on philosophy from below, naturally can’t see what’s right under his nose.
“For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education,” the senator from Florida said in this week’s Republican presidential debate. “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”
Rubio’s critics compounded his offense by offensively fixating on the wrong error. FiveThirtyEight.com, a statistics site displaying here the limits of operating without a philosophical mindset, griped that “when it comes to earnings for people who only have undergraduate degrees, philosophy majors have the fourth-highest median earnings, $81,200 per year, out-ranking business and chemistry majors.”
The small fiction that welders earn more than philosophers, anecdotally called into question by the bank account of the only philosophy major (and woman) on the stage, pales next to the giant falsehood that colleges properly function as utilitarian enterprises producing cogs for the larger economic machine. It’s as if the senator’s detractors seized on his use of “less” rather than “fewer” to rebut his point. If Rubio hadn’t skipped Logic 101, he might have recognized his premise—that the paper you receive on graduation day matters only in relation to the paper you receive on all the days that follow—as not only gauche but false, saving himself from subsequent errors.
Whereas the Left misunderstands higher education as political indoctrination, the Right errs in seeing it as job training. The current unrest at the University of Missouri, Yale, and points beyond highlights the former error. Rubio’s applause line at the Milwaukee Theater exemplifies the latter mistake. Both of these misconceptions of higher education flatter the ruling class. The real role of higher education threatens it.
A true liberal arts education, buttressed by moral instruction in youth, makes men fit to govern, both in the state and in themselves. Without an education in what Matthew Arnold termed “the best which has been taught and said,” self-government becomes difficult if not impossible. With it, those fit to rule hail from every class.
University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins, who helped spearhead a campaign that sold one million sets of The Great Books of the Western World to everyday Americans at midcentury, reflected on the importance of the liberal arts to our democracy in the introductory volume of that 54-book set: “The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen twenty-four hours a day all his life long mean either democracy must fall prey to the loudest and most persistent propagandists or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves.”
Hutchins argued that the trades themselves offered a better education than schools in vocational training. He wrote in The Higher Learning in America, “Turning professional schools into vocational schools degrades the universities and does not elevate the professions.” Americans surely need vocational training, but Harvard and even Big State U. seem the wrong places for it. Mission creep turning classrooms into activist cadres or job training slowly pushes out the legitimate purpose of higher education.
As the sideshows capture the big tent, the activists on the Left and the utilitarians on the Right hubristically question the presence of the liberal arts. But the narrow concerns of both groups soon reaches a sell-by-date and spoils. Fanon and Marcuse don’t age well, and neither do those chanting sing-songy slogans, pacing under sandwich boards, or partaking in any of the other activities that the ideologists inspire. The advocates of specialized learning championed DOS over Dostoyevsky in the 1980s. Dostoyevsky endures. DOS, well, DOS not.
Specialized education of the like Rubio clamored for does little to prepare citizens for citizenship. Will Durant, the son of a factory worker who brought philosophy to the masses through the authorship of cheap “Little Blue Books” and 25-cent-a-head lectures at New York’s Labor Temple, observed the phenomenon of specialization as it pertained to liberal arts disciplines themselves as far back as the 1920s:
All that remained was the scientific specialist, who knew “more and more about less and less,” and the philosophical speculator, who knew less and less about more and more. The specialist put on blinders to shut from his vision all the world but one little spot, to which he glued his nose. Perspective was lost. “Facts” replaced understanding; and knowledge, split into a thousand isolated fragments, no longer generated wisdom. Every science, and every branch of philosophy, developed a technical terminology intelligible only to its exclusive devotees; as men learned more about the world, they found themselves ever less capable of expressing to their educated fellow-men what it was that they had learned. The gap between life and knowledge grew wider and wider; those who governed could not understand those who thought, and those who wanted to know could not understand those who knew. In the midst of unprecedented learning popular ignorance flourished.
In other words, those inside the liberal arts as much as those outside of it bear responsibility. But even back then, a hunger for philosophy existed among the masses no matter how much cliquish philosophers did to make it their exclusive fare. The Story of Philosophy containing Durant’s enduring observation remained among annual bestsellers for four of five years between 1926 and 1930, topping the list for 1927.
It’s difficult to imagine such a book sniffing a bestseller list or Encyclopedia Britannica succeeding in giving away one million sets of The Great Books of the Western World today. Such an anti-intellectual environment, fostered in part by snobbish intellectuals actively seeking apartness from the society that surrounds, ensures that audiences clap lines that they should boo during debates. When I wrote about this phenomenon four years ago in Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America, the first words on page one read: “Stupid is the new smart.” Rubio’s vulgar soundbite eliciting cheers sadly proves that all but the word “new” stands the test of time.
Blue-collar intellectual Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher who produced The True Believer, The Passionate State of Mind, and The Ordeal of Change while working on San Francisco’s docks, personified the symbiosis between labor and philosophy. He picked vegetables, washed dishes, toiled in New Deal work camps, and loaded and unloaded cargo. He read Montaigne, de La Rochefoucauld, and Pascal. He viewed both as work and leisure as essential to living. The life of the mind and the toil of the body complimented rather than conflicted with one another.
It’s unnecessary for philosophers to become welders or stevedores. But in a society with 319 million rulers instead of one, the education fit for a king must be everyone’s education.
We may need greater numbers of welders. But we really need a greater number of welders who read philosophy.