David Crisp: Out of ignorance, scorn for philosophers

At last week’s Republican presidential debate, Sen. Marco Rubio made a case for vocational education by attacking philosophy.

“I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education,” he said. “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”


David Crisp

If he had paid a little more attention in college, he might have learned that “fewer philosophers” is preferable to “less philosophers.” But never mind.

Sen. Ted Cruz climbed on board, arguing that the Federal Reserve has been run by a “series of philosopher kings.” He apparently meant that as an insult, but Plato thought that was the very best way to govern a country.

It doesn’t work in a free-swinging democracy like America, where both philosophers and kings are rare, but it makes perfect sense for the Fed, whose members aren’t elected and who should have allegiances, and wisdom, beyond partisan passions.

Philosophers, who are no shrinking violets, struck back. They pointed out that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average welder makes only $36,300 a year. Philosophy and religion teachers, even at the junior college level, make $66,570.

Even people who don’t work in philosophy at all but simply have philosophy degrees seem to do better than welders: a median starting salary of $39,900, substantially more than welders (and a whole bunch more than journalists).

These numbers aren’t all strictly comparable. Some welders make much more, and “philosopher” doesn’t even show up as a job title. There are only 23,210 philosophy and religion teachers in the United States, compared to 357,400 welders, according to the BLS.

Still, the BLS projects below-average job growth for welders between now and 2022. Philosophy majors may find themselves working at jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.

So do we really need fewer, or even less, philosophers? No, we need far more—perhaps 300 million more.

My daughter’s semiannual jeremiad against higher education includes the claim that schools are failing to teach students what they really need to know, which is what human existence is all about. Students should be getting Plato and Aristotle in junior high school, not in sparsely attended college courses years after they have had to sort out the limits of human knowledge for themselves.

More philosophy, less metallurgy.

This is not so wild an idea as it may appear. If I happen to mention Socrates, Aristotle or, my goodness, Epictetus in a composition class, students’ faces turn to masks.

Yet a thorough grounding in classical philosophy used to be the basis of higher education. The rediscovery of Aristotle’s works helped spur the growth of universities as far back as the 12th century.

To vastly oversimplify a very long story, study of the ancient Greeks sparked an outpouring of academic interest that led, by hook and crook, to the scientific revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, “The Simpsons,” and all of the other delights and ailments of modern civilization.

That should be of particular concern to Rubio, because interest in philosophy also stoked the ideas that led to revolutionary conceptions of liberty, freedom of speech and democracy.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Bacon, Locke and Newton … I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.” Not a welder in the bunch.

Part of what drives ISIS is the desire to roll back all of those centuries of enlightenment. To send our young people into battle against Islamic jihadists without a grounding in the history of Western thought is to send them into battle unarmed.

Recent protests at Yale and the University of Missouri demonstrate that students are casting about for something more in college than a chance to interview with Amazon.com. They seek real meaning among all the notes and quizzes and credit hours.

An intense study of philosophy isn’t for everybody, not even for me. Despite years of studying and teaching German, I can’t even handle Hegel and Kant in English, much less in the original language.

But even this dim bulb learned that David Hume’s thoughts about epistemology pay off in the craft of journalism, where the border between reality and self-delusion can be awfully blurry.

And I learned in my cub reporting years that a Socratic dialogue can be a cold compress of logic on a fevered attempt to sort out right and wrong in a heated public controversy.

Sens. Rubio and Cruz, and their fellow presidential candidates, might well take counsel from Baruch Spinoza, whose ideas about intellectual, political and religious liberty caused him to be excommunicated and anathematized from the Jewish church in Amsterdam in 1656.

Unruffled and incorruptible, Spinoza kept right on working.

“It is the part of a wise man,” he wrote, “not to bewail nor to deride, but to understand.”

We need more philosophers like that.

David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.

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