In the most recent Republican presidential primary debate, Senator Marco Rubio said:
“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.”
First of all, let me ignore the grammatical infelicity here and agree that the senator is absolutely right in his opinion that vocational education is not as appreciated as it should be in our time and place. One of the best books written on this topic is Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by Matthew Crawford, who happens to be a philosopher with a prestigious PhD who makes his living by working with his hands as a motorcycle repairman, and thus demonstrates that the we should beware of false alternatives in our political rhetoric. Crawford argues eloquently for a recognition of the value and dignity of manual labor, with a special emphasis on its skilled varieties. Life doesn’t offer us a stark choice between doing or thinking, and neither should any good system of education. There are different ways by which we can enjoy a life of thoughtful work. Welding can certainly be one of them. So can toiling as a philosopher.
To the claim that welders make more money than philosophers, my first response would be that if it’s true, then, so what? Would it follow as the senator seems to suggest that we need more welders, thereby increasing our available supply and, against presumably equal demand, competitively force their wages down to the level of the sages? Stranger yet is the fact that behind these remarks we can see the exact value assumption that’s gotten us in trouble: The belief that higher wages mean a higher value to our society. That’s precisely the equation that’s led us down the road of valuing college prep vastly more than vocational education, and trying to train everyone for white collar careers, whether that’s the best thing for a particular young person, or for the rest of us, in the first place. A mediocre hedge fund manager may make a lot more money than a great school teacher, or a master welder, but you can’t convince me that this is a good measure of their relative value to society. So even if the welders of the world are out there lighting their cigars with hundred dollar bills and the average philosopher can’t pay the rent, I don’t think that implies anything about the relative value of welders and philosophers.
When I first went to graduate school at Yale to become a philosopher, I remember seeing a newspaper clipping on a philosophy department bulletin board. It featured a photograph of a construction worker sitting on the ground, eating out of his steel lunch box, his hard-hat by his side, and with a copy of Heidegger open in front of him. I said to myself, “That’s it. That’s the role of philosophy - to help everyone become more thoughtful about their lives.” I spent fifteen years as a professor of philosophy in a great university and my goal was never to turn my students into wage-earning academic philosophers, but instead to help them develop a more robust philosophical dimension of their experience and thought, whether they went on to become doctors, lawyers, insurance agents, or welders.
And in my most recent two decades as a public philosopher working with people across industries and professions, my goal is the same. We need more good philosophy and philosophers in our time, not less of it and fewer of them. But that’s because we need more philosophical practitioners in all walks of life, including politics.
Rodin got it right in his famous sculpture of The Thinker, which I first saw in person many years ago. It surprised me to notice how muscular an individual is depicted in the statue. He’s obviously a man of action as well as of thought. Rodin had expressed a deep insight. The good thinker should ideally be a proficient doer; and the active doer, a careful thinker. Only then will things have a chance to go well.
This is something all our candidates for high office should keep in mind. Doing without thinking is much more dangerous than thinking without doing. And no politician who ignores such philosophical insights can ever take on the fissures in our body politic and stand a chance of repairing our wholeness with good and lasting welds.