On Welders and Philosophers

“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.”

That was Sen. Marco Rubio at last night’s Republican presidential debate.  Let’s ignore that Rubio apparently doesn’t know when to use “less” and when to use “fewer.” (I’m probably fighting a losing battle on that score anyway.) But let’s not ignore the simple reality that his claim is false.  Here’s what the Washington Postfact-checkers found:

Using data from the Web site PayScale, we can look at the introductory and median incomes of both professions. In 2008, philosophy majors started at about $40,000 a year—about the same as what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says first-year welders make.

But over the longer term, philosophy majors make more. Mid-career welders make $22 an hour, according to PayScale, compared with over $80,000 for philosophy majors.

Here’s a visual representation of those facts:

Maybe Rubio should be arguing, as Joan McCarter put it on the Daily Kos website, “that in addition to needing vocational schools to train welders, we also need to make sure that welders are getting wages that reflect not just their training but their skills and experience.” But I won’t hold my breath awaiting that from the absentee senator from Florida.

Of course, many philosophy majors do not become philosophers.  They may even become investment bankers or real estate tycoons (perhaps from inherited wealth).  And a few may even become welders.  So my guess is that the salaries of philosophy professors may be closer to that of welders after all.  Both groups are no doubt underpaid.  But the real issue here is not vocational education or philosophy, it is the fundamental anti-intellectualism animating much of mainstream political culture.  And I’m sorry to say that such anti-intellectualism has infected too many governing boards and administrations, an increasing number of which claim to be addressing financial challenges by eliminating “nonessential” or even “unnecessary” majors like, well, philosophy.

The fact is that we need both vocational education and liberal arts education in disciplines like philosophy.  To pit one against the other will improve neither.

And, if you’re a student, you might think again about taking a philosophy class.  It could end up being more profitable than you’ve been led to believe.

UPDATE:  And this from the New York Times:

Matthew B. Crawford earned his Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago but failed to find a job as an academic and ultimately landed a position at a think tank. Unhappy with the work, he quit and became a mechanic in Virginia, using online tutorials to learn how to weld and make motorcycle parts.

He has also continued to write and has published books about his career transition. One of his books, “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” is devoted to debunking the notion that manual trades are mindless. “The division between knowledge work and manual work is kind of dubious, because there is so much thinking that goes on in skilled trades,” Mr. Crawford said.

As for the payoff, Mr. Crawford rejects the idea that philosophers cannot figure out how to earn a living.

“It’s obviously kind of a reductive approach to think of your course of study in college as merely a means to a paycheck,” Mr. Crawford said, suggesting the study of things like happiness can be enriching in ways that are hard to measure. “And nobody goes into philosophy because they think it’s going to make them rich.”

4 thoughts on “On Welders and Philosophers

  1. Great column, Hank. I also think that it is important to understand that the mania for workforce development and for vocational education is also an attack on the dignity of work, i.e., a reduction of a trade,c raft, or guild vocation into a commodity. Creating a specious dichotomy between welding and anthropology and then compelling competent welders to pursue “certificates” at higher education institutes ends up making legitimate skilled work look like the weaker sibling of white-collar labor, which, in turn, starts to look to expensive in comparison to the work of trades where skills are acquired more quickly.

  2. Pingback: Who Studies Philosophy? | The Academe Blog

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