Yet Another Post about Marco Rubio, Welders, and Philosophers


On November 10, at the Republican debate in Milwaukee, Sen. Marco Rubio declared that “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” The internet came alive with all sorts of commentary, much of it disappointing.

A host of observers pointed out that Rubio was wrong. Welders do not make more money than philosophers. Of course, making such a determination depends on how one defines what a philosopher is. However, commentators established that, on average, professors of philosophy, who probably constitute the vast majority of professional philosophers in this country, do indeed earn more than welders. Others have also found that the average mid-career pay for philosopher majors is about $85,000, which far outstrips the median pay of welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers which amounts to around $37,000. Much commentary—too much—focused on these kinds of figures. Such a focus does not really answer an important question: if Rubio had been correct in claiming that welders made more money than philosophers, would that mean the United States needed more welders and fewer philosophers? The answer, as always, is both yes and no.

One could argue that in a free market, high wages in one area signify scarcity. So yes, if welders made more than philosophers, that would mean in one sense that we needed more welders than philosophers. Even though that is not exactly the case, in his own mistaken way, Rubio was sort of right. The United States does not have enough welders. According to David Landon, president of the American Welding Society, our country faces a shortage of more than 200,000 professional welders. Landon suggests that this shortfall is the result of a stigma against blue-collar labor, and indeed, it is this stigma that Rubio seemed to be driving at with his comments. Before he let slip his observations about welders and philosophers, Rubio commented, “For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational training.” He has something of a point. There seems to be a kind of classism that depresses the demand for vocational training. Even so, especially compared with other developed states in Europe, the United States has fared poorly in meeting this demand. For example, according to a recent study by Northeastern University, technical high schools and community colleges in Massachusetts have been unable to produce enough skilled labor to fill the 1.2 million job openings that will become available by 2022. The point is, the sooner everybody stops thinking of blue-collar work as degrading, the better. As Martin B. Crawford has argued in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, the manual trades are a thoughtful place were one’s mind is often engaged. That being the case, the country should do a better job of preparing people whose inclinations lead them in that direction. In other words, not everybody needs to go to college and earn a B.A. or B.S. in order to find rewarding and stimulating work.

Clearly, America does need more welders, and in this sense, Rubio is correct. But what about philosophers? By drawing the contrast in the manner he did, Rubio seemed to indicate that philosophy was the opposite of welding. Crawford would argue that such a distinction is a false one: “the division between knowledge work and manual work is kind of dubious, because there is so much thinking that goes on in skilled trades.” Fair enough, but let us accept for the sake of argument that philosophical cogitation is fundamentally different from the thinking that goes on in the manual arts. Rubio seemed to imply that welding is more useful than philosophy (because welders make more money—although such is not the case) and that our education system is mistaken in placing a premium on the latter instead of the former.

Such a charge has been leveled against the humanities in general, and it is for this reason that One Thing after Another is so keen to refute Rubio. It is not for love of philosophy solely, but love of the humanities, of which history constitutes a part, that One Thing after Another decided to tackle Rubio’s comments in the first place. In what way are philosophy and the humanities useful? Why should they be taught in college? There is, of course, the oft-used argument that philosophy inculcates habits of mind that will help graduates in any career they choose to pursue. One could say the same about any of the disciplines in the humanities. It is no surprise, for example, that many lawyers are history majors. History majors learn to read large amounts of material, synthesize information, and present convincing and articulate arguments—exactly the kinds of skills lawyers need to develop.

Important as they are, though, let us stop thinking about job skills and earning power. After all, a number of commentators have argued that Rubio’s basis for comparison is fundamentally flawed: there are more ways to measure the value of a job than the earnings with which it is associated. Donald Trump earned over $350 million in 2014, 4,487 times the average salary of a firefighter in New York City ($78,000). Is Donald Trump’s job equivalent in value to those of 4,487 New York City firemen (about 44% of the city’s total)? In one way yes, but many of us would have a hard time accepting that claim because we know there is more to a job’s value than its salary.

Let us start thinking of value in a different way. What about the way in which philosophy and the other disciplines in the humanities turn us into good people and better citizens? In dealing with Rubio’s comments, Tom Morris, the prominent public philosopher, has presented the following argument:

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.

All of us, he argues, need philosophy: “The good thinker should ideally be a proficient doer; and the active doer, a careful thinker.”

Morris, of course, has presented an apologia for philosophy because Rubio’s comments specifically addressed that discipline and Morris is a philosopher. But as we contemplate the much-discussed “Crisis of the Humanities,” we ought to think about his argument. It applies to all the disciplines in the humanities. The History Department’s main task does not consist of producing professional historians (although we have started a number of people down that path). In fact, the great majority of students that it teaches are not even history majors. The main point of our department (and the reason that historical reasoning is part of the core curriculum) is to enrich students’ judgment as well as their comprehension of the world around them. We are here to remind students that there was a past, that there are multiple ways of interpreting that past, and that this past not only facilitates our understanding of how our world came to be but also provides us with a stock of experiences that help us judge that world. To paraphrase Morris, we want to help students develop a more robust historical dimension to their experience and thought because it will make them better people and citizens. Such a perspective will aid them whether they become hedge fund managers, FBI agents, nurses, or journalists. And especially if they become politicians or presidents of the United States.