The Internet has been in a tizzy over the comments made by Florida Senator Marco Rubio during a recent Republican presidential debate. During the debate, Rubio stated that “Welders make more money than philosophers” and also that “We need more welders and less philosophers.”
Ordinarily I wouldn’t wade into such dustups during a political campaign season, but this one I can’t resist for a few reasons. While not a welder, I do have a degree in philosophy as well as engineering, so I feel mildly insulted, but mostly humored. The other reason is that his comment touches upon manufacturing issues in general.
Immediately following the debate, the media weighed in on the question of who makes more, philosophers or welders. Pieces in the Washington Post and New York Times, among others, quickly settled the earnings question, showing that in fact his statement was false.
The further question I would ask is what overall point was he trying to make?
If he was making a point about a shortage of welders in this country, then perhaps it’s a valid point.
He also said that we undervalue vocational education in the U.S. This, too, may be a valid point. In my own case, I went through a vocational program (electronics) in high school in which I learned a lot of hands-on practical skills. This education frankly put me ahead of many of my college peers in laboratory classes where, for instance, I knew how to breadboard a circuit or use an oscilloscope and they didn’t, this being their first exposure to both. (This also relates to the importance of apprenticeship programs as another viable educational path.)
It’s always risky to ascribe motives to others, but I have to wonder if his comment was meant to play to a segment of the Republican base in which anti-intellectualism is championed. Pitting welders (a stand-in for “honest” blue-collar workers) against philosophers (stand-ins for all things intellectual; technocrats, East Coast elitists, eggheads of all stripes, etc.) might play well to the base, no matter how inaccurate.
Either way, his point may be rendered moot in the near future. With the increasing use of robots (in fact, the first industrial robot introduced in the U.S. was installed by GM in 1962 to do spot welding), the demand for welders may steadily decline as robots take over even more welding and other traditional manufacturing jobs.
So maybe Rubio and other candidates should be championing STEM education as well as vocational education and maybe even education of all kinds. Because the truth is we need both welders and philosophers. And plumbers and auto mechanics and physical therapists and teachers and lawyers and mathematicians.
Perhaps it’s just par for the course that during a presidential election season economic issues take center stage and a discipline like philosophy can serve as a convenient punching bag. But a study of philosophy enriches one’s life far beyond any immediate economic reward by opening one’s mind to the most fundamental questions human beings ask about themselves and their place in the universe. And this has a value that can’t be captured in monetary terms.