Thursday, November 12, 2015

Philosophers and Welders

Marco Rubio has ruffled some academic feathers by comments on 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.

A lot of articles have noted that, whether you mean (by 'philosophers') 'people with philosophy majors' or 'philosophy professors', the median wage for philosophers is higher than that for welders. But this is not a perfectly intuitive result -- lots of philosophers by both criteria also make less than a typical welder, particularly since the market for philosophy professors is glutted, so it could certainly seem like welders make more than philosophers -- lots of welders do make more than philosophers. But this is a minor issue; it's not a matter of importance whether welders make more than philosophers. If there are any academic philosophers getting into a huff over this part, perhaps they should use the time instead to look around and work a bit harder to make sure their adjunct colleagues are being paid well. It's not as if their contributions to this end have been particularly impressive.

It's at least arguable that we, as a society, need more welders and fewer philosophers. It's a matter that should be addressed rationally and not by knee-jerk tribalism, as if there were somehow a rivalry between Team Welding and Team Philosophy. Being miffed that philosophy is being chosen as the representative of non-vocational higher education would be absurd -- philosophy is an excellent representative of non-vocational higher education -- so the only thing one could get miffed about is the fact that Rubio is making a comparison between vocational education and non-vocational higher education to the detriment of the latter. But if we are talking about what's good for society, especially economically, there's plenty of room for genuine argument on both sides. It's entirely possible for philosophers to be of value and yet for us not to need as many as we have, and entirely possible that we need more welders. This is a matter for rational argument, and not something about which it makes much sense to get irritated about. (Without feigning any sort of expert assessment, just through looking at a number of different sources, it seems clear enough that we do have a serious shortage of welders and a clear market glut of philosophy professors, to the detriment of both professions; the academic philosophy market is likely to grow faster than the welding market over the next several years, but the welding market is already a vastly larger market than the market for philosophy professors. It's hard to factor philosophy majors into any such comparison, because the philosophy major gets its value in the workplace from being a substitute degree -- philosophy majors aren't usually hired to do philosophy but because a degree in philosophy is usually treated by employers as a reasonable substitute for a very wide variety of other degrees. The primary advantage of a philosophy degree, in fact, seems to be a combination of its very extensive substitution value and the fact that it is sometimes taken by employers as a sign that someone might be easier to train.)

But it is quite clearly true that our society's tendency to look down on vocational education is ridiculous. Skilled labor is important. There is nothing shameful about a vocational education. It is often to be encouraged, and, to be entirely frank, there's a good argument that a lot of people who end up at universities because of prestige would be better served by trade school, and that it is ridiculous that they are shamed into pouring money into an educational path that will do little for them while there is another in which they could thrive.

So, in short, I don't think there's anything here to go into fits about.

[ADDED LATER: As Frank Wilson notes, the issue is complicated further by the fact that philosophy extends well outside the population of people with philosophy degrees. There would be people doing philosophy even if there were no philosophy degrees at all; and we have had periods in the history of philosophy during which a very significant portion of all serious and important philosophical work was done by people without degrees in philosophy.]

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