Philosopher Kings

By far the most unintentionally funny moment of last night’s Republican presidential debate was this rap from Marco Rubio, the Working Man’s Friend:

“For the life of me, I don’t don’t know why we stigmatize vocational education,” he said in answer to how he would counter Democrats’ free or subsidized college education proposals. “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders than philosophers.”

This got a big round of cheers, making me wonder if Bill O’Reilly had done some sort of series on evil liberal philosophers. Turns out, as ThinkProgress‘ Alice Olstein explains, this is a regular applause line for Rubio:

Since launching his bid for president, Rubio has repeatedly make snarky comments about the value of a philosophy degree. In speeches in March and again in August, he scoffed at the idea that any student would choose to go into debt to obtain a philosophy degree, insinuating that such a degree won’t help a graduate earn enough to pay back that debt.

So this is one of those phony conservative populist themes whereby any public investment that doesn’t go towards blowing up people in other countries or facilitating corporate transactions is likely a frivolous subsidy for pointy-headed secular progressives and their underclass clients. It’s very handy if, like Marco Rubio, you’re pushing a tax plan that exempts investment income from federal taxation entirely.

In any event, Rubio’s attack on philosophers last night got some people thinking, particularly Matt Yglesias, who took this personally because he majored in philosophy in college himself. Turns out Rubio’s wrong:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary of a welder is just over $37,420 a year….[P]hilosophy majors do considerably better than that. This isn’t to say there’s no strong case for vocational education. But it makes perfect sense for people who are interested in philosophy and can do the work to study it.

Obviously there are not a huge number of people employed as full-time professional philosophers, but the basic skills you learn studying philosophy — reading, writing, and arguing clearly — are broadly useful in a wide range of fields.

I got a rueful laugh out of the “full-time professional philosopher” line, having abandoned any idea of majoring in that field after being publicly mocked by a college recruiter who asked a group of us high school students about our academic plans at one of those College Night events. “I guess there are some companies who have a staff philosopher,” said the recruiter with a sneer matching Rubio’s. “But if you want to eat you might consider a different major.” I did (though it was the equally impractical interdisciplinary humanities major we called the “pre-unemployment curriculum”), along with giving the recruiter’s school a wide berth.

But here’s the thing: Rubio (or my recruiter, for that matter) could have made the exact same point using religious studies or theology as an example of a pointy-headed field of study we should not be subsidizing. Church gigs on average pay even more poorly than philosophy, I’m pretty sure, and why should taxpayers be encouraging private religious training?

Don’t believe you’ll hear that from any Republican presidential candidate.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.