Marco Rubio got a lot of press last year for claiming that “we need more welders and less philosophers” [sic]. But was he right?
Some of the reaction to his statement was negative, not merely because of the bad grammar (“less” should be “fewer”) but because disparaging the liberal arts seemed anti-intellectual. Some of the reaction was positive, either from people who already think the liberal arts are a waste of time or from people who think that we shouldn’t emphasize liberal arts to the detriment of vocational training.
Rubio’s condescension notwithstanding, this last point is surely correct — there is nothing inferior about blue-collar work, and the so-called “dirty jobs” that Mike Rowe is famous for promoting are essential ones. Indeed, the elitism that suggests that jobs requiring a college degree are “better” than those that don’t is unhealthy.
But that doesn’t imply approval of the reverse elitism implied by Rubio — that there’s something frivolous about studying philosophy. The value of liberal arts fields lies not in their specific application but in the way they inculcate a set of problem-solving tools. That corporate recruiters consistently report a preference for liberal arts majors over majors in “practical” fields is testimony to the reading, writing, and analytic skills students develop in those programs.

Philosophy majors are a sign of progress.

But there’s another angle to this discussion. Why are we worried about this in the first place? Isn’t the fact that we are able to choose majors in philosophy or literature a sign of economic and social progress? If those majors are indeed a luxury of sorts, that means millions of families now have the freedom to not be consumed with worry about starving to death.
In 1780, John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
Note first of all that Adams locates philosophy among very practical fields like commerce and agriculture, not more luxurious fields like porcelain. But more important is his overall point: if your children are studying poetry and music, that’s a good thing. That means your family is doing well enough that their survival doesn’t depend on what they devote their time to. This is the story of upward mobility.
Extrapolating this to the country as a whole, the fact that we have so many opportunities to study poetry and music means we have experienced great economic progress. This goes hand in hand with more quantifiable measures of our enrichment, such as the dramatic improvement in the purchasing power of even low-wage workers. And the fact that these educational pursuits are not limited to propertied white males is a marker of social progress that complements, and indeed is related to, that economic progress.
That progress gives us the freedom to be flexible, which means we have a greater range of choice-making. Rubio was correct to note that we should not stigmatize vocational education. But there’s also no need to fetishize it.
If you want to be a welder, you should do that. If you want to study philosophy, do that. Opportunities abound in more diverse ways than we can know, partly because some of the jobs that will be available when your degree is complete haven’t even been invented yet.