Ideas and arguments

Eddy Nahmias is a professor in the Department of Philosophy, Neuroscience Institute, Georgia State University.

At the last Republican debate, Marco Rubio said, “I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education.” A few weeks earlier, Jeb Bush said, “We have huge shortages of electricians, welders, plumbers, information technologists, teachers.”

I agree it’s essential we have enough people to keep our infrastructure from falling apart, to build and maintain the highways and information superhighways that move our economy, to make our homes and our food and, of course, to teach our children. Ideally, welders, farmers, sanitation workers, plumbers, cooks and other hard-working Americans would also be able to make at least a “living wage” and fulfill the American dream that Rubio, the son of a maid and a bartender, embodies.

But Rubio tried to drive home his point by adding, “We need more welders and less philosophers. Welders make more money than philosophers.” Bush quipped, “Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working (at) a Chick-fil-A.”

I’m a philosophy professor. One of my duties is to advise the philosophy majors at Georgia State University, which includes giving them information about the value of the major, information they can use to answer the doubts of their parents and, apparently, some politicians. Most of this information also applies to other humanities and social science majors, including the majors of almost every presidential candidate: Rubio and seven others majored in political science; Bush, in Latin American studies, and Carly Fiorino, in philosophy.

First of all, Rubio is mistaken. According to the Washington Post, mid-career welders make $44,000, while mid-career philosophy majors make over $80,000. Philosophy graduates, on average, double their salaries over 10 years, which is (along with math) a higher rate of increase than for any other major.

There are only 7,500 philosophy graduates per year in the U.S. We can promote welding without denigrating, or downsizing, philosophy. Neither should we denigrate welders, electricians, farmers, mechanics and others who work with their hands by suggesting they do not, or should not, also work with their minds.

We should avoid the “tracking” mentality in both secondary and post-secondary education that suggests only the “chosen few” get to indulge in “useless” literature, art or philosophy, and conversely suggests there is something second-class about working with one’s hands. Other nations, such as Germany, have developed a dual education system where students can take courses that allow them to consider history, human nature, freedom and global conflicts, while also taking technical courses and serving as apprentices.

We know what welders, construction workers and farmers make, we need what they make, and they deserve our respect for making it. But we also need what education in the humanities and sciences makes: informed, questioning citizens who seek value in more than money alone.

What do philosophers make? Ideas and arguments. And ideas and arguments are what drive human history, for better or worse.

ISIS is driven by bad ideas and inane arguments. In addition to wiping out those driven to violence by these ideas, we must wipe out the bad ideas themselves and replace them with better ones.

Philosophers throughout history have given us some very good ideas: that women are equal to men (Plato and J.S. Mill); that rational self-interest and competition, moderated by moral sentiments, lead to economic prosperity (Adam Smith); that people must consent to medical treatment (ethicists in 1970s); and that unjust laws should be resisted nonviolently (David Thoreau and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.).

Philosophers are now analyzing the ethical problems raised, for instance, by technological advances in artificial intelligence, robotic warfare and neuroscientific interventions. Indeed, philosophy assembled the ideas, questions and methods that formed the foundation on which most of the other humanities and sciences were erected.

Democracy, too, is an excellent idea, constructed by a bunch of philosophers in Greece and erected to its most flourishing form by the philosophical founders of the United States. But our democracy demands new ideas and recurring arguments — at least every election cycle — to shape its form and map its future, arguments that should be debated by informed, philosophical citizens, whether they are politicians, farmers, teachers, truck drivers, lawyers or welders.