Suzanne Tobias

Suzanne Perez Tobias: The world needs philosophers and welders, veterinarians and journalists

Suzanne Perez Tobias
Suzanne Perez Tobias The Wichita Eagle

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio launched a philosophical debate this week when, during a Republican presidential debate, he questioned the value of philosophers.

Responding to a query about jobs, Rubio said America’s education system and society in general need to better emphasize vocational school.

“Welders make more money than philosophers,” he said. “We need more welders and less philosophers.”

If you hit the mute button on your TV at that moment and listened closely, you could almost hear the collective groans of a million philosophy majors echoing in the atmosphere. And not just philosophy: I’d guess anyone who has or is considering a degree in the humanities – things like history, drama, art, anthropology, literature and music – winced at that soundbite.

Fact-checkers went into overdrive, quickly asserting on social media that people with philosophy degrees tend to earn more than the average welder.

Others applauded Rubio’s message, saying too many young people attend college for the wrong reasons, and they end up with impressive degrees but no way to pay off their mountains of debt.

You don’t see many listings for toga-wearing deep thinkers on Monster.com. But that doesn’t mean a philosophy degree is worthless.

My thoughts went immediately to a moment nearly 30 years ago when I sat in a college chemistry class and realized, for the first time, that I didn’t enjoy science and wanted to be a writer.

The subsequent phone call home to my parents – when I informed them I’d be majoring in English, thank you very much, and that I planned to become a journalist instead of a veterinarian – went better than expected. But it was clear to me even then, by the way Dad hesitated and said, “Ohhhhhh-kay,” that “English degree” equaled “unemployed.”

Now I’m the parent of two high school students. They’re still unclear about what they want to do for their careers. They’re searching, questioning, considering, exploring. My daughter recently found her passion in psychology; my son digs computers and video games.

And still, when we type “humanities degrees” into a Google search field, one of the first auto-fill options that pops up, right after “humanities degrees jobs,” is “humanities degrees are worthless.” Some things don’t change.

I understand Rubio’s call for more students to pursue a trade. The world needs plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, HVAC experts and, yes, welders. We need police officers, cooks, firefighters, soldiers and hair stylists.

The ubiquitous STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – remain in high demand. Schools shouldn’t discourage children from exploring those possibilities.

But neither should we steer kids away from college in general, or humanities fields in particular, just because the monetary value of their degree might be low.

“Before you take out a student loan, you deserve to know … how much people make when they graduate from that school with that degree,” Rubio told a campaign crowd recently. “Because you deserve to know that the market for Greek philosophers has tightened over the last 2,000 years.”

True, you don’t see many listings for toga-wearing, beard-stroking thinkers on Monster.com. But that doesn’t mean a philosophy degree is worthless.

The purpose of a liberal arts education is to develop people who can think, reason, create, speak, read, write and solve problems. Those skills, along with grit, determination, work ethic and maybe an internship or two, can play into any number of jobs in today’s workplace.

If the senator and others want to argue that college is too expensive, absolutely. It’s a shame that he, like so many others, graduated from law school with more than $100,000 in student debt.

I agree, too, that young people who want to attend a technical school or enter into an apprenticeship program should be encouraged and supported.

But to pit philosophy against welding, using only potential earnings as the measuring stick, isn’t fair to either pursuit.

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