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Who Needs Philosophers? Scientists, Politicians and Welders Do

5 minute read
Douglas MacLean is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

In the Republican presidential debate this week, Sen. Marco Rubio was promoting the value of vocational education and received applause when he said, “We need more welders and less philosophers.” This reminded me of an exchange of remarks a few months ago between William Bennett and Patrick McCrory on Bennett’s radio show, just days after McCrory was inaugurated governor of North Carolina. Bennett (former Director of the National Endowment of the Humanities and a philosophy Ph.D.) asked, “How many Ph.D.s in philosophy do I need to subsidize?” McCrory replied, “You and I agree.” Part of my job is training young men and women to become philosophers and, with luck, join the work force. Are my colleagues and I producing too many of them? Too few? What’s the right number?

I don’t know how many welders there are in America, but they do important work; they contribute something of value. If we need more of them, I’m for policies that will increase their number.

Philosophy is under attack these days, but we are not alone. Indeed, the humanities as a whole seem to be on the defensive, as attention and funding flow to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, and experts tell us what training we need for tomorrow’s workforce.

I’m skeptical about some of these expert predictions, although I’m confident that we will continue to need welders. But let’s focus on philosophy. If we are to have an informed discussion about the optimal number of philosophers, we need to have some idea of the value of studying philosophy. What do philosophers contribute?

Many people have spoken up to defend the usefulness of philosophy—and the humanities generally—in a liberal arts education. Students of philosophy learn to think critically; they learn to analyze complicated arguments; they learn to defend their views with good reasons, to think and write clearly. My colleagues and I emphasize these points when we talk with prospective majors or seek to reassure their worried parents. University presidents and chancellors also make these points when they are asked to defend the liberal arts. So do faculty from the sciences and professional schools (usually when interviewing for the position of dean of the college or provost).

These claims can be backed up with data, some of which we post on our department Web page. Studies have shown philosophy majors have outperformed nearly every other major on the law-school aptitude test, the GREs, and the GMAT, the admission test for business schools. (They also out-earn welders.)

I routinely hear from former students who thank me for philosophy classes they took and explain how that training has helped them succeed in their own careers. Of course, as a teacher, I find these letters and emails immensely gratifying. But if these utilitarian or instrumental reasons were all we could say in defense of the value of philosophy, I would find it disheartening. So let me add some different kinds of reasons.

In some of our courses we explore ideas that are vital to a healthy democracy. For example, we examine the meaning of equality as a moral concept, and we discuss competing perspectives on the meaning and justification of different kinds or moral rights. Does Sen. Rubio, Gov. McCrory, or anyone else seriously believe that we need less discussion of these issues, or that trying to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning and implications of these values is a waste of time?

Some of my own research focuses on different kinds of values that enter into cost-benefit analyses in public policy debates. Suppose we ask, as a public policy question, what we ought to do in response to climate change. We would certainly need to know the costs of different measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or to mitigate their effects. What are the benefits against which we weigh these costs? To answer that question, we need to know the value of protecting human life, endangered species, areas of natural beauty, and communities and cultures that are threatened by climate change. Many economists will admit that they rely on philosophers to help them understand and evaluate these benefits.

But there is another and more important point. If we are to think seriously about the value of philosophy and the other humanities, we need to move outside the shadow of our current economic and political concerns. Of course institutions of higher learning need to prepare students for careers, training them in STEM disciplines, and teaching vocational skills like welding. We want today’s students to get good jobs, make decent livings, and be able to provide for their families. But what is the point of becoming richer and achieving prosperity? One aim should be to give people time, leisure, and enough exposure and training to appreciate the things that make life valuable – art, literature, music, learning about the past and other civilizations, and (as Socrates insisted) living an examined life. Philosophy and the humanities are not merely handmaidens of job-training courses, however useful they may be in that role; they are at the core of what makes education – and life – valuable.

How many philosophers and humanists do we need? As many as it takes to keep these disciplines as strong as our skyscrapers and bridges. Now we can begin debating the optimal number.

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