Welders vs. philosophers: How Rubio's comments revealed the humanities' biggest challenge

Liberal arts degrees are valuable, but the path is not always clear

Kristin Tyndall, EAB Daily BriefingKristin Tyndall, associate editor

Marco Rubio has been picking on philosophers.

He reiterated his theme at Tuesday night's Republican debate: "For the life of me I don't know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers."

Although Rubio's made the salary argument before, fact-checkers were quick to pounce on Tuesday. According to Payscale.com, mid-career income for philosophy majors is about $81,200, but welders make $26,002 to $63,698. However, the nation does face a shortage of about 200,000 professional welders—whereas you won't find many postings on Monster.com with "philosopher" in the job description.

Salary aside, I think Rubio highlighted the precise problem facing the humanities today. It's very easy to connect the dots between welding training and a welding career. The path is obvious. 

But although philosophy majors can go on to be extremely successful lawyers, journalists, business executives—and presidential candidates—the path is not obvious. There's a gap between graduation and settled career where things get a bit fuzzy. And as a philosophy major who very recently crossed it, I can tell you that gap looks more like a terrifying black hole to many of your liberal arts students.

I also think Rubio's onto something with his broader point: There is a cultural stigma against vocational training that needs to change.

And I'll even suggest one way to improve vocational training: helping colleges align their programs to market needs so that when the country says it needs welders—schools are ready to provide them.

But we also need to address the problem that few people, whether Marco Rubio or a 21-year-old philosophy major, understand how to bridge that gap from liberal arts degree to viable career trajectory until they've done it. Students in humanities programs need more exposure to relevant vocational experiences and more opportunities for work related to their future fields of interest.

Better career prep should help clear up some of this confusion about the value of humanities degrees for students and families.

But it may be too late to win over Rubio. He doubled down on his statements Wednesday before acknowledging that "I am not going to win the philosophy vote in America" (Noel, Vox, 11/11; Rugaber/Boak, AP/U.S. News & World Report, 11/11; Phelps, ABC News, 11/11).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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