Now that Plato Is Dead, Perhaps We Need More Philosophers

At the recent Republican debate on Fox Business News, Marco Rubio got a cheer for stating, "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."  Ted Cruz referred to the Federal Reserve as "philosopher-kings trying to guess what's happening with the economy."  And John Kasich explained the need to make unpopular decisions such as bailing out banks: "When there are financial crises, you got to go there and try to fix it.  Philosophy doesn't work when you run something." 

Philosophers are convenient targets, but selecting them to express disdain for elitist control freaks infers an anti-intellectual attitude.  It is a common elitist refrain to shame us for the inherent anti-intellectualism in America.

But anti-intellectualism from the left was making bigger waves on the campuses, where students protested the exercise of free speech, intimidated reporters, and shouted down staff and fellow students with temper tantrums.  One girl lost any sense of civility and  gave a telling statement: "It is not about creating an intellectual space!"  Silly me – I thought that was the main function of a university.

There is a big difference between the anti-intellectual gaffes of the Republicans on the debate stage and the close-minded little Ivey League fascists at Yale.  It is the same difference between believing you know better than I about how I should live my life and believing you have the divine right to dictate how I should live my life.

I can forgive the GOP candidates for picking on philosophers as an easy, though misguided target to make a point about elitists.  They are clumsily equating philosophers with elitists.  I cannot forgive the attitude on campuses that diverse opinion should be subjected to an ever increasingly restricted emotionally fragile version of political correctness.  It was in vogue to disinvite highly accomplished speakers such as Condoleezza Rice for political reasons during last graduation season.

Bullying those who think differently usually is followed by a bonfire of books.  How far is it from banning speech to burning speeches in a printed form?

College used to be an elite place where a certain segment of our population studied philosophy, history, and literature.  A well-rounded liberal arts education led to degrees or careers in law and business and other professions, including positions in academia.

As college was made more inclusive and deemed more essential, it became more of an academic trade school.  In simple economic terms, the more people who have a college degree, the less the degree is worth.  Deemed essential to equalizing opportunities, money was poured into higher education through subsidies and loans.  As Glenn Harlan Reynolds has explained, we mistook education and home ownership for an ingredient of success rather than a marker of success.  As with the mortgage market, subsidizing education served to increase the price more than the value.

Studying the financial collapse, it seems we needed more philosophers in the field, not fewer.  We replaced a philosophical understanding of risk with a delusional technical certainty.  Business technicians could run mathematical models to determine risk but remained ignorant of the functioning of the entire system, especially its very human element.  This was even true among our most educated regulatory gatekeepers. 

Why can't welders also learn philosophy?  Welders, carpenters, and electricians, as well as teachers and accountants, need to understand our culture and system of government and how an economy works.  Your mind is still a part of the collective consciousness, even if you make a living with your hands.  America has some history of blue-collar intellectuals such as Eric Hoffer.  One does not have to choose between a liberal arts degree and a trade.  

Studies in philosophy are critical to understanding our system of government and natural rights.  These were not just flashes of insight from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers.  They were ideas in circulation before the American moment.  During stable times, little changes, but during periods of crisis, the ideas floating around at the time get attention.  Socialist and progressive ideas were in vogue during the Great Depression of 1929, before the outcome was clear.  How we respond to our next crisis depends largely on what ideas are in vogue at the time.  Suddenly philosophy seems more important.

The field of philosophy has been subject to stereotyping as functionally irrelevant since long before the recent Republican debate.  A comedian spoke of his son who graduated with an MBA in finance from Wharton, was unsatisfied with his employment opportunities, and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy.  "Great" replied his father, sarcastically – "now that Plato is dead the field is wide open."