Philosophers and Welders

by Yuval Levin

I’ve written here before about Marco Rubio’s tendency to hold up philosophy as the pre-eminent example of a useless college major, as he did again last night. I think it’s rooted in a mistaken idea of the role that liberal education can play in a liberal society, and yet I also think the actual changes to federal higher-ed policies that Rubio is advancing and has done a lot to develop would be very helpful to liberal education (and to higher education generally). 

Among the most important purposes of liberal education in a society like ours is its capacity to counteract the habits of thought that such a society is most prone to take to excess. And prominent among those is the tendency to think about education (and much else) entirely in terms of how it cashes out economically. A philosophy major might therefore raise some objections to the premises underlying Rubio’s argument last night—but not only because the argument undervalues philosophy. I think it also undervalues welding. 

On that front, I’d recommend the work of an old friend (we were graduate students together at the University of Chicago, more or less studying philosophy) who I think might not mind being called America’s pre-eminent philosopher of welding—Matthew Crawford. His book Shopcraft as Soulcraft is particularly pertinent and powerful on this front, though his more recent and quite superb book The World Beyond Your Head speaks to it too. 

Both books, moreover, show why genuine liberal education can be a counterbalance not only to an excessively materialist mindset about work but also to some of the Gnostic narcissism rearing its head on college campuses nowadays, which takes itself (I gather) to be combating the vices of our liberal-capitalist culture but in fact embodies those very vices in their most extreme forms. 

Friends of the free society and of democratic capitalism should be most eager to counteract those vices, and while I do agree we probably need more welders than philosophy majors, I tend to think a balanced society could do with some of both. 

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