Killing Socrates

Marco Rubio demonstrated keen political instincts during one of the primary debates when he used his opening remarks to argue for an end to the stigmatization of vocational training, handily linking the stigmatization to the minimum wage and America’s flagging economy. He demonstrated that he can hit the right notes while engaging in a kind of populist rhetoric that could bring the Carson and Trump voters toward him—which he must do if he expects to have a serious shot at the nomination.

Clearly, the candidate knows how to spontaneously craft statements that allow his target audience to see a bigger picture. But is the picture he draws here big enough? In saying “we need less philosophers and more welders” (he meant “fewer”), Rubio slights the foundational premise of a free society.

Perhaps the events of the past few weeks will give rise to more reflection on his part. From Claremont McKenna College in California to the University of Missouri to Yale, bastion of the Ivy League, American higher education is in the midst of a 1960s-style intellectual meltdown. The liberal arts—Rubio’s bete noire of the moment—are the cure for this disease. Liberal arts, that is, properly pursued.

Colleges and universities are in turmoil precisely because too many Americans think of them as places for job training instead of for examining the great questions. This change has at once lowered the quality of the curriculum and raised the cost of higher education. Worse, the careerist thinking has helped radical thought thrive on the campuses. The more tradition-minded administrators, and the people footing the bill (the parents), believed they could safely ignore the trendy nonsense being purveyed by a few cranks in the academic world—after all, they weren’t teaching the “important” subjects like business or economics.

If the English, history, or philosophy departments got weird and sprouted a few out-of-the-mainstream subfields like “Gender Studies” or “Ethnicity, Race and Migration” (a real major at Yale), what did it matter to them? Their sons and daughters could get a few easy A’s writing papers for introductory courses that would make for entertaining fodder around the dinner table at home during school breaks. These intellectual ghettos would attract and retain a certain kind of student with the means to support his activism habit at an expensive university. Meanwhile leaving the pre-professional programs to grow, without having to engage in the mentally taxing fight for the liberal arts.

Those who deprecate the liberal arts in favor of the utilitarian view of a college degree place themselves in the same camp as those at Yale, Claremont, and Missouri who demand censorship of ideas and arguments that run counter to their own. Like the ancient Athenians, both the “pragmatists” and the politically correct hysterics would rather kill Socrates than let him talk anymore. To the former, the philosopher is useless; to the latter, the philosopher is evil. Both want the philosopher ejected.

Today we are reaping the rotten harvest of the intellectual abdication of the 1950s and 1960s, when more and more people had access to the universities but discovered, much to their dismay, that learning is hard. As “respectable and responsible” families elected to have their college-educated children pursue sheepskins with a pathway to jobs, and abandoned the liberal arts as “impractical,” it gave cover to radicals with academic pretensions. Their grievance-mongering having sunk in only too well, the tenured radicals now face student bodies with lists of grievances that include all the usual stuff (eradication of racism, sexism, homophobia) with certain add-ons (college should be provided free of charge in the future, and past student debts should be wiped off the books).

Too many conservatives today are ignorant of this history and think that the answer to our current woes is to demand more of the same “cure” that made us sick. Rubio and the utilitarians fail to realize, moreover, that they are insulting welders and students of philosophy alike.

Worst of all is the damage done to the prospects of self-government. A republic requires more of its educational institutions than producing skilled workers to grow the GDP. It requires responsible human beings and citizens. Such persons are made, not born. Their rights may be inherent, but the skills required to understand, preserve, and defend them are the study and the practice of a lifetime.

Welders, no less than philosophy students, need an appreciation and respect for the making of human beings and citizens. And any properly trained student of philosophy will understand and appreciate the contributions of welders (and all the other manual trades) to the engine of democracy. D-Day didn’t happen just because military strategists drew up the plans on paper, after all. It required equipment designed, manufactured, tinkered with, and repaired by a free and innovative people to execute it. But it also took a real sense of justice and injustice that was understood and appreciated by all varieties of our people. And it took men who, understanding that, were willing to die lest they be slaves.

Where does Senator Rubio think this moral sense originates if not in philosophy?

Human beings are more than workers narrowly focused on the details of their specific fields. A welder can also read and be conversant in philosophy, know how to play the guitar, change the oil in your car, have an opinion on the best way to grow tomatoes, tell a funny story about Will Rogers, easily rattle off the latest football standings, and bake a great apple pie. We are all more than our jobs. Human beings are at their happiest and most successful when they are well-rounded. A liberal arts education gives them the tools to become that way.

Julie Ponzi

Julie Ponzi is a fellow of the Claremont Institute.

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Robinson O'Brien-Bours

Robinson O'Brien-Bours is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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  1. nobody.really says

    Where does Senator Rubio think this moral sense originates if not in philosophy?

    Here’s the rub: Few people who lack training in plumbing will regard themselves as competent to plumb a building. But we ALL regard ourselves, regardless of philosophical training, as competent to make moral judgments.

    My world view changed enormously with my first class on economics, and on deconstruction. Doubtless it might change more if I were to study more. But prior to these studies I never regarded my perspectives as deficient – or, at least, any more deficient than anyone else’s views. Thus it’s difficult to sell liberal arts – which, at its heart, requires a student to adopt a humble attitude about his own perspectives and judgments – to a proud people.

    As with much political speech, Rubio’s objective is not to be accurate, but to flatter and demonstrate solidarity with his audience. Thus, accuracy is pretty much beside the point.

    Have the authors found a similarly appealing way to sell liberal arts? Perhaps: Rather than sell liberal arts as a key to humility and self-improvement, they offer it as a conservative antidote for grievances about self-indulgent college students who insist on pushing boundaries.

    After all, what happened back in the ‘50s and 60s? Blacks and women demanded equality and an end to the Vietnam War – and this threatened whites. Through use of his Southern Strategy, Nixon was able to harness this sense of white grievance and ride it into the White House.

    Prof. Harold Hill was able to persuade the citizens of River City that they were threatened by moral decay among their youth as exemplified by a pool hall, and that their best hope for redemption was via a conservative institution such as a boy’s marching band. Similarly, perhaps the authors can persuade today’s citizens that they are threatened by moral decay among today’s youth, and the time-honored conservative tradition of a liberal arts education (Maybe it would be better marketing to call it Humanities? Let’s work on the branding….) will be our salvation.

    Hey, couldn’t hurt.

  2. nobody.really says

    On the value of the humanities:

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana

    “[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” — John Maynard Keynes

    • tiredofgarbage says

      Yet they are not “teaching” history in colleges today. At least not any real history – only watered-down politically correct pap.

  3. says

    Congratulations on a timely and appreciated essay; yet I have concerns.

    In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama annoyed me with the statement: “Together we determined that a modern economy requires . . . schools and colleges to train our workers.” I want to help children, who had to learn to crawl (Kirlyo), learn to become authentic adults. Perhaps Rubio’s impromptu statement, “we need [fewer] philosophers and more welders,” ruffled feathers.

    “Where does Senator Rubio think this moral sense originates if not in philosophy?” I think civic morality comes not from philosophy, or religion, or opinion, or the law, or force, but from physics. Physics is energy, mass and space-time from which everything emerges, including ethics. A first principle of physics is economic viability, as nobody.really says tacitly said. “Civic” addresses connections because we occupy the same space time rather than “social” which implies preference or class.

    “Thus it’s difficult to sell liberal arts [LA] – which, at its heart, requires a student to adopt a humble attitude about his own perspectives and judgments – to a proud people.” Are there many LA professors with the humility LA requires?

    I am a chemical engineer who served 35 years, have fifteen US patents, and designed reactors that will not blow up but could have before I became involved. Now beginning my eighth decade, my personal effort to discover how humankind might establish personal liberty with domestic goodwill (PLwDG) has been conducted since I graduated with a bachelor of science in ChE in 1966. I am an avid student of liberal arts (LA). My mantra is “I do not know what I do not know, and my status is alright.”

    Perhaps that is the way LA should be taught: During each lifetime of service so that the LA student can—learns enough to–collaborate with his or her fellow persons. I find LA studies go well online or with a book and the will to argue with the writer—even Plato. I think every professor should continually ask, “Am I contributing to PLwDG?”

  4. Scott Amorian says

    “A republic requires more of its educational institutions than producing skilled workers to grow the GDP. It requires responsible human beings and citizens. Such persons are made, not born. Their rights may be inherent, but the skills required to understand, preserve, and defend them are the study and the practice of a lifetime.”

    That made my short list of candidates for quote of the year.

  5. Ron Johnson says

    Good grief! Something like 25% of Americans go to college. Are you all thinking that everyone should go to a four-year college? Do we really have a dearth of English majors, but a surfeit of electricians? Senator Rubio was spot-on. Of course the liberal arts are important, but the academy is not for everyone. It is true that we are a nation of individuals, but were are also a community that needs it toilets to work.

    • Julie Ponzi says

      I believe you have completely misunderstood this post. The problem began, precisely, BECAUSE too many people are going to college. In attempting to make the academy something for everyone we have turned it into something that is much less valuable to those who might profit from it. You don’t need to go to college to learn how to be an electrician or to do many, many other jobs. But in our equating of a college degree with economic success and our push for equality in all things, all ways, and all times, we have labored under the conceit that college is necessary for respectability. Trouble was, college turned out to be difficult–and especially so for people without an apititude or interest in the liberal arts. So we dumbed it down and made it glorified, expensive job training for most people. In the process, the liberal arts suffered and became radicalized.

      Rubio is not wrong to say that we need more welders or that we should not denigrate vocational training. But the in aiming his scorn at philosophy, he is missing the target by a wide measure.

    • nobody.really says

      It is true that we are a nation of individuals, but we are also a community that needs it toilets to work.

      THAT’s the quote of the year.

  6. says

    Thank you, Ms. Ponzi. The gold nugget: “Rubio and the utilitarians fail to realize, moreover, that they are insulting welders and students of philosophy alike.” Welders can benefit from reading philosophy and philosophers might benefit from being able to fix things. A well-rounded education should include some of both. A PhD is not much use when it comes to fixing a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. And I wouldn’t ask even the most skilled mechanic to perform my open heart surgery. We need both extremes and all of the ‘in-betweeners’ to make the world go ’round.

  7. says

    As a business professor whose students have taken philosophy and English yet mostly need help with basic skills like writing, I disagree with your claim for the primacy of the liberal arts for four reasons:

    First, progressive education and increasing centralization of lower education has robbed many students of basic skills in areas like the multiplication tables, basic reading, and basic writing. Hence, only one-third of high school students is prepared for college, yet students below the fiftieth percentile need to be admitted if President Obama’s object of sixty percent admission is to be fulfilled.

    Second, there are few academics capable of teaching liberal arts. Most have been trained to be specialists in narrowly defined fields. Few can teach writing. At my college the English department sees itself as specializing in literature and will not correct grammar. Hence, my students lack the writing skills that were common in the corporate world before I made a career change in the 1980s.

    Third, few students care about liberal arts; they lack the focus, the interest, or the motivation to study them. When I asked a class a few days ago how many had read a Platonic dialogue, only two of 38 students raised their hands. Of those, one had read the Apology and the other told me that he had read Plato on his own time. When I suggested that they educate themselves, few looked interested.

    Fourth, and probably most importantly, only a minority is capable of learning the liberal arts. Charles Murray has suggested that only 16% of the public has the cognitive ability to benefit from higher education. Rubio was wrong that we don’t need more philosophers; we need as many as we can get. Most college students cannot become philosophers because they lack the IQ to learn philosophy. The natural human resource, what Jefferson called the natural aristocracy, needed to become philosophers is limited in number, and this group, especially the underprivileged ones from the inner city, are held back by systems that the Democratic Party has established to cater to their classmates who have limited ability and limited intellectual curiosity.

    • says

      Thank you for your post.

      One of the most significant experiences in my life is Anton Chekhov’s “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” every few years.

      Each time I read “. . . schools to train the workers we need,” as in Obama’s second inaugural or a local business association’s $100,000 donation to public schools for STEM my heart cringes.

      Just as children crawl then walk on their own with encouragement, students need to acquire understanding on their own with encouragement. (borrowing from James Kirylo)

      I’m reading Robert Putnam and will read Charles Murray, because I advocate for children. Thank you for that, too.

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