Marco Rubio and the Shallow Pit of American Politics

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, speaks during a presidential candi
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, speaks during a presidential candidate debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015. The fourth Republican debate, hosted by Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal, focuses on the economy with eight presidential candidates included in the main event and four in the undercard version. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There is a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in American politics and American society. More than 45 years ago George Wallace, then Governor of Alabama and a presidential candidate, liked to make fun of intellectuals. Writing in the May 14, 2011 edition of The Spectator, Mathew Paris wrote:

When Alabama governor George Wallace described intellectuals as 'pointy-heads who couldn't ride a bicycle straight', he coupled two insults. The first -- 'pointy-heads' -- went straight into the legend and remains there, though I'd always thought intellectuals had domed heads.

Less remembered is the second barrel of Wallace's revolver. But in five words it contains a potent argument. 'Couldn't ride a bicycle straight' is a subtle insult for it suggests that what intellect needs as an accompaniment -- and 'intellectuals' may lack -- is instinct. To balance on a bike you don't have to think: indeed, think too hard and you fall off. Almost everyone can ride a bike; few could say could how we do, except that it isn't by taking thought, but by animal instinct: the gymnastic version of what in the field of decision-making we would call 'common sense.'

Since then intellectuals, especially humanities scholars and social scientists, have been the object of a widespread populist critique. In 2013, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory suggested that universities should train people to get jobs rather teach people to speak Swahili or learn about gendered identities. In the same year Florida Governor Rick Scott claimed that anthropology, his daughter's undergraduate major, was without value.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican candidate for president of the United States, has now strolled into the shallow pit of American politics. During the Republican presidential debate this week, Senator Rubio claimed that we need more welders and fewer philosophers. Welders build things, which has utility; philosophers discuss things, which lacks utility. Welders, the good Senator told an appreciative debate audience, make more money than philosophers. Like the claims of Governor McCrory and Governor Scott that substantially underestimate the market value of an education in the humanities and social sciences, Senator Rubio, who has been advocating the expansion of vocational education, is wrong about the earning capacities of philosophers. As reported by CNN Rubio said that 'Welders make more money than philosophers...We need more welders and less philosophers."

A quick glance at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2015 indicates that welders earn a medium income of $36,300. The 2014 medium income of philosopher professors was, by contrast, $63,630.

It's not clear if Senator Rubio would encourage members of his own family to study welding, which is, admittedly, a vocation that is central to any industrial economy. By the same token, it's not likely that Senator Rubio will walk back his comments. It could be that he hasn't yet discovered that philosophers make more money than welders. It could be that Senator Rubio does know that philosophers earn more than welders but cynically articulates the opposite to reap short-term political reward -- a more troubling scenario.

The brouhaha over the veracity of Senator Rubio's "quip" about welders and philosophers is beside the point. On the debate stage or at a political rally veracity takes a backseat to the red meat appeal of talking points designed to be transformed into political points -- some media attention, a small bump in the polls, and a surge of donations.

The larger issue, of course, concerns the social "value" of humanities and social science scholarship. Politicians like Pat McGrory, Rick Scott and alas, Marco Rubio seem to consider the general pursuit of knowledge not only a waste of time but a waste of taxpayer dollars.

It is troubling that Senator Rubio, a man who wants to be President of the United States, doesn't seem to understand a fundamental social fact: a society that fails to support its artists, its social scientists or its philosophers is a society that has a eroding foundation. If a social foundation decays from neglect, it will soon crumble giving way to a stagnant society devoid of imagination, creativity and innovation.

We are at a crossroads. It's a dangerous illusion to think that our way of life can be maintained without nourishing the pursuit of knowledge, the foundation of which is philosophy.

At the crossroads, a dangerous space where momentous decisions are made, it is imperative that people with power seek the counsel of wise men and women who, upon taking measure of the shallow pit of American politics, would make a common sense observation wonderfully articulated in a proverb of the Songhay people of the Republic of Niger:

One cannot walk where there is no ground.