Has College Jumped the Shark?

By Heather Wilhelm Published on November 12, 2015

In Tuesday’s Republican debate, Senator Marco Rubio offered one of the more memorable lines of the night: “For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education,” he said, discussing ways to boost American wages. “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” The audience burst into enthusiastic applause.

By Wednesday morning, however, the applause had morphed into a chorus of studious media tsk-tsking. “Sorry, Marco Rubio,” ran a headline at the Washington Post. “Philosophy majors actually make way more than welders.” CNN International led off with a sizzling welding pun: “Marco Rubio’s quip about welders gets torched.” The more grammar-oriented, always ready to correct, helpfully reminded Rubio that he really meant “fewer,” not “less.”

“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” CBS News wrote in its no-nonsense welder/philosopher “fact check,” there are “849,930 workers in welding or a related category, such as soldering or brazing. Their annual mean wage falls between $36,450 and $40,040. Meanwhile, the BLS says there are 23,210 postsecondary philosophy and religion teachers (probably the closest one can be to a professional “philosopher”). Their annual mean wage is $71,350.”

This is silly on a number of levels, the most obvious of which is this: Not every wide-eyed philosophy major from Tumbleweed Regional University with a boatload of student loan debt miraculously lands a job as a tenured Harvard philosophy professor. Very few philosophy majors, for that matter, could even dream of landing the simple gig of being that philosophy professor’s low-wage, long-suffering teaching assistant. Sure, there are philosophy majors that run hedge funds; they make money because they’re hedge funders, not philosophers — and also because they’re probably also naturally quite smart, regardless of degree.

Furthermore, while there are a whopping 849,930 gainfully employed welders in America, you could probably jam almost half of our nation’s proud and lonely band of professional Descartes analysts into the stands at your typical Texas high school football game. Once there, they could debate whether or not they were truly existentially present at said game, at least until they were suddenly thwacked on the head by a t-shirt projectile launched from one of those fantastic giant cannons often held by giddy cheerleaders.

Rubio’s broader point was pretty obvious: Vocational education, at least in our culture, is vastly underrated. In my dream world, he would have gone after gender studies majors, but we all know why he couldn’t do that: Today’s feminists are out-and-out bonkers. They’d immediately freak out, then launch some sort of relentless media campaign — partnering with Planned Parenthood, of course — to incessantly cry for Rubio’s scalp. Philosophers, at least one would hope, are more sanguine, and more prone to muttering into coffee mugs than crazed online outrage.

Do I sound rather skeptical of contemporary higher education? That’s probably because I am. In just one week, we’ve witnessed Yale students publicly melting down over an e-mail discussing offensive Halloween costumes — not actual offensive Halloween costumes, but an e-mail discussing offensive Halloween costumes. Amid the current chaos at the University of Missouri, we’ve seen students instructed to call campus police if another person offends them, along with a wild-eyed media professor, Melissa Click, shrieking at students to help her “muscle” an offending photographer out of a campus “safe space.”

Ms. Click’s resume alone serves as an indictment of modern higher education — she researches, among other things, the fans of 50 Shades of Grey, Lady Gaga’s social media aptitude and “messages about class and food in reality television programming.” Delve deep into the course catalogs of our nation’s most prestigious schools and you’ll see similar absurdities. Yet, among all of these things you just can’t make up, it’s the rise of the “safe space” that should truly merit attention, because it signals a gaping disconnect with the actual world.

Planet Earth, as we all know — or, at least, we all should know — is not safe. It never will be. So why are so many colleges encouraging the belief that it can be?

In a fascinating article for the latest issue of City Journal, Victor Davis Hanson discusses America’s urban/rural divide. This gap has always been around, of course, but Hanson argues that it’s becoming more extreme. “Urbanites may work long hours at the office amid thousands of people,” he writes, “but they often remain in a cocooned existence shielded from the physical world.” Sophisticated city dwellers can spot an organic sunchoke within ten yards, in other words, but actually growing one is an entirely different matter.

With this in mind, Rubio’s welder/philosopher dichotomy takes on a different light. Welders work with reality in its most basic form. They work with their hands, directly with the elements, and often outside. Philosophers celebrate the life of the mind, which is fantastic — unless, of course, you can’t deal the reality outside of your head.

Unfortunately, that’s happening at campuses across the country. The solution won’t come from more “safe spaces.” Students would be better off taking a hike, planting a garden, simply trying to make a fire out of a pile of sticks — or taking a welding class. As a bonus, three out of four of these ideas are completely tuition-free.


Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at  http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics on November 12, 2015, and is reprinted with their permission.

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