More Welders and Less Philosophers?
Exploratio Humanitas Ɪ
In The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes Or Breaks Us, Paul Tough describes how a series of news articles came out around 2014 regarding the potential earnings of welders. He describes how this became something of a national craze, and tied into pushes to reject higher education for the sake of promoting blue collar work.
Origin of the Story:
Tough explains that after the stock market crash of 2008, many Americans started to seriously doubt the potential and worth of college education. One place that started to get more attention was trade schools. Pushed by eye popping salary headlines, industries such as lumberwork and welding jumped onto the national stage. Tough quotes presidential candidate Marco Rubio as saying “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.” (P. 245). Tough goes on to note that philosophy majors actually make more money than welders, and describes how commonly trade job pushes tie in with anti-college sentiments. He also says that median salaries for welders aren’t particularly good, and that the highest salaries are typically regionally limited and temporary.
So Tough asks: why do people like Rubio push these narratives? He says that two possible explanations are ignorance and wishful thinking/nostalgia. His third possible explanation is more worrying. He says “If we are able to persuade ourselves that there are plenty of lucrative opportunities available for young people like Orry who didn’t much like high school, it absolves us of our shared responsibility to address the reality of his limited economic prospects.” (P. 250) It is at least plausible that a narrative is drawing our collective attention as a society away from people who require aid and support.
In another case of toxic narrative, Tough describes the circumstances that led to the recent for-profit college boom. He notes three core causes. First, employers were demanding that new applicants have more abilities than in the past. Second, America's public schools weren’t there to train students in those particular fields and subjects, at least not frequently or well enough. Third, American higher education wasn’t willing or able to provide the education gaining in demand. He says “In order to make money amid those anxious circumstances, for-profit colleges didn’t need to deliver an actual education; they needed only to deliver the promise of one.” (P. 263) This promise is one that left many students without needed skills, and chained to debt.
American Dream, American Nightmare
Going further than Tough here, these situations can be seen as an indictment of the American mythos. One of the most cited narratives within American society is that of the American Dream. Sometimes framed as upward mobility, other times framed along the lines of a house in the suburbs with 2.2 kids, a (heterosexual cisgender) partner, and a dog, this narrative is a foundational component of America’s cultural sphere. Tied into this are other cultural narratives, stories about what we are and who we are as a country. There is American Exceptionalism, the notion that America is the best and greatest country in the world (echoed in political campaigns across the aisle, but most recently obvious in Trump’s MAGA slogan). A particular kind of nationalism, this myth has been pushed in various forms for decades, with heavy connections to World War II, the space race, and the cold war. Also similar is the idea of Rugged Individualism, the lone cowboy mentality. Built out of the revolutionary war, westward expansion, and an American brand of liberalism which seeks to provide individual freedoms, this myth is especially pronounced among political libertarians (but can be seen in aspects across American politics).
To connect these narratives, they all tie into the idea of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps. If one were a true American, these narratives say, one could bring themselves up in class through grit, ingenuity, and simply being in a place as Amazing as America. However, reality interferes, whether that be degrading union presence, shifting economy, wage growth for only the richest, poor education resources, discrimination, etc. Whatever the cause, these interferences in our cultural myths require a retooling of our cultural mythology, and an active attempt to change the world for the better.
Broadly speaking, I see two ways one could go after encountering such interferences. First, one could attempt to make a positive chance (this would likely require deep investigation into complicated issues, consulting experts, broad societal conversations, and a willingness to look inward and make changes). It would also likely require assisting others where they are at, providing opportunities, and pushing emancipatory changes. Second, one could double down on the myths, something especially convenient if that person has already attained their aims. This doubling down could be a self aware attempt to sell snake oil, an ignorant act due to one not having the capability or training to question their traditions and norms, a lack of empathy, or other such situation. Regardless of the intent or cause, such action results in the suffering of those who require aid to even come close to reaching their potentials.
Overall, stories and narratives of blue collar work and for-profit college represent aspects of larger narratives within the American psyche. They are tapped by both predatory opportunists, and ignorant reactionaries, resulting in a lack of resources for those who need assistance and support the most. Regardless of whether we truly need more philosophers or more welders (Can’t one be both?), I can say without a doubt that we need better conversations on how to help those in need, and call out substanceless and misleading narratives and myths for what they really are.