Friday, November 13, 2015

On Welders and Philophers, Certification and Education

Warning: This post contains politics.

Last week I engaged in an interesting discussion across several blog posts with Mark Coxon and Gary Kayye regarding the CTS (certified technical specialist for those not in the know) certification from Infocomm, the audiovisual industry trade group. It was an interesting conversation on what certifications mean, why we seek them, how they can be better valued or made use of. I was quite ready to put this discussion to bed and move on when I saw this statement from Presidential hopeful March Rubio:

"Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less [sic] philosophers"

I'll set aside my grammatical pet peeve about allegedly educated adults not knowing the difference between "less" and "fewer"; as less and less value is given to education as an end to itself, fewer and fewer people will take the effort to make this distinction. What struck me most is that Mr. Rubio sees education as a whole as akin to a certification process; education is the process of learning how to do something which will earn one the most money. In this context, it is quite easy to measure the value of education: see what graduates earn, see what it costs to get a degree, compare. It's the same process by which one would measure ones investment in a mutual fund.

It's also a poor and reductive way to look at such things.

In the title I mentioned Dr. Carson. There's no question that Carson is a bright man with as impressive a set of educational and professiona, credentials as one could expect: Yale, University of Michigan,  and, finally, Johns Hopkins where he served as the head of neurosurgery. What fascinates  - and terrifies - me is that a man with such an obvious education can hold bizarre, couterfactual beliefs:
  • President Obama was born in Africa
  • The earth is 6000 years old.
  • The Great Pyramids of Egypt were built for the purpose of grain storage.

The last one is truly head-scratching, and pretty much wilfully ignores literally everything we know about the pyramids except for the fact that they are large and located in Egypt. How can an educated man think this way? I know because, a long time ago, I was on the path to that sort of education.

My education wasn't to be in medicine, but electrical engineering. The school to which I went was small, selective, and very technology-heavy. We studied math. We studied science. We studied chemistry. And, each semester, we took one humanities course. One. As a freshman, it was a two-part "Western Civilization" survey. That's right, all of "Westery Civilization" in one year. History. Literature. And, yes, philosophy. One. Year. After that, there was a requirement for one elective. That was it. If one had to design an education to create the kind of stereotypically anti-social, narrowly focused technologist-nerd completely lost in the larger society one could do no better. I wasn't the greatest student and never graduated, but it was the parts of an education which I was never offered that I missed most and have, on and off, been chasing through my adult life. It's been poetry, it's been literature, it's been philosophy. Yes, I'm glad to have learned the math I did, but that is, as I say about technical ideas, just "stuff".  

What have  gained since trying to broaden my education? I feel that I can think better and more broadly. I can understand people who think differently than I do, and why. In the realm of literature, I read more mindfully and learn more from a good book and, I hope, can communicate more and better in my own writing. More to the point - and this is a harder thing for which to find a metric - it's bought an element of joy and pleasure to my life as well as some much-needed depth. I see knowing more as an end in and of itself, and one which I hope to continue to pursue throughout my life. I only wish I'd had more of the foundation sooner.

I've gained a measure of humility in seeing the very edges of the depth and rigor of thought which lie behind various worldviews. Philosophy is not just the caricature of robed figures in an ivory tower gazing into their navels; it encompasses many schools of thought which I accept that I'll never have the time to deeply understand. That doesn't stop me from reaching for, at the very least, a broader appreciation. 

My technical education, of course, is also a life-long project. The difference is that this is results-oriented as much as concept oriented; I need to know what IGMP protocols are so I can design network-based audio-video systems. I educate myself on arts so I'll be happy (and yes, I've neglected that over the past months; time gets in the way, but it's a luxury on which I should spend more time). 

People like Rubio, on the other hand,  see only the technical "certification" part of education: as a means to an end and naught else. That is valuable, but it is not the highest and best use of higher education. I'd even argue that it isn't even the best use of primary and secondary education; we've become so fixated on STEM, on economics, on winning the next big tech race that we don't pay enough attention to know the destination to which we're racing. 

The irony? Rubio is talking about how to allocate scarce resources, what skills and knowledge we should value, how one should live ones life. These questions are, at their heart, philosophical. What's more, his beloved welder is, by casting a ballot, going to be making these choices for all of us. In a democracy we don't merely need philsophers, and we don't merely need welders; we need welder-philosophers, versed in the theory and practice of how to think about such things. We need philosophers to help us learn to navigate an ever changing world, and answer the big questions of what it means to live a fulfilled life. We need artists and writers to make the journey worth living. 

We do not live on bread alone. 

This is not "The Treachery of Images"
I'll close with an anecdote: one of my very well-respected colleagues was shopping online for a present for himself: an art print. When I asked what, he gave a guarded "I'm going to have to explain this" look and told me it was a print of a painting my Magritte called "Treachery of Images". Fortunately, I was aware of it and we were able to even discuss it a bit; it's an interesting statement about what art it, what communication is. A thousand-word restating, perhaps, about the aphorism about the finger pointing at the moon. Can I draw a line between his appreciation for surrealist art and his creative and sharp thinking in technical matters? Perhaps I can, perhaps not. Either way, it is a small thing which enriches his life. 

Yes, we need welders and mechanics and brain surgeons. We also need artists, philosophers, and those who appreciate them.


  1. I think his comment had more to do about the decline of manufacturing the United States than anything else.

    1. It's possible, and there is a discussion to be had there. The tone of the comments as well as the subsequent followup came across as quite anti-intellectual as I read them.

      It is possible to say that we need to increase trade skills without denigrating philosophy, arts, or other aspects of education. Rubio chose to not do so.