Monday, 16 November 2015

Please Don’t Hate Me — I’m a University Professor

I’m a university professor. I think most of us know that being a university professor is nothing to be proud of; in fact, these days if you are a university professor it’s probably best to keep it to yourself. Why are we so unpopular? Well people generally seem to think that university professors are lazy because a lot of us spend more time researching than teaching. But I would suggest that the animosity goes far deeper than that. People resent university professors because they think that what used to be called ‘higher education’ is just a waste of time.
Take for instance, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio. He spoke out in favour of vocational schools and against universities at the Republican presidential debate a few weeks ago. He said: “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”
Well, as a university professor it’s my job to deconstruct statements like this. 
(Yes, deconstruct — I know, that’s Derrida, sorry). 
Rubio’s statement is sure to win votes. But why? What’s he really saying?
One fundamental first principle underlies Rubio’s dictum. This principle (not to be too melodramatic, I hope) indicates the eminent demise of western civilization.
For Rubio’s statement assumes that the most important thing in the world is money. Only if money was the measure of all things would it make sense to pick one profession over another because of it. 
So if it is true that philosophers, historically, make less money than welders (and I’m not quite sure that historically speaking this is true) why would anyone have ever thought it necessary to be a philosopher in the first place?
Let me tell you.
We choose to be doctors of philosophy because we care deeply about two questions — why are we here, and what makes a good life. Yes, it is the belief of philosophers of all persuasions, that the most important questions are  metaphysical and moral. Philosophical questions touch on belief, faith, the nature of reason and reality, and the origins of right and wrong. Philosophy helps us understand why we might — or might not — blow ourselves up in defence of a cause, why we might overthrow a tyrant or give to the poor, or why we might — or might not — rape a woman or beat a child. Essentially we can learn from philosophy what constitutes a good life; a life that is ultimately worth living.
I don’t wish to be classist. It is certainly very good to be a welder. If welders do indeed make more money than philosophers I don’t mean to suggest that they don’t deserve it. After all, in an earthquake, I think we we would all prefer to be standing in a building that did not spontaneously burst apart at the seams.
But frankly, does it matter whether or not we die if we have no idea why we are living?
You might think about this question the next time you consider siding with Marco Rubio against universities in favour of vocational schools.