Rubio's Plan: Keep the Poor out of Higher Education

(Photo: AP/Morry Gash)

Marco Rubio during the November 10 GOP presidential debate

The political media’s fact-checking machines are whirring, spitting out statistical refutations of an assertion made during Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate by Marco Rubio, the U.S. senator from Florida, that “welders make more money than philosophers.”

Laudable though those verification efforts be, they miss the greater outrage inherent in Rubio’s riff, the subtext of which was this: Hey, working-class people, you’re born to do dirty and dangerous work, so don’t even think of going to college. Because America doesn’t need you there.

Rubio’s big moment came when answering a question about whether he supports raising the minimum wage—on the very same day that low-wage workers across America launched protests demanding a $15-an-hour floor.

Rubio’s answer was to call for more people to go into vocational education programs because those jobs are where the real money is—and, to save America from the robot overlords, we presumably need underpaid people to do them.

By legislating a living wage for people, he said, “you’re going to make people more expensive than a machine. We need more welders and less philosophers.” (Can we do a grammar check on that sentence, PolitiFact?)

While the fact-checkers pounced on Rubio’s faulty wage comparison, what was truly jaw-dropping was his advocacy of an American caste system.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for vocational training and the honorable work to which it leads. In fact, I’m so all for it, I believe there should be sizable public investment in vocational training, just as there should be in all forms of education. And I especially believe in opening all forms of education to people of all classes. One can be both a welder and a philosopher. I know this for a fact.

But education is not what Republicans are about, and this debate was aimed, naturally, at GOP primary voters. Hence, swipe at egghead philosophers, who by definition (in the Tea Party view), belong to the liberal intelligentsia. That was just the very well-educated, not-a-welder Marco Rubio playing to his nativist party’s epic anti-intellectualism.

I remember quite clearly my first encounter with a welder. It was maybe 1966, during Family Day at the Western Electric factory in Kearney, New Jersey, where my father—and my two grandfathers, and my four great-uncles—worked. The welder took a small metal plate, maybe three inches by five inches, and welded my name into it in a loopy cursive script.

By that time in my family history, my father had moved into a white-collar job in the factory; thanks to the GI Bill, he had earned a degree in accounting. Despite the “free” education in exchange for his military service, the move did not come without sacrifice. In order to attend college, where students were required to show up for class clean-shaven, wearing a white shirt and a tie, my dad had taken a big pay cut to move out of the unionized machine shop and into a non-union clerical job in the accounting department. The gamble was that he’d end up with a career that would be longer-lasting, with less risk of injury and illness, as he supported his family.

On the factory floor, my dad wasn’t a welder, but he did work with nearly molten metal as part of a two-man team that retrieved it from an oven he said heated it to 1,800 degrees, and then worked it with a drop-hammer. The shop was unbearably hot, he said, and the work brutally dangerous. (In the same shop, he also blew out his hearing working a punch-press machine.)

He attended college at night, and would sometimes wake me up when he came home to tell me what he learned in school that day. It was a Jesuit college, big on the classics. For instance, he told me of this guy named Aristotle who lived a long, long time ago, and had this crazy idea that energy was constant. Oh, and Socrates—I loved that guy, with all of his questions.

For Republicans, it’s the questions that are always the problem. (Just ask the moderators at the CNBC debate that took place two weeks ago.) It’s answers they love: flatly stated, fact-free answers that feed their I’ve-got-mine-screw-everybody-else worldview. So no wonder the attack on philosophers—and the implication that one not born to a class that has the option to be one should ever become one.

Marco Rubio makes much of his family’s up-from-bootstraps, out-from-under-the-Communist-boot tale. In his world, a guy like my dad would have no use for Aristotle. I mean, what does a guy working red-hot metal with a drop-hammer need to know about the potentiality of form? But, you know, Marco got his. Nuts to the rest of you.

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