THE BLOG
08/28/2015 06:27 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2016

An Open Letter to Marco Rubio (and Other Deriders of the Humanities) From a Fellow Cuban-American

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Querido Señor Rubio:

I am not a Republican. However, after years of studying Plato, I have taken to heart his message from The Republic, and consider it my personal responsibility, as a member of a democracy, to educate myself about the relevant issues in our society. And so I tuned into the recent Republican presidential debate. And I have to admit I was very proud of you, for our backgrounds are extremely similar. I too was born in Miami, the daughter of Cuban exiles; my father was imprisoned by the Castro government. I grew up playing in the streets of Little Havana. I attended and got my Bachelor's degrees from Florida International University, where you currently teach some courses. So, despite our political disagreement, my heart welled with pride seeing you up on that stage.

So it only added to my dismay when I heard you deriding the decision to study philosophy as a waste of college time and money. You asked, rather dismissively, whether it was "worth borrowing $50,000 to major in Greek philosophy" and, tacitly, you implied that the answer was "no" -- because, after all, "the market for Greek philosophers has been very right for 2,000 years." See, Mr. Rubio, I did take out around $50,000 in student loans that I am paying back to study -- you guessed it -- philosophy. I was a philosophy (and English literature) major at FIU and went on to get my Master's and Doctorate degrees in philosophy (from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Purdue University, respectively). And I want to write you here to tell you why it was one of the very best decisions I have ever made in my life.

First, let's talk numbers and "practicality." Your first mistake was assuming that philosophy wasn't worth studying because there isn't a one-to-one correspondence between your degree and the kind of job you can get -- that is, there is no position for "Greek philosopher" in the wanted ads. However, the list of successful people who have studied philosophy is impressive: one of our Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson, your fellow Republicans Carly Fiorina and the late Tony Snow, former FDIC Chair Sheila Bair, George Soros, overstock.com founder and CEO Patrick Byrne (who has a Ph.D. in philosophy), composer Phillip Glass, Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John Paul II (who actual wrote a rather influential book in the field of metaphysics), and performers Woody Allen, Harrison Ford, Bruce Lee, Jay Leno, Dennis Miller, Susan Sarandon, Steve Martin, and Stephen Colbert. The list is far greater, of course, but it shouldn't be surprising to anyone that philosophy majors become successful. The skills the study of philosophy cultivates are indispensable ones that are in constant high demand on the job market. In a recent survey http://www.fastcompany.com/3046299/the-new-rules-of-work/this-is-the-future-of-college "60% of employers complained that job applicants lack interpersonal and communication skills. They can pass a calculus exam, but they can't identify or solve problems on the job, or negotiate, or lead a meeting." In another survey "of 318 companies, 93% of employers cared more about 'critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills' than an undergraduate's concentration." These are precisely the skills that philosophy teaches its students, as is evident by the fact that philosophy majors consistently rank at the top for verbal skills and analytical writing in the Graduate Record Examinations (GREs). A recent article http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/schools/teaching-primary-school-children-philosophy-improves-english-and-maths-skills-says-study-10378958.html noted that when grade school children in the UK were taught age-appropriate philosophy in the classroom, their "maths and reading scores improve by an average of two months... the year-long programme also improved children's wider skills such as confidence, patience and self-esteem."

While pondering abstract philosophical questions may appear to be a waste of time, the mental gymnastics students go through are creating indispensable critical and creative thinking skills. Moreover, philosophy teaches students how to analyze other people's arguments and pick out faulty reasoning, while also teaching them to construct their own valid and sound arguments (this means that they are also better able to assess a politician's speeches in order to decipher how much of it is truthful and genuine, versus fallacious and manipulative). And because philosophy students are reading difficult texts and are required to interpret them, they are getting quality instruction in careful reading, writing, and analytic skills.

But it's about more than finding a job. I can speak for myself and for many of my peers that studying philosophy has made me a better human being in every single aspect of my life. Plato instilled me a profound appreciation for just forms of government and taught me the importance of being an educated member of a democracy. Because of my family's experience with the Castro regime, and in a desperate attempt to understand our homeland's history and politics, I have spent years pouring over Karl Marx and other political philosophers (and realizing that Cuba has very little to do with Marxist ideology). Aristotle taught me that humans are intrinsically social animals who thrive on being members of a community, and that we should strive to learn virtue in the home so that we can apply that virtue in our society. This has influenced how I raise my daughters -- understanding that I do not raise them just for me, but for the world. When I am approaching one of those parental moments when I fear having a meltdown, Aristotle's words on the importance of properly educating our youth helps me come back and handle the situation more constructively. When I see a homeless person in the street, I try to find food or water for him, but at the very least I always address them as "Sir" or "Ma'am" and I look them in the eye, for Immanuel Kant taught me that every single person possesses intrinsic worth and dignity, and all of them should be treated as ends in themselves. I also remember Kant's words when I see a mechanic working on my car, or the custodial worker picking up my garbage. In them I see my working class parents, and I never forget that they are as worthy of respect and dignity as anyone with a Ph.D. When I am making dietary choices for me and my family, I remember Jeremey Bentham's and John Stuart Mill's argument that animal pain and suffering are ethically relevant, and make my food purchases with this in mind. When I get on my knees and pray to my God, I remember every philosopher/theologian I have read -- from St. Thomas Aquinas to St. Augustine and to more contemporary philosophers of religion -- and it influences how and for what I pray. When I deal with other people in my life, even those with whom I conflict, I try to remember the words of Søren Kierkegaard, and ask myself whether I am treating and loving the other as a neighbor. And these are just a few examples of the way philosophy has permeated almost every single facet of my existence.

Besides parenting, teaching is the most important thing I do with my life. I regard philosophy as a journey of self-discovery - fostering a contemplative character with a healthy skeptical mind. When I teach students to think about God, religion, and ethics, I don't tell them what to think, but rather how to think. I teach them that it is important that they don't spend the rest of their lives parroting the beliefs of others, but that they earn those beliefs for themselves through patient deliberation and investigation. In their eyes I still see the wonder present in the eyes of small children, which the world then sacrifices in exchange for expediency. I try to cultivate that wonder again, and show them the world is full of unanswered questions and ideas waiting to be discovered; that they have beautiful, reflective minds that they should never shut off. I teach them that once we stop asking the "big questions" we have given up that flame of curiosity about life's deeper issues, and our lives run the danger of becoming nothing more than mindless gestures. In the words of Pink Floyd, it is then when we become "just another brick in the wall."

One day we will look back at our current derision of the humanities, and we will be saddened by what our students, and our society, has lost. This is something many of you who deride the humanities have seem to forgotten -- that human life and education is about so much more than just getting a job and paying bills. Yes, of course that is important -- I am raising two kids, have a mortgage, car loan, college funds, and various bills to pay. I very much appreciate the desire for a well-paying career. And, indeed, being a philosophy professor has allowed me to transcend the poverty in which I was raised. My children have traveled more in their short lives than I did in my first 30 years. They live in a house and have their own bedrooms, as opposed to my childhood where my family and I lived in government housing and shared a single bedroom. They have so much more opportunities now than I ever did. Life will not be as much of a struggle for them as it was for me. My education in the humanities helped me ascended the economic ladder and achieve the American dream you are so quick to say you desire for everyone. But I also have philosophy to thank for making me a better mother, wife, teacher, friend, daughter, sibling, community member, and child of God. A humanities education (not just in philosophy, but in literature, music, art, history, amongst other topics) can indeed pay the bills - and also help you become a better human being.

So, I go back to your original question: was it worth $50,000 of student debt to study philosophy? No -- it is worth so much more. Although my education did help me financially, it helped me in a way far deeper; something that cannot be captured with dollar amounts, but is fully captured when I go outside my door and am reminded of the beauty and awe of existence. And I see that beauty everywhere - including the Spanish-filled streets where both you and I started our respective journeys.

For Dr. William L. Rowe