Is Philosophy Work? Josef Piper vs. Donald Trump on Education and Work

Amidst the fury over the US government’s handling of immigrant families, news came out of Washington this week that President Trump is considering merging the Department of Education with the Department of Labor. Erin Dooley with ABC News quotes Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney:

They’re doing the same thing…Trying to get people ready for the workforce, sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s vocational training – but all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?

While there are many kicking back at Trump’s suggestion, if educators were honest with themselves, there has been a growing trend in higher education to tie higher education to the nation’s workforce – analogous to the way the minor leagues feed into MLB teams. In short, education has been relegated to preparing citizens entering, or those seeking to enhance or relocate, in the workforce.

As social media goes, I am sure there will be vitriol and anger spewed forth by seemingly anyone and everyone. In this situation, though, I believe there is warrant in those who express concern over such a move. Fortunately, this issue is not a new one, so we can learn from those who have gone before us. [Note: I will be limiting my focus to higher education because of my work experience in higher education.]

In his essay titled “Philosophy Education and Intellectual Labor,” Josef Pieper – late German Catholic philosopher – addresses the tendency of those in the days of Eastern Germany to equate philosophical work with the work of the laborer. In this short essay, Pieper defines labor as something that “performs a specific, well-defined, purposeful social function” (Pieper, 19). While philosophers do perform an “intellectual occupation”, Pieper notes that not all intellectual activity can be confined to labor.

By virtue of being a part of the liberal arts, philosophy and philosophy education manifests “liberty” in the sense that “it does not derive its legitimation from its social function, that is, from its being work” (19). As medieval philosophers understood, there are those who are called to the life of contemplation. Thus, in contrast to “labor,” Piper defends the concept of “leisure” in philosophical education, for “there is something else involved in philosophical education – something essential – that is not work, not work in the sense of activity or of effort or of social function (20). More specifically, “leisure” is

  1. “As an attitude of receptive listening, of intuitive, contemplative immersion in being” (22)
  2. It “involves the adoption of an attitude of celebratory contemplation toward the world; it is sustained by its relation to the origin of all real being” (22).
  3. “It is not a working attitude in the sense that it is directed toward performing a social function” (22).

Note, Pieper’s concept of leisure is not one of laziness or idleness (20). Intellectual labor can be painful and difficult. Rather, he seeks to defend the idea that philosophical education is not always directly tied to a quantifiable outcome in the workforce. Allowing for leisure in philosophical education allows the philosopher to address “those higher realities on which his whole existence depends” (24). Philosophical education, then, must have room for leisure (25).

Granted, Pieper’s work narrows in on philosophical education, but his essay can be broadened to include all non-STEM and technical education today. Is there a disconnect between some higher education degrees and the needs employers have? Yes. Is the number of college graduates without gainful employment (a problematic area itself) too high? Yes. The questions and problems go on. But, to deem all education as preparation of the workforce as a solution to the crisis in education is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. The existence of the humanities and liberal arts is not the problem with higher education.

During the recent presidential campaign, Marco Rubio infamously quipped that our nation needs “more welders and less philosophers” (his words, incorrect grammar included). Rubio made his assertion during a presidential debate where he highlighted the growing need of blue collar workers. While it is true America needs more blue collar workers, Rubio’s assertion illustrates the common view that philosophy just doesn’t pay the bills – it is an outdated degree for today’s modern workforce.

Interestingly, Rubio changed his tune about philosophy. In a March 28, 2018 Tweet, Rubio notes that he was challenged to study philosophy, and he did! He now sees the need for both philosophers and welders. Only time will tell how his epiphany will impact his policy-making, but it is encouraging to see that at least one politician gets it – not all education has to be directly related to the workforce.

As news about Trump’s announcement to combine the Departments of Education and Labor gains traction, may we not be quick to equate education with labor training. There is room within our great nation for those preparing for labor and those for leisure. We need both.


Work cited: Josef Pieper, For the Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).

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