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1 November

Elon Musk is proof we need more people with humanities degrees

Studying philosophy might teach him to ask not whether he can bring life to Mars and regulate free speech, but whether he should.

By Charlotte Kilpatrick

Elon Musk’s fan boys should note that SpaceX is not the only private company that has attempted colonisation of a foreign land.

In December 1606, the Virginia Company of London sent three ships from England to Virginia with the singular goal of making profit. The indentured servants sent to the new colony signed contracts to work for several years in exchange for land and freedom. Things did not go as planned. Between 1609 and 1610, life in the new colony disintegrated in a Lord of the Flies-like fashion. Out of the 500 original settlers nearly 400 either starved to death, died of disease, or were killed by the Powhatan native Americans. Those who managed to survive did so by eating the rotting corpses of their fellow humans.

There are many lessons somebody planning to colonise Mars could extrapolate from this historical example. While Elon Musk may argue that his Martian ambitions are simply to make human life “multiplanetary”, he could contemplate whether a private company accountable to shareholders is the best institution to colonise another planet. Musk could also ask himself what type of government the Red Planet should have. Should it have an appointed governor imported from the Republic of Tesla in California? How can civilisation on this new planet avoid recreating the types of inequalities that put disproportionate amounts of power in the hands of a few billionaires? Or, better yet, should we even try to spread capitalism to Mars when it’s doing such a great job of destroying Earth?

Musk will not find the answers to these deeper questions about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by flipping to the back of the book and looking up the answer key. They also cannot be reduced to the kind of yes-or-no polls that Musk poses to his chorus of tech-bro libertarian fan boys on Twitter.

Musk’s rise comes at a time when the academic disciplines that would force him to question not just can I as an unelected billionaire bring life to Mars and regulate free speech, but should I, are being threatened. The study of humanities has come under fire from a brigade of “anti-woke” right-wing politicians across the world. In the words of the Republican Florida senator Marco Rubio: “We need more welders and less philosophers.”

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If Rubio had paid better attention during his political science classes at the University of Florida (funded in part by taxpayers through student loans), not only would he understand the difference between less and fewer, he’d understand that democracies benefit from having more philosophical welders. A welder with a degree in the humanities not only knows about fusing metals but also has a decent enough understanding of history to be scared of the rising tide of authoritarianism, and vote accordingly.

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Since the financial crisis of 2007-08, one recent report has said that the number of students studying a humanities degree in the US has dropped from around 15 per cent of all bachelor’s degrees studied to 10 per cent in 2020. In the UK, the Tory government announced it would slash funding for degrees in which less than 40 per cent of students go on to “highly skilled” positions.

This devaluing of humanities degrees has little to do with concern that students won’t land a decent job after graduation. Philosophy majors make great lawyers, music majors win Baftas for writing symphonies, and those with a degree in classics can go on to become disgraced journalists and prime ministers. Even graduates who do not use their liberal arts degree in their line of work can use analytical thinking skills to conclude faster than Musk that a tree is the best carbon capturing technology we have.

A society that values the humanities is one that would question whether the Musks of the world who were lucky enough to make good investments from inherited money should be granted the authority to own the marketplace of ideas. It would also be a society that understands better than the new owner of Twitter that our future as a species relies not just on developments in technology, but also on how we decide to use them.

[See also: Elon Musk’s mismanagement suggests a dark future for Twitter]

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