George Pyle: Philosophy majors don't serve fries. They make you one with everything.

Utah needs its philosophy majors. And literature and history and dance and ancient languages.

One might think, after 40 years of sitting across the table from various governors — 11 of them, as different as Olene Walker and Eliot Spitzer — that I would no longer be in awe of or intimidated by such worthies.

But when Gary Herbert threw me a set-up the other day during his annual budget briefing with The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board, all I could think to do was toss back the expected punch line.

The governor of Utah was going on, as he often does, about the importance of an educated workforce to the state’s economy. Especially, he said, the need for engineers and scientists and coders and diesel mechanics and dental assistants, which creates a need for a lot of state spending on both college-level learning and technical and vocational training.

Then he looked at me and said, “You know what a philosophy major says, don’t you?”

And I dutifully replied, “You want fries with that?”

Har. Har. Har.

If I had been thinking faster, I would have said that a true philosopher, tasked with rustling you up a hamburger, would more likely have said, “Let me make you one with everything.”

If I had really been firing on all mental cylinders, I might have protested that Utah needs its philosophy majors. And literature and history and dance and ancient languages. Not all those students will get jobs in those fields, any more than everyone who plays football or basketball in a Utah college will become a professional athlete. They wind up as bankers or teachers or insurance brokers or computer techs or, if they are really desperate, newspaper reporters.

It would have been just crude to remind the chief executive at that point that he didn’t finish college. Crude and pointless, as he has clearly done pretty well for himself without that sheepskin.

But the greater point of education, especially the kind we expect the taxpayer to pay for, is not to write code or fix trucks or cook up complex financial instruments -- even though we need people to do all those things. The point is to create a well-rounded, literate and broadly read culture of people who will, because of their exposure to the more artistic or cerebral parts of knowledge, be better parents, better citizens, better human beings. Better fry cooks.

Better governors. The nice piece observing the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah that Herbert sent us just the other day was ennobled by an appropriate quote from the 17th century English writer John Milton. Something people don’t generally pick up in inorganic chemistry or mechanical engineering class. Something that may have been suggested by, oh, I don’t know, a governor’s communications and policy aide who has a Ph.D. in jurisprudence and social policy,

I know at least two philosophy majors who went on to careers in computer science. One of the best newspaper editors I ever worked for had a degree in art history. An early role model of a fearless, literate and cut-the-crap reporter hadn’t gone to college at all.

Ben Bradlee, legendary editor of The Washington Post, studied Greek classics at Harvard. The only time I ever had a chance to speak to Bradlee, I asked him if his knowledge of that ancient civilization and its sagas made him a better journalist. Hell if I know, was the gist of his reply, though he thought it might be a good idea if someone else explored the possibility.

Both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were college drop-outs. Gates began his time at Harvard as a pre-law student and Jobs wandered aimlessly in and out of Portland’s Reed College, in later years remembering only a single course he took in calligraphy. Groucho Marx dropped out of school at the age of 12, but was a voracious reader and spent much of his adult life corresponding with T. S. Eliot and Carl Sandburg.

As I have said in this space before, and doubtless will again, the most important part of an education — public, private, high school, college or completely self-taught — is empathy. Some sliver of understanding of what it is like to be someone else, somewhere else, somewhen else. It can be in philosophy, literature, psychology or, my preference, history. But it is crucial.

Not everyone is cut out for any deep study, much less a four-year or graduate degree, in any of those fields. And, as Herbert says, we really, really need people to fix our trucks and install HVAC systems and take our blood pressure and run nice restaurants. May they live long and prosper.

But a grounding in the classics and liberal arts, for as many people as have the aptitude, is necessary to a decent and self-governing society. If people aren’t exposed, a little or a lot, to those classes and majors, it should be because they don’t want to, not because we are too cheap or short-sighted to make them available.

You never know when you might be called upon to trade quips with the governor. I hope you are better prepared than I was.

George Pyle, The Tribune’s editorial page editor, left New York and returned to Utah because he was scared of Andrew Cuomo. gpyle@sltrib.com

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.