For all the havoc that it has inspired, the recent economic crisis has engendered at least one positive development: humanities majors and like-minded literati have been able to make full use of the word schadenfreude. The German term, defined by the OED as “malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others,” has been so frequently invoked in recent months that The New York Times’ deputy news editor was forced to advise writers to lay off of it. But overuse is to be expected — these days, intellectuals have few occasions to rejoice.
It’s not that massive layoffs and a general decline in wellbeing are a boon to anybody. After all, the study of philosophy or literature is supposed to give rise to empathy and fellow-understanding (or so they say). Rather, the collapse of financial institutions and the subsequent national identity crisis have inspired hope in certain circles that the rat-race mentality that has so dominated our culture — live to work, the bottom line above all — might finally be replaced by a more reflective attitude.
Oh, those dreamy bookish types. One need look no further than the American university to see that the claw-to-the-top attitude is going nowhere fast. Suit-and-tie-clad co-eds fret over summer internships and GPAs. Pre-professional business types, their handshakes already firm and steady, perfect their “networking skills.” Take, for example, Cornell: Our fair college on the hill seems at times little more than an incubator for the next generation of capitalists and worrywarts. Is there no more to life and studying than a big paycheck on the horizon?
It wasn’t always this way. Sure, Cornell was founded with a nod towards the practical — agriculture, we bow to thee — but not until recent decades was the University, and the vast majority of its counterparts, transformed into a Fortune 500 finishing school. Students used to study Greek and practice oratory; “well-rounded” didn’t mean a few extracurriculars and a nice recommendation.
Alas, the Republic of Letters has been overthrown by a Dictatorship of the Driven. The modern university has been transformed into just another corporation, with well-paying customers exchanging their time and money for a certificate of authenticity and a guarantee of comfortable living.
Stanley Fish, a columnist for The Times website and an inconsistent apologist for the humanities, recognized the plight of our higher education system in a January piece entitled “The Last Professor.” He phrased it thus: “The for-profit university is the logical end of a shift from a model of education centered in an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration to a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment.”
And so colleges send out glossy brochures to entice high-paying applicants and calibrate their rejection rates to manipulate the rankings. The less “practical” pursuits — literature, art, music — are shunned in favor of those that benefit the workplace. In a society hostile to abstraction and ever more focused on material gain, pursuits which don’t produce results on paper are deemed tangential.
It is perhaps naïve to think that times were ever really that different. Even if a few ivory towers indulge in humanistic whims, our nation has never been one to prefer learning over work. And professional training is essential: our bridges, our law courts, our missiles depend upon it.
Still, one has to wonder why the percentage of humanities majors has been halved in the past 40 years. Or why the Association of American Colleges and Universities recently urged humanities departments to prove their economic value. Maybe it’s just that screens have captivated our attention and long books are no longer appealing, or perhaps the theory-oriented infighting in academia has left the students cold. Regardless, we’ve turned from pensiveness to profiteering, from contemplation to the concrete.
And look at all the good it’s done us. Our first president with a business degree practically drove the country into the ground, while his well-credentialed peers on Wall St. did their best to add to the mayhem. Is it perhaps time for us to reevaluate our priorities?
Not everyone, of course, is a humanist, and one of the great virtues of any university is that it allows people of all interests to pursue their studies. But business, law and other practical fields are not endangered by developments in higher education; their very usefulness ensures their survival, with a steady flow of recruits always available. Not so with the humanities. The university, for good or ill, is their only refuge.