Friday, February 10, 2012

The Humanities: America’s Endangered Species

In the opening sequence of Act One of Spike Lee’s four-part Hurricane Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke, a piece of footage collected during the storm shows a road sign for New Orleans’ Humanity Street.  Included as a means of emphasizing the scale of the flooding, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico reach nearly to the sign’s green marker, at once evoking the breaking of the levees themselves and, because of the aptly named thoroughfare, the dire circumstances of the stranded residents of the deluged city.

This particularly striking image in a film full of them might provide another useful meaning, albeit unintended by the filmmakers; the humanities (by which I mean the liberal arts, like English, History, Sociology, Art, etc.) themselves are nearly ready to drown.  Conduct a survey of college freshmen (I dare someone), asking them their intended majors, and inevitably, the answers will read: Business, Business Administration, Marketing, Advertising, Business again, Economics, Business a third time.  The folks looking to study the less quantifiable are fewer and farther between as the marketplace, in its infinite wisdom, increasingly decides that it has no use for Literary Modernism, or an understanding of the Progressive Era, or (gasp!) Descartes, and equally little use for those people who spent time thinking about any of that “Commy stuff.”

To be fair, post-college opportunities don’t look rosy for graduates in any discipline, but certainly the students who majored in those business-oriented areas listed above have a better chance than those of us who spent our time trying to figure out what it all means instead of how much it all adds up to. For example, this 2009 study by the American Labor Department reported that “The majors with the worst placement records were area studies (44.7 percent in degree-requiring jobs) and humanities (45.4 percent).”1 My sympathies go out to those poor bastards in area studies; there is some small comfort in knowing that it could always be worse, I suppose. 

This isn’t to say that young people shouldn’t major in these subjects; it sure looks like the smart move in hindsight, anyway.  Maybe they understand something about the new world that us humanities rubes just don’t, and maybe they’re right to start speaking the native language. Take a look around and try to understand just how much time the citizens of the world spend negotiating the minefield established by the ubiquity of business. It has become as commonplace and almost as necessary as breathing.  From the advertisements playing on the radio in the car on the way to work, to the Starbucks drive-thru halfway to the office, to the job itself, and everything in between, business is Everywhere.  And that’s just before 9 AM.  Business is the way we move through life, like we are all tiny blood cells, just traveling the veins of the body and hoping we are lucky enough not to get thrown overboard by a massive rectal hemorrhage. 

And because we’re so busy keeping the body alive, there’s no time to remember that we’re alive, too.  So, if there’s no time to live, then there must be no point in studying disciplines that can’t be deciphered by an adding machine, no matter how much it costs.  It must be a waste of time to bother understanding humanity’s flaws through the shared experience of Macbeth because humans are just productivity numbers, anyway.  Let’s not distract ourselves by thinking about historical parallels between the 1920s, which precipitated the Great Depression, and the run-up to our own contemporary financial meltdown of 2008, because we’re not going to change anything, anyhow.  Leave off looking at the Mona Lisa, because we’re never going to figure out if she’s smiling or not, nor what she’s smiling about if she in fact is, and get back to work, anywho. 

‘But this must be what the market wants,’ my friends and I routinely say, in mock genuflection at America’s true sacred altar, no matter how much lip service that God fella gets.  If the market says that it doesn’t have a place for people who know anything about Rousseau, then we must obey.  Philosophy has to put up a sign that says, ‘Going out of Business.’  And herein lies the ironic trap of the market philosophy that’s brought us to this unenviable place; the concept of the market is amorphous enough that its proponents have been able to insist that everything falls into it, and is therefore subject to the same rules.  So, in the great market competition between money and life, money builds a big-box store in town, and life becomes another empty storefront on a depressed, small town Main Street.             

I should do my humanities brethren a solid and close with an appropriately opaque literary metaphor (maybe it’ll be one of the last ever written and they’ll print it on a commemorative plate and sell it on QVC).  But so few people will understand or identify with it that I won’t even bother.  The water seems to get higher all the time.


1 comment:

  1. Wow. That's a very "doomsday" outlook :-)
    ...although there's not much to disagree with. Great post.

    I would suggest (and only suggest, for it is merely a guess) that perhaps there is less a shift AWAY from the Humanities and moreover a shift WITHIN the Humanities: it may just look different than it has in the past.

    I agree that, nowadays, everything seems to be viewed within the context of its selling potential. What we know about history, art, religion, literature, and philosophy seem to take a backseat to entrepreneurship and marketing.

    However, this is a very similar scenario to what the Music world has undergone in the last couple decades, both industrially and stylistically. We've turned an art form into a product, using auto tune and photoshop to put Brittany Spears at the top of the charts. And people love it; we buy it up and demand more, leaving us to wonder: what does this say about our view of Music?

    And yet, at the same time, the over-produced phenomenon of the 1990's is likely what caused a large group of musicians to backlash, causing the resurgence of folk-pop music. Groups like The Civil Wars, Mumford and Sons, Fleet Foxes, and various bands have become immensely popular in recent days. The songs you hear for car commercials, retail store commercials, and cell phone commercials are suddenly acquiring an acoustic-indie vibe.

    And really, I suspect that every generation has struggled with this realization/dilemma in their own way. Perhaps, this is to say, that everything fluctuates - ever so slowly - over the decades… this constant movement of compression/expansion - ebb/flow - produced/acoustic.

    And so, within the humanities, I think that this season of seemingly "drought" is likely the necessary vehicle to beckon the few faithful humanists (like yourself) to incite the next wave.

    …but again, this is just a guess :-)
    Maybe the humanities really are dying.