By Jim Miller
While I still deeply love my chosen profession of teaching after twenty-five years of work at various colleges with the last seventeen of those at San Diego City College, it’s hard not to notice the constant drumbeat of critics casting doubt on the value of my life’s work in the humanities.
Whether they be corporate education reformers bent on imposing a business model on colleges or techno-boosters with a zeal to toss all that I hold dear into the dustbin of history, there is a long line of naysayers.
As David Masciotra recently noted in “Pulling the Plug on English Departments” in The Daily Beast, “The armies of soft philistinism are on the march and eager to ditch traditional literature instruction in favor of more utilitarian approaches . . . It is easy to observe the sad and sickly decline of American intellectual life, through the cultural and institutional lowering of standards, when prestigious publications promote the defense, if not the celebration, of lower standards.”
Masciotra goes on to outline arguments like those of James Pulizzi in The New Republic who celebrates what he is sure will be the impending extinction of “contemporary literature departments” which will be replaced by “communications, composition, and media studies.” Central to Pulizzi’s case is his incredulity that college students should have to read “narrative prose” when they “get their fill of stories from television, cinema, and interactive video games.”
In essence, the question that he asks is “why read?”
While I spend plenty of time teaching composition, frequently incorporate media studies into my classes, and write a weekly column for this online publication, I share Masciotra’s dismay in the face of such glib proclamations.
As he goes on to document, studies show that the reading of “narrative prose” on the printed page has a different effect on the brain than the other forms of narrative that Pulizzi lists. It strengthens attention spans, reading comprehension, retention, and “increases and enhances the ability to empathize.” When we read, Masciotra reminds us, we enter the consciousness of others through a hard, lonely process, and, further, “Solitude activates the imagination, and invites introspection.”
Of course, this process is resisted because, “The American attitude of utilitarianism, and the fixation on practicality, means that young people, even in the humanities, want to know they are doing something tangible with the knowledge they require, and not just reading and thinking.”
Nonetheless, Masciotra argues, colleges should insist that students read as “The culture, however, needs to provide space for the readers and thinkers, and it needs to elevate literature to a place of prominence.”
In a similar article in The New Yorker, “Why Teach English?”, Adam Gopnik, observes that “The English major is vanishing from our colleges” and that defenses have been mounted, “none of them terribly persuasive,” which argue either that the humanities makes you a better person or that they make for a better society. And while Gopnik is unconvinced of the merits of the various apologias he outlines, he takes a stab at his own defense nonetheless:
So: Why should English majors exist? Well, there really are no whys to such things, anymore than there are to why we wear clothes or paint good pictures or live in more than hovels and huts or send flowers to our beloved on their birthday. No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose.
We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.
Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.
If there is a central insight in both Masciotra’s and Gopnik’s pieces it is that we are at a place in our cultural life where American “utilitarianism” and our obsession with whether we “produce goods and services efficiently” has become nearly totalitarian. But the seeds of our present fundamentalist instrumentalism go way back and are rooted in the corporate world’s longstanding distrust of higher education and the humanities in particular.
As Frank Donoghue argues in The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, “The hostility amongst the corporate world toward higher education was unabashed with “Unregulated monopolistic capitalists such as Carnegie and Crane” seeing much of higher education as “literally worthless.” More specifically, Donoghue notes that, “America’s early twentieth century capitalists were motivated by an ethically based anti-intellectualism that transcended interest in the financial bottom line. Their distrust of the ideal of intellectual inquiry for its own sake led them to insist that if universities were to be preserved at all, they must operate on a different set of principles from those governing the liberal arts.”
For this principle they looked to Fredrick Winslow Taylor, whose ideas in Principles of Scientific Management became the core of the corporate world’s gospel of efficiency and launched a nationwide campaign to systematize labor at the turn of the 20th century.
Taylor’s entry into American higher education came in 1909 when MIT president, Henry S. Pritchett, wrote to him and asked how he could do an “economic study” of education. In response, Taylor personally recommended Morris Llewellyn Cooke, whose Academic and Industrial Inefficiency provided the blueprint for academic Taylorism. As Donoghue notes:
Cooke’s recommendations are very farsighted. They accurately anticipate the business model for today’s for profit universities . . . Not surprisingly, Cooke calls for the abolition of tenure, since tenure, the ultimate worker autonomy, has no place in Taylor’s system. Two of his other findings are far more subtle: Cooke recommends that to maximize efficiency and organizational control, (1) textbooks and lecture notes for all of a university’s ‘elementary and medium branches’ of instruction should be standardized and (2), that those materials plus every professor’s lectures and ‘pedagogical mechanisms’ should be the property of the university. Cooke’s recommended policies would eventually form the lines of battle between faculty who wish to preserve their professional individuality and university administrators eager to control the growing costs of multifaceted institutions of higher learning.
Donoghue observes that the power of this kind of academic Taylorism comes from Americans’ readiness to accept “an ethic of productivity for its own sake as the irrefutable measure of success of any kind.” For Corporate America, this has been a useful tool in their efforts to externalize the cost of worker training to the state, which it can then chastise regularly for failing to produce workers ready to compete in the marketplace. Hence the battle has been going on for a century.
But if we move beyond the history of corporate skepticism toward academia to the core values of the Taylorist worldview, the larger importance of the humanities becomes clearer. As Neil Postman expertly outlined in his seminal book Technopoly, the essential philosophy of Taylorism is founded on six key assumptions:
[T]hat the primary, if not the only goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that, in fact, human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.
Thus it is easy to see how nicely Taylor’s philosophy has come to occupy the heart of the neoliberal worldview with its market fundamentalism, unthinking technophilia, and disdain for all that can not be measured or made part of the totalitarian gospel of efficiency. Of course what is left out of such a worldview is most of what makes it good to be alive. That of course can’t be measured.
And what kind of world and people are we creating by moving heedlessly in this direction? One clue, perhaps, comes from a recent study of college students asked to sit alone in a room with their thoughts for 15 minutes:
A research team led by University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson reports that, in a series of studies, “participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think.”
“Simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electronic shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”
What’s more, in the researchers’ most remarkable result, “many preferred to administer electronic shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.”
“The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself,” Wilson and his colleagues conclude in the journal Science.
Hence, apparently for some of us, the unexamined life is vastly preferable to the examined one. Indeed, for a shockingly high number of us it seems an electric jolt is preferable to what the Buddhists call “just sitting.”
How did this happen? George Monbiot ponders this very question in a column in The Guardian where he examines what psychoanalysis is telling us about the kinds of personalities created by the values of our market-based society:
The market was meant to emancipate us, offering autonomy and freedom. Instead it has delivered atomisation and loneliness.
The workplace has been overwhelmed by a mad, Kafkaesque infrastructure of assessments, monitoring, measuring, surveillance and audits, centrally directed and rigidly planned, whose purpose is to reward the winners and punish the losers. It destroys autonomy, enterprise, innovation and loyalty, and breeds frustration, envy and fear.
So maybe it’s just easier never to think about it, to stay distracted, and amuse ourselves to death.
In this context, the boring, stodgy activity of reading a novel or poem and actually enjoying it could almost be described as a kind of counter-cultural act. It stops us and makes us think and reflect on our lives. It gives us useless beauty, pleasure, and feeling. Sometimes it unsettles us, makes us cry, or shatters our expectations.
So when I walk into my class, I will ask the same questions I always do: “Why are you here? What’s the point? Why engage in such a useless activity?”
My students usually laugh but I’m always pleased to see how quickly they jump to the defense of the beautiful uselessness of literature and the humanities.
None of the corporate reformers or education “experts” care about this but you’d be surprised how many times my students tell me that they love coming to talk about books because in much of the rest of their lives nobody really cares what they think about anything. But here, in the extraordinary space of the classroom, it’s the only thing that matters.
bob dorn says
Wow. I can’t remember when I’ve read a broader, deeper essay on the sickness afflicting American higher education. And yet at the end when all this marching after money, predictability and massive consensus has been exposed for what it is — a coordinated attempt to reduce thought to industrial product — Jim Miller lets us understand that the human heart and soul will go where it will.
I don’t know how far the professionals of higher education have gotten in reducing the university (do we even use the word, “college” these days?) to a function of commerce and industry, but there are a lot of university presidents who’ve been asking what use the humanities serve.
This stupidity and shortsightedness goes at least as far back as the 70s. When I was reporting higher education I interviewed the incoming president of the University of California David Saxon, a physicist, what was the last book he read and he seemed untroubled at having to say he couldn’t remember it, and read only professional articles in his field.
I’ve heard otherwise literate people say, “I don’t like history,” as if the whole range of human behavior and accomplishment were a Mars bar you could say yea or nay to.
The fact is, even those who have been engineering and designing this system that rewards study with cars and housing and that vast ineffable that has replaced the notion of happiness — SECURITY — know that their own success depended on passing through the humanities at expensive places like Harvard and Yale and, yes, UC, so that they could know… how… to… read.
John Lawrence says
The for profit universities like University of Phoenix and Ashford University and many others are all about giving out degrees for the purpose of getting a better job or any job at all. Therefore, they are totally utilitarian based. Studying literature does nothing to advance these students’ causes in the eyes of the for profit universitys and in the eyes of the students themselves. Art, music and the humanities may be luxuries that students and profit oriented universities can no longer afford. There are so many other activities vying for a person’s time and energy from spectator sports to video games to movies to TV to smartphones. Simply sitting and reading a book seems so old fashioned.
But those who are inclined to do so will find so many resources available to them outside of universities and colleges. Books are ubiquitous and available online, in libraries and downloadable. Let those who find something worthwhile in reading do it. Others not so inclined will probably pursue other activities. Forcing literature down people’s throats who are not interested in it is probably a lost cause in a culture where people want to do what they want to do and don’t want to be forced to do what they don’t want to do.
bob dorn says
John, ours isn’t “a culture where people want to do what they want to do.” People who seek middle class lives are forced into universities. No salaried jobs can be had without showing a resume/CV that includes higher education. For-profit scams, like U/Phoenix and Ashford, thrive on this cultural coercion.
I doubt you’ve abandoned the educational value of the humanities, or that you believe the universities are “(f)orcing literature down people’s throats” without benefit to students.
I’m pretty sure people do better in this world when they can take the wise advice of those who’ve gone before them and put it down on paper so that it can be read. And I think you believe that too.
John Lawrence says
Yeah, Bob, but I don’t think people need universities to become educated. I believe you become educated when you want to learn something and the resources are widely available. People at universities (and I was no exception) study to pass tests and then immediately forget everything they supposedly learned. I’ve learned far more because I wanted to read about history, biography, art, music, languages all of which I’ve studied and read books about on my own without having to have it sanctified by a university. I’m all for learning just not forced fed learning – at a substantial price.
Anna Daniels says
John- I went to the university to get educated. Period. And I did get educated, which means that I never stopped educating myself .
Not only was my liberal arts education an introduction to books, authors, events and ideas about which I knew nothing or next to nothing, it also exposed me to my first African-American professors; I sat in classes with people who grew up in different cities, states and even countries than mine.
My education was “successful” not because it provided me with everything I needed to know to get a job and a life. Quite the contrary. It revealed to me how much I didn’t know. It started me on the path of questioning the assumptions that had shaped my young life.
None of my subsequent jobs nor my circle of friends and acquaintances could ever have educate me in that same way.
As the first child in my family to go to college, that educational opportunity was viewed like gold by me and my parents. It was.
John Lawrence says
Anna, I’m glad it worked for you. It worked for me too, but in a different way. I was an engineering student. I didn’t pick up a book in high school and graduated barely in the upper third of my class. I was lucky to get into Georgia Tech where I was a co-op student. I worked alternate quarters. All the professors cared about was that you got the right number in the right box. That was it. Fortunately, I was good at it and graduated summa cum laude. I got a research assistantship to Stanford where I worked 23 hours a week in the microwave lab. That paid for room, board and tuition, and there was enough money left over to buy a motorcycle. I also had a research assistantship at UCSD. I made money going to school. It didn’t cost my parents anything, something I feel good about. I was a professional student till I was 29. This was my “formal” education.
My informal education, my real education, consisted of doing a lot of extracurricular reading. I studied just enough to get As, and then I spent the rest of my time reading, going to concerts etc. So my real education didn’t take place in the university at all; it took place outside it. The university gave me a raison d’etre, and it paid the bills. My parents were happy.
Anna Daniels says
Jim, I’ve been looking forward to this essay. Human beings are storytellers. Long before double entry bookkeeping was invented, humans were telling their story on cave walls. When we look at those paintings, millennia later, they remain evocative, compelling.
The devaluation of the humanities is itself part of a larger narrative of “makers and takers.” This narrative is reductive, subtracting out everything not deemed utilitarian sans analysis of who is defining the term and for what purpose. It is unlikely that the “who” is the anxiety ridden individual signing up for a degree program at a for-profit university which has a strong likelihood of leaving that individual in debt and without job prospects.
Imagine an effort and supporting rationale for removing the ten least used letters from the alphabet because the most essential communication is fulfilled by sixteen letters. If that precludes ever writing the word “quetzal” again, who would care?
There is a pernicious attempt to do precisely that, except instead of removing letters, whole concepts and relationships are being ignored and then forgotten.
The human imagination is at its core additive. Madelaine L’Engle wrote “We are the world. We’re its language. So we live and it lives. If we don’t say the words, what is there in our world?”
You provided an answer to the question of what happens if we don’t say the words– “It destroys autonomy, enterprise, innovation and loyalty, and breeds frustration, envy and fear.”
I recently attended a talk by Leon Botstein, president of Bard College. Some of the things he said are that today’s college student are expecting a longer life than their parents, and that they will probably have more than one career. Given that, it is a mistake to not to have a strong general education, to learn how to think critically and be able to adapt to new situations. He also asserted is that, on average, people who major in the humanities make or money than those who don’t, and that they have a higher rate of employment. personally, I would like to add that it is one of the few times, if not the only time, that a person can really dig in and research something that they love, whether its the arts, humanities, math, science, whatever,and that their life will forever be richer for it.
Frances O'Neill Zimmerman says
A good piece for the beginning of the school year.
What is a liberal education for? For enriching every aspect of one’s life — including work , recreation and civic engagement. For those without, it is hard to imagine the value.
One thing it means is that we do not wave greenbacks at commencement ceremonies.
Re Frances: For those without that LA education, they simply can’t imagine. Period. They never learned how, or it’s long since been forgotten…
Either way, they’re left incapable of living in the wider world – only one exceedingly-narrow aspect of it – or even living within themselves; they never amassed the life-experiences to populate it.
And they don’t even know what they’re missing out on. More’s the pity…
Simon Mayeski says
Thanks for this, the best essay I’ve read this year (and we’re more than halfway already.)
I guess there really IS nothing new under the (perfect?) sun. The perpetual-motion swing-set that appears to be the vehicle of human culture and civilization reflects an uneasy set of pulls and pushes, protagonists and antagonists, good folks and not-so-good folks (depending on one’s own starting point/points). The “liberal education” vs the “career training” battle in educational choices seems at times to be part of a somewhat twisted national sitcom, especially when half the population considers anything ‘liberal’ to be part of an evil plot, and those who do “career training” do so with the knowledege that most jobs for those of a traditional college age (late teens through early twenties) do not exist at the time of that traditional college ‘training’. And as you point out, this has been going on since the beginning of the previous century, and likely since the dawn of time in one way or another.
At this point, I’m just happy when I can sit down and read lots of books, having no trouble doing so because of my “liberal education.” Whatever.
Philly Joe Swendoza says
As a retired history professor from a large eastern public university, I’ve observed that as scholars reveal more & more of our checkered past, the less history is offered for study. History graduation requirements are already virtually extinct & the academic historian an endangered species. I got out before the deluge, but a historian still needs to teach, like a hammer needs a nail. Even more disturbing is the declining art of applying historical perspective to our everyday lives. Witness the sad decline of the History Channel into a Disneyland for dysfunctional true believers in America’s potted past. To put it bluntly, the more Zinn is in, the more history is out. And who has the most content say in US history textbooks? The Texas State Board of Education. Remember the Alamo!
John Lawrence says
I disagree. Howard Zinn who wrote “A People’s History of the United States” was one of the great US historians. To paraphrase your remarks, the more Zinn is out, the less real history is in.
Philly Joe Swendoza says
John, you misunderstand me. I agree. Zinn’s masterpiece is selling better than ever & as more scholars confirm his views, it seems that a strategy has emerged that aims to minimize Zinn history by downsizing history in the curriculum altogether. Call it Zinn & the art of potted history maintenance.
And the push-pull of reading (or lack thereof) continues: another great Michael Hiltzik piece from today’s LA Times…