A week or so ago, I sat down with a recent graduate, a young woman named Rita, one of the most promising writers and thinkers I’ve encountered in over a decade of teaching. Rita's senior paper was on Bono, his global missionary work, and the culture of celebrity. I thought it was outstanding. We lingered over good coffee, and talked at length about her future. We spoke about the pressing, practical realities of the moment. But we also got excited about the prospect of the open road before her, the prospect of a life with infinite prospects and possibilities. I encouraged her to travel, to write, to think hard, to critique, and to give public voice to her critique. There is a profound richness in everything, I offered – even in the seemingly predictable life of a barista or waitress. No one knows what the future might bring, and no one can predict what sort of skills might be useful. Invest in your mind, I said, for the long term.
This, one might suppose, is old-fashioned advice given by a dying breed: the starry-eyed dreamer-professor who has been rendered increasingly irrelevant by the new matrix of instrumentalist, quasi-vocational, more-easily-assessed training that is ascendant in the universe of higher education. Everyone wants a degree that provides tangible skills for an immediate, $100K-a-year job, and it can be very difficult to draw a bright line between your abstractly analytical coursework in, let’s say, American studies and that shiny G5 airplane parked in front of the house featured on MTV’s "Cribs."
The job numbers are bleak. Our cityscapes are crumbling. The middle class is being erased. Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree? Is it right to ponder the rhythms of Shakespeare, or fritter away a semester thinking about the tones of El Greco, when the information superhighway needs further construction?
Kim Brooks, writing in Salon,  seems to think that my student Rita was poorly served by her degree. The civic mission of the liberal arts may be inspiring, but such a mission "doesn’t pay the rent." Why, she wonders, "do even the best colleges fail so often at preparing kids for the world?" Why do we even offer such an antiquated degree structure, rooted in 19th-century certainties about the value of art and literature, and aimed at a more accelerated economy, where even a kid with an English B.A. might be able to get the proverbial job in advertising or in plastics, and get on with the business of life.
Life, of course, is not a business; it is an unpredictable set of experiences. We shouldn’t train our students for Wal-Mart, then, but for the unmapped future. And we should scale back the drama a little; the homeless shelters aren’t filled with comparative literature majors from Swarthmore clutching their Spivak readers in one hand and a tin cup in the other. But Brooks has a point. We’re going through a major structural adjustment. We need to worry about our students.
Of course, this isn’t a recent issue. Brooks is only the latest to pile on. We’ve been pushing off from the humanities for two generations now. Interestingly, though, by just about every statistical measure, the quality of life for all college graduates has simultaneously been ground down – just as it has for most everyone.
At the same time, our relatively recent enthusiasm for business schools and other financially instrumentalist degrees has only produced a nation hell-bent on securing profit for the smallest number of people, no matter the global consequences. That effort, it increasingly seems, has been quite successful. Amidst all the cheerleading for the American business school, few have stopped to ponder why it is that the link between the nation's economy and the hopes of ordinary people has been strongest when we invest in the humanities, and weakest when we don't. That has to stop.
Of course, over this same stretch, the mainstream American public (and their representatives in public office) seems poorly informed about quite a bit. What we used to call basic civics is lost. The Founding Fathers and slavery? Paul Revere and the British? Ronald Reagan and taxes? What we read and hear in the mainstream and new media on these and other topics sounds like a compilation of the very worst hits of our annual Advanced Placement exams. Even the near-complete absence of civil discourse might be traced to our post-humanistic intellectual redirections; it is just downright odd to hear the names of the Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and Adams – champions of polite, deeply informed, dispassionate debate – invoked by red-faced partisans who wouldn’t know Cicero from scissors, shouting angrily on the floor of the House of Representatives.
In short, we need the humanities now more than ever. Indeed, we need more attention to the humanities – more than we currently have, and not merely a preservation of the status quo. And we need to stop blaming the humanities for not preparing students for some idyllic life – filled with afternoon martinis, big property, and gleaming SUVs – that wasn’t for everyone to begin with, and isn't available anymore, except without the dangerous extension of credit.
I'm not the first to make this sort of principled argument. And, to be frank, it doesn’t seem all that persuasive at this moment. University presidents, facing budget shortfalls and a deeply conservative political climate, are understandably shy about trimming science and engineering departments, even if the cost of new lab space and research facilities is prohibitive, and even if the payoff for a $10 million investment is merely a mediocre department.
In contrast, top-drawer humanities departments and smaller interdisciplinary units, often held up as the epitome of the liberal arts, are squeezed for the last drop of spare change, and often lumped together awkwardly, just to save the cost of a single staff position and basic administration. Thus, arguments about the civic virtue of the humanities might well be righteous, but they don’t seem to be generating new support. Indeed, if the current dystopian trends continue, we might well lose the classic small liberal arts college altogether – at least outside of a few elite institutions with brand notoriety and alumni loyalty – and witness a massive reduction in the size, scale, and significance of programs dedicated to the study of the complexities of art, literature and culture.
So let me try to make a different argument here, one that places additional stress on the greater need for the humanities. They are what we do best in this country. Oh, we love to celebrate our ingenuity in science and manufacturing, but in this epoch of the flat world, our dominance in those fields is no longer assured. What we do best – despite the near total absence of public support – is paint, and sing, and compose, and write, and read, and watch. And then argue and debate over all of it.
We are singularly great at this. We are a nation of movie watchers, water-cooler chit-chat about T.V., Facebook, and book clubs. We make and consume more media than any place in the world. And we do it so well that we need new technologies – the table computers, e-readers, smartphones – to make it easier to do even more of it. Your top-of-the-line Parisian bookstore is the size of the coffee shop in my local Barnes and Noble. My tiny town has two multiplexes with well over 20 screens between them, though every visitor thinks of it as backward and provincial. We also have a half dozen theater companies, and all manner of venues for music, from front porch clubs to bars to the grand stage. Our lives are filled with all manner of public performances and spontaneous acts of creation.
When I tell Rita – representing the new best and brightest – that she should just take that big brain of hers and go out into the world and focus on her experiences, I am encouraging her to become a part of the productive capacity of civil society. And, to be totally frank, I think we’ve prepared her very well for this. What she makes will become a part of our symbolic surround, a part of what makes us "us." More important, I think Rita gets it, too. And I think that she, like many of our students, is excited by the challenge of turning the everyday into something magical, inspiring, and serious. Langston Hughes, she knows, was a waiter once. And, as hard as it is to imagine a United States without the auto industry, it should be even harder to think of this place without future versions of "I, Too, Sing America."
This, then, is a message for those who worry about American dominance: we are doing one thing very well right now. We are making and remaking cultural forms, often in new and exciting ways. If you are older, or more conservative, you might think these forms are strange. But you should recognize that such sentiments are a predictable reaction, like the fear of the awesome and the new. That fear is a good thing. It marks revolutionary thinking. If you want a son or daughter trained for life in the unpredictable future, and if they want to get a college or university degree, know that a genuine and durable knack for innovation comes from the humanities, and not from a degree in Marketing. Rita is our future. We should hitch our wagon to her.
Matthew Pratt Guterl is the Rudy Professor of American Studies and History, and chair of American Studies, at Indiana University at Bloomington.