Despite the unending political chatter over global spying, the recent government shutdown, and now the misadventure of the Obama care rollout, I have also been pondering the meaning of something worth more obsessing about.
This matter won’t grab nearly as many headlines, or generate as much immediate anxiety, yet in many ways has much more profound, long-haul consequences.
It amounts to the latest variation not of Murphy’s Law (“if something can go wrong, it will”), but what I have called Raschke’s Rule (“if you didn’t think people could be more foolish than they already are, just wait a day or so”).
I have in mind a recent spate of news articles, particularly in the New York Times, debating the significance of what many fear is the death of the humanities.
“Both inside the humanities and outside, people feel that the intellectual firepower in the universities is in the sciences, that the important issues that people of all sorts care about, like inequality and climate change, are being addressed not in the English departments,” the Times recently quoted a Stanford University professor as lamenting.
The sentiment is not new. The humanities have always struggled to justify their existence not just in the academy, but throughout society at large.
It took President Lyndon Johnson almost fifty years ago at the height of all the feel-good era after assuming the presidency along with his landslide re-election in 1964, when such monumental and history-making initiatives as the Great Society and Civil Rights legislation were enacted, to push through Congress something seemingly as odd even in its own day as the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
Since then legislators of many stripes, even in the best oft economic times, have habitually demanded that the NEH is a frivolous affront to the serious business of federal largesse and governance. Most recently, U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) lambasted the NEH for spending an extraordinary amount of money – approximately $24,000 each – to fund such ridiculous questions as “what is the meaning of life?” and “why are we interested in the past?”
Of course, Republican (and presumably Sessions’ own) hero Ronald Reagan during his eight-year term from 1980-88 appointed Lynne Cheney, Dick Cheney’s wife, specifically to retool the NEH to answer those specific kinds of questions.
It was during that period that the Cheney-run NEH routinely blasted the rampant “cultural illiteracy” of America, particularly among its youth, and sought to bring the firepower of the frequently maligned NEH to address those challenges in the same way that President Reagan announced the so-called “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative to confront the military might of the Soviet Union.
In retrospect, it seems the latter was probably more of a “waste” of taxpayer money. The Soviet Union is long gone, but cultural illiteracy – or, more importantly, the abysmal deficit oft “critical” and “theoretical” perspectives the humanities offer us – is rampant and ballooning, not only on the political right but on the political left also.
One of the enduring legacies of the now defunct push to elevate the humanities in the American consciousness, whether or not it had the right accents and emphases at the time, was the establishment at most colleges and universities of a core curricular component known as “critical thinking.”
The component has been increasingly watered down and given bare lip service since its inception, but as the tiny finger held in the dike to hold back a Noahide flood of cultural-cosmic cluelessness, tweet-soaked and sound-byte-sweetened simpletonistic, sweeping socialized stupidity, even its elimination from the curriculum would be the very last straw.
Has anyone noticed lately that America’s “pragmatic” genius, on which the rush to accentuate our sci-techiness and desensitize us to what the Germans call Geisteswissenschaften (their word for “humanities”, which interestingly can also be translated as “spiritual sciences), and which much of the world has sought to emulate, is failing miserably?
All the while those ponderous, pontifical, and opaque-minded Teutons are somehow one of the only viable national economies on the planet. The American mentality these days, and its politics, resembles the ending of the 1994 cult flick Dumb and Dumber, where Harry and Lloyd, after having ended their excellent adventure from Rhode Island to Aspen and lost everything of course on account of their ontological obliviousness, console each other that will still get their “break” soon enough.
American mass public education was invented in the nineteenth century to ape the efficiency of the rising Prussian industrial state. The robber barons gave huge portions of their ill-gotten gain to ensure that an increasing percentage of Americans, particularly immigrants, would be docile and compliant fodder for economic exploitation and the mind-numbing regimen of the assembly line.
As award-winning, gadfly New York state teacher John Taylor Gatto has put it in The Underground History of American Education, “the economy would be jeopardized by too many smart people who understand too much.”
But, as we are finding out, the economy is increasingly and seriously jeopardized even more by too many people with baccalaureate and master’s degrees that do not at all constitute “education” in the sense of knowing how to make informed decisions about larger, global issues or seeing through political or ideological scams or flimflam.
What we call “humanistic” learning was always designed to inoculate the mind against what Nietzsche called the “herd” mentality. Today the more appropriate metaphor might be instead the collective lemming mindset – herds who follow each other mindlessly over historical cliffs.
Steve Jobs, the now archetypal legend of technological innovation and commercial success, was once quoted as saying: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”
As Walter Isaacson notes in his best-selling biography Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, 2011), the well-nigh deified Silicon Valley entrepreneur’s Buddhism was not merely a typical, post-Sixties New Age spiritual diversion on his part. It was the nub of genius, which he attributed to the Buddhist focus on the fierce cognitive discipline of “mindfulness”.
Great intellectual visionaries – from Einstein to contemporary Nobel Prize-winners in fields as diverse as physics and economics, remind us routinely that training in this sort of focused attention and intuitive discernment is the secret to their success, if not the progress of the human race.
Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel-laureate economist himself, has been highly critical of the race to upgrade today’s supposedly “relevant” fields of inquiry at the expense of broader learning. “The notion that every well educated person would have a mastery of at least the basic elements of the humanities, sciences, and social sciences is a far cry from the specialized education that most students today receive, particularly in the research universities,” Stiglitz has written.
Stiglitz should know. He received his Nobel honor for studying the effects of social inequality on global economic behavior. Those are insights that only a deeper understanding of moral philosophy and political theory could arrive at. Adam Smith, the father of modern political economy and the economics profession itself, was such a thinker.
The humanities, like the modern visual arts, offers us a unique way of “seeing” things, a perspective that forces us frequently to go against the grain and to revise our ordinary, pedestrian, and risk-aversive outlook, something Jobs himself recognized as the cipher for success.
As the truly business-minded Wall Street Journal has observed, it is these mavericks of the mind, who are the opposite of the professional, technical “experts” to whom we always foolishly look for our guidance, who even today are forcing the kinds of revolutionary social and economic changes we instinctively value, but habitually refuse when presented to us.
The dumb-and-dumber syndrome, now affecting both administrators and constituents of higher education, follows the same tragic path that economic savants such as Robert Reich noted more than a generation ago were undermining the very competitiveness of the American economy – the addiction to short-term payoff and immediate lifestyle gratification, particularly when it comes to fuzzy finance, in preference to the build-up of productive capital and infrastructure.
History and folklore (for example, the fable of the grasshopper and the ants), not to mention proverbial wisdom (such at the expression “eating one’s seedcorn”) shows us that such a pathway is disastrous in the end.
The nineteenth century epigram that “history returns first as comedy, then as farce” is more than applicable to our current global situation.