Reflections at the Intersection of American History, Religion, Politics, and Academic Life
Friday, November 6, 2015
"Money can't buy happiness, so why don't we act like it when it comes to education."
I love the title of Steve Haycox's recent piece at Alaska Dispatch News. Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. Here is a taste of his defense of the humanities:
Alexander Jacobs, a doctoral candidate in history at Vanderbilt University, whose historian father was for many years one of the most effective professors at UAA, has expressed yet another explanation for the humanities’ impending extinction. In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 28), the younger Jacobs suggested it’s not just that current culture has no time for the humanities, but that the culture has lost its capacity for them.
Education once was about attaining an understanding of life, what it is for, how to live it. One gathered such understanding through experience and observation, and the insight that comes from standing outside oneself and viewing the world from something other than a personal perspective. Literature is important for that, for most of what wisdom we obtain we learn from stories, identifying with characters who lead lives entirely different from our own, through whom we gain a new view of life, how it can be lived and what it may mean. But study of the past was the most important portal for becoming cultured, civilized, for there one saw how decisions made by people then created the world, its attributes, misturns and disappointments, that we must deal with now. Through the long lens of time one learned the implications, possibilities and aspirations of life.
Jacobs wonders if the political scientist Jacob Hacker is not correct in his assertion that we are living in the age of the “great risk shift,” when the already worn social safety net is being methodically torn asunder, economic risk being transferred to powerless individuals instead of “spread across institutional and social life.” Victimized by the economic free-for-all and manipulated by profit-driven accretions of wealth and power, no wonder today’s young people have little interest in or time for "Huckleberry Finn."
It is perhaps logical that the most vigorous protests against a dystopian future where survival is the only realistic preoccupation (think "Mad Max") are occurring in Europe. In February, dissenters shut down the University of Amsterdam over the elimination of degree programs in the humanities. In the United Kingdom, large employers are actively recruiting arts and humanities graduates on the grounds their companies are staffed with too many people with technology degrees. The humanities graduates can attack problem-solving with perspective and context, the big picture. In Europe, Jeremy Waldron noted in a New York Review essay on the political theorist Juergen Habermas, middlebrow culture is so much more elevated than in the U.S.
Thanks to David Tarcy for bringing this piece to my attention.