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Literature vs. Ledgers: What Is College For?

There's a larger conversation that the transmission of culture provides.

Key points

  • Humanities divisions are being disassembled by college administrators who create an atmosphere of scarcity.
  • Universities and colleges are in danger of becoming service institutions driven by big businesses.
  • For many, life reveals itself more intimately in literature than in ledgers.

“What’s the purpose of studying the humanities: literature, languages, philosophy, history, and the arts?”

I needed to come up with a good answer to this question. You see, legions of administrators orchestrating the funding and therefore designing the structure of higher education have insisted that it’s essential to build our colleges and universities around the study of “useful” subjects—primarily math, chemistry, and the handling of foreign currencies—to the near exclusion of the humanities.

I don’t think it’s such a hot idea.

Administrators who market (their verb, not mine) education as a passport to success instead of defining it as pathway to knowledge are, essentially, advocating for the training of workers rather than for the education of citizens.

Of course we want our daughters and sons to find useful and profitable work when they graduate from college, if, indeed, they have been fortunate enough to be able to attend one. But we also need to remember that a real education is not simply the acquisition of a set of skills. Each of us—regardless of birth or class—deserves to be part of the larger conversation that culture provides.

Ever listen to what the people who really run things discuss? CEOs, CFOs, politicians from all parties, designers of both ball gowns and software, songwriters, engineers, surgeons, museum curators, and producers of non-reality-based television programming? They don’t talk about work: They find common ground in culture. They talk about books, films, art, music, and poetry. Maybe they talk about the roller derby; it depends on the crowd. You’ll find surgeons reading Alice Munro and Mary Oliver and engineers mourning the loss of Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen while comparing them to Drake and Taylor Swift.

And there’s another reason to study poetry: As one honest friend declared, the study of literature can be justified by the fact that nobody ever charmed a girl by reciting an equation.

Public universities are in particular danger of contorting and, at their worst moments, crippling their student body if they define themselves as simply a way for students to get better jobs. In such a caged context, colleges are in danger of becoming service institutions: We will train the workers of the world, sure—only we won’t give them anything in the humanities to unite them, inspire them, sensitize them, or enlighten them.

Many humanities divisions within universities are being disassembled by administrators who create an atmosphere of scarcity even where none exists. They promote a false hierarchy positioning those who have higher-earning jobs after graduation as more valuable students than those who take a more circuitous route to success.

Neither of my parents finished the eighth grade, but they were wise enough to instill in my brother and me an insatiable curiosity about the world. Even my blue-collar father knew that a degree in literature was indeed a practical education. For many, life reveals itself more intimately in literature than in ledgers.

Some argue the days of furthering or bettering oneself through a liberal arts education are gone, but that’s true only if “furthering and bettering” means “making more money.” If that’s the case, then let’s just teach our kids to write ransom notes.

Authentic advancement and achievement mean understanding what it is to be a true citizen and not a repeater of unexamined platitudes, a compassionate and self-reliant human being, a good parent, a caring member of the community, and somebody who can be trusted to teach the next generation something other than greed, territoriality, anger, outrage, bitterness, and a blinkered vision of the unmapped parts of the world—and the mind.

Getting a real education is like learning how to dance. You discover within yourself a grace and rhythm because, when you carry knowledge inside yourself, it is not only yours, it is you.

The cult of information, in contrast, is like reciting “one-two-three, one-two-three” while biting your bottom lip and staring at the outline of footprints on the floor. And if you’re stuck looking for the directions because you don’t have it in you and you thought you could fake it, buy it, find a synopsis of it or skip it altogether? What a waste of time and effort.

In fact, what a tragedy it is not to know the beauty of what is all around you: not only aren’t you hearing all the music — you’re also missing all the fun.

More from Gina Barreca Ph.D.
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