In the midst of all the usual sturm und dreck of the daily news – you know, economic catastrophe, Iraq crashing, Afghanistan crumbling, Obama reneging, Republicans stupidifying – there’s a good piece about Harvard by Tracy Jan on the front page. Granted it’s down in the lower right-hand corner, but still, a front page story on the resurgence, sort of, of the liberal arts is worth noting.
Today, the number of students conversant in Cicero and Plato has dwindled, with only 42 – less than 1 percent of Harvard’s 6,640 undergraduates – choosing classics as a major. Then there’s Sanskrit and Indian studies, which has three students, and astronomy and astrophysics, with five starry-eyed souls.
Although most students may deem the undersubscribed subjects impractical, the bastion of liberal arts education has in recent years begun promoting learning for learning’s sake as a worthy and enriching pursuit. Rather than viewing a major solely as a stepping-stone to a career, the university is pushing students to broaden their interests and explore more esoteric topics.
Annual majors in economics and in government number 700 and 500 respectively. Not that The Lion would draw a straight line between such numbers and the current state of the economy and government, but it’s interesting to contemplate the movement of universities from bastions of liberal arts education to bastions of career training over the last several decades.
Instead of teaching classics and literature and history and philosophy and critical thinking, they’ve been teaching how to make a living. The Lion suggests a straight line from that education to the credo of American society summing up as something like, “Whoopee, look at all the money I got myself. I’m dumb as fucking post and don’t know anything and haven’t read a book since ninth grade, but I got money.”
The value of a philosophy major – a fellow who could do hard thinking, who valued logic, who could think critically – decreased as businesses sought drones to push paper and technicians who could competently perform rote operations. And too often, as the world has learned to its dismay, the bright stars who moved up lacked any ethical compass, lacked conscience, lacked any concern for consequences. But they certainly knew the ins and outs of finance and economics, fancy cars and champagne, penthouses and pricey call girls.
It’s educational to note that the financiers apparently consider their businesses to be the biggest industry in America. Odd, since they don’t produce anything, they don’t build anything. They move money from here to there and skim a healthy piece off the top. Sometimes the money makes a bridge possible or starts a business, sure, but in recent years the only thing that’s been important to these fellows is how big a chunk of cash goes into their pocket and the consequences be damned. These people are more akin to bookies and loan sharks than they are to honest businessmen.
Maybe if Harvard and the rest of the universities get back to education, to the liberal arts, to the classics, to history, maybe the world can get back to being a decent place to live in the future.