vital and indispensable

Take the L train from Union Square home to Brooklyn, or the 1 to the upper west side, or pretty well any train from where you work downtown to where ever you live, and look at the advertising.  It’s targeted to the rider demographic and it’s a sign of the times.  And times are rough:  people are going back to school to ride out the recession and to retool to position themselves better in a harsher market.   The subway cars are full of ads for colleges and universities.

The whole scene is a microcosm econosystem.  The car you’re in was designed to get workers to offices.  Ever notice how bad service is on the weekends and at night?  That’s because its prime purpose is to move workers back and forth from their offices.  The ads for education fine tune the purpose of the car:  in addition to getting you to work, the MTA will also help you find the degree program you need – and take you there to boot.  And after you’re successfully degreed it will, of course, take you back to work again.   One stop shopping.

Education is for money so you can enjoy purchasing a good life for yourself.  Or is it?

In the following paragraphs, Terry Eagleton argues for an old definition of humanities education.  Old, because the definition has changed, for the worse, he says.  The purpose of education is to make change and improvement, and we’ve lost that meaning.  The present definition does the exact opposite: opposes change and preserves a status quo.

The subway car embodies this new view of education:  get a technical education that meets the narrow needs of a technical job, is its message.  This, of course, precludes learning how to reason and think and assess and all those broader understandings and mental processes we associate with a real education.  It’s always a little sad reading those ads, and now we know why.

Our world is instrumental and we need to use instrumental arguments or no one will understand what we are talking about.  So, in the case of education we need to broker in quantifiable, identifiable proofs to illuminate its criticality.  In a post from January 2011 I made this argument:  “There are real consequences if we lose humanities knowledge: a coarse, hardscrabble vision of living, a rush to the bottom, thug leadership, more fear. Real consequences.”

Eagleton says the humanities – philosophy, literature, history – are vital and indispensable.  We’re trifling with a thing that is vital.  Like the kind of organ that, when you remove it, you body stops working.  In this case it’s the body politic.  The way out – like the way out of anything – is to bear witness to it’s vital purpose.

From the essay The death of universities in the Guardian:

What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique. Since Margaret Thatcher, the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future. We will not change this simply by increasing state funding of the humanities as opposed to slashing it to nothing. We will change it by insisting that a critical reflection on human values and principles should be central to everything that goes on in universities, not just to the study of Rembrandt or Rimbaud.

In the end, the humanities can only be defended by stressing how indispensable they are; and this means insisting on their vital role in the whole business of academic learning, rather than protesting that, like some poor relation, they don’t cost much to be housed.

The death of universities, Terry Eagleton,


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”There are real consequences if we lose humanities knowledge: a coarse, hardscrabble vision of living, a rush to the bottom, thug leadership, more fear. Real consequences.”

Your jeremiad doth protest too late, if not too much.

The humanities died in America a long time ago…our profoundly anti-intellectual, power-worshiping, self-blinding, quasi-fundamentalist and deeply violent culture is the perfect medium for humanity-hating, thought-killing corporations, religion, ideologues and its drones. It’s hardly a happy environment for true inquiry, courageous critique, independent thought or soul-feeding, mind-changing culture.

And when was the last time a university intellectual (tenured or not), or any artist for that matter, did something radical enough to threaten his/her own middle-class elitist privileges or comfort? Even Banksy’s at MOCA!

The humanities is a cultural sideshow with a small, insignificant, and ultimately hypocritical audience. There’s no out. You/me (the overeducated, underemployed, critical thinking, recycling, Bach-loving, Benjamin reading, bicycle riding, bungalow-living, black-and-white photography loving, bigot-hating, baguette-eating, cabernet drinking, five-o-clock shadow wearing, Palestinian supporting, dog-owning, corporation-hating, Obama-loving, democracy-and-human-rights worshipping, museum-going, Wikileaks reading, Europhilic pricks that we are) ARE the system. We are the shit. We are “the real consequences.”

The blank looks you get from the man/woman on the street anywhere in America when you engage them with your bookish words or insights? That vacancy? That hole is maybe what the humanities could have filled in someone’s dreams in the 60s.

But now, in the 2011, with the vampiric old sucking off the clueless young…the world wasted and dessicating, and the truth able to hide from everyone in plain sight because no one gives a shit…that vacancy is something you ought to fear, tread carefully around it. Pitbulls and piranhas look vacant too, almost friendly, just before they strike. Under a little duress, most people you call friends/colleagues/likeminded will betray you just a touch faster than their own “principles.”

The humanities and the pseudo-intellectual whores loitering for a pathetic job around it? It’s like an ugly transvestite no one wants to fuck anymore, but hey, it keeps dressing up and standing on the corner every night, just in case. And a few pricks like you and me are its sad return customers.

The train left a long time ago, amigo. Better start walking.


Comment by Jeremy

Thanks for the comment – v provocative. And for the most part I agree with you, except for one small point: it’s not too late. It’s never too late. Pamphleteers make revolutions and history swings back and forth like a pendulum. And while fatalism may serve a purpose, the change agent’s vision is a more effective tool when confronted with the impending collapse of critical institutions like education.

Comment by Peter Rudd

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