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If I Didn’t Laugh I’d Cry: An Essay on Happiness, Productivity, and the Death of Humanities Education

If I Didn’t Laugh I’d Cry: An Essay On Happiness, Productivity, And The Death Of Humanities Education

I am not happy these days. I teach in the humanities at a Canadian University. And – unlike my more Protestant-minded, less eudemonistical colleagues – I think persistent, intractable unhappiness is a clear sign that something is wrong. The following remarks are therefore a hybrid of personal therapy and scholarly analysis. My suspicion is that the state of post-secondary humanities education is the source of my unhappiness. Curing myself, or less ambitiously, simply understanding the cause of my malaise, will require a little self-reflection and a little rummaging around in the potpourri of modern higher education.

Twenty years ago I enjoyed my job and looked forward to teaching classes. I do not mean to suggest that all was well in those days; it wasn’t – not by a long shot. As early as 1969, George Grant argued that a fundamental shift in the university – away from study of the liberal arts and sciences toward the creation of research institutions animated by the spirit of technology and aimed at mastery of human and non-human nature – had been underway for decades and was already nearing completion.[1] If Grant was right, then the pleasant experiences I remember as a young scholar were merely the residual influence of a tradition that had, in fact, capitulated decades earlier and in whose glory I was basking naively, like an amateur astronomer delighting in the light of a star that has been dark for centuries.

By turns sobering and discouraging, this awareness makes me wonder what in the world I am doing. I am trying to make an argument my betters made over forty years ago without having any appreciable influence on their institutions; and I am making it in a context so far removed from theirs that the voice of that small residue of tradition is growing fainter by the day and can no longer be appealed to without soliciting looks of incredulity. So thin is the living, experiential core of that traditional world that even shame can no longer be counted on as a means of getting people to pause and reflect before jumping into the humanities curriculum with both entrepreneurial feet.

It won’t do therefore merely to defend the university as it was in my day. That might satisfy my nostalgia and make me happier for a time, but it won’t address the problem at its source. If we are going to learn once again what a genuine and robust education in the humanities is about, we’re going to have to question our nostalgia and memory as vigorously as our immediate circumstances. And in order to do that we will need to explore that strange thing on which humanities education ultimately rests – our humanity.

Of course, that sounds like the simplest thing in the world. We’re all human. But it turns out our humanity is a moving target and much more slippery and open to abuse than we might imagine. Indeed there are days when I feel so far removed from my humanity that I wonder whether our condition is so different from that of Winston Smith in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I don’t mean that we live under a totalitarian regime that actively prohibits us from thinking beyond its dehumanizing agenda – though there are days. I am thinking rather of the difficulty Winston has discovering a true measure by which to judge the unreality of his condition, an unreality he senses but has no words to describe. When an old clipping from the Times “inadvertently” crosses his desk and “proves” the earlier confessions of three Party members were pure fabrications, Winston is first shocked and then elated; he thinks the clipping so powerful that it alone could “blow the Party to atoms” – much like today’s journalistic exposés. However, what Winston fails to realize is that the clipping itself is just another Party lie. In the end Winston recognizes his dilemma and describes it with stunning clarity in the following formula: “I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.” [2]

It is the “why” question that promises real freedom – for Winston and for us. Why am I unhappy? Why is it that everything that seems meaningful to me is disregarded as irrelevant? Such questions are the natural expression of our disaffection with our world. What is more human than that experience, even in this strange age of compulsory happiness? Doubting, questioning, and wondering – if we would only follow these promptings, our humanity itself would lead us back to the humanities proper and teach us what we lose through their neglect.

*     *     *

Asking hard, unpopular questions is never easy. But it is particularly difficult if you are alone or if doing so exposes or calls into question the interests of an institution that has little financial or ideological reason to encourage public audit and discussion. I would argue that universities have become such institutions.

To begin, they are everywhere tied to business interests, whether small or large, and in many instances are actually in business with private companies, frequently with faculty members having roles on both sides of the commercial arrangement. This is new. To indicate how new it is, I remember in my student days that you could not even buy a decent cup of coffee on campus, not because students and faculty members had lower culinary standards back then but because they still believed that academic independence would be compromised by being tied to commercial interests. This idea now seems quaint to us in an age in which many universities have their own malls. And like all malls and the businesses they house, universities are run by bosses – administrative elites like Presidents, Vice Presidents, and their minions – who are responsible for many things, among them “compelling” a recalcitrant mass known as The Faculty to perform in a way that mirrors the productive ethos of the administrative caste itself.

Productivity is the raison d’être of Western capitalist societies. Malls retail domestically the fruits of productivity. Universities do R & D and create “ideas” that support the manufacturing sector that supplies retail markets with their goods. Ken Auletta describes succinctly the nature of this new relationship between universities and business in his recent article in The New Yorker, “Get Rich U”: “Stanford is the farm system for Silicon Valley.”[3]

The productive ethos works well enough so long as you are producing widgets to sell to widget lovers. But it proves disastrous when applied to humanities education, though it is much more tolerated by faculty members today than it was in the past. This toleration is likely due to a combination of exhaustion, corruption, and a shift in values. You can fight only so many losing battles before you say to hell with it, the devil take them, and run for your pension. The depletion of the old guard through attrition coupled with the addition of new faculty members schooled from birth in the new ethos explains the decline in large part. After all, university professors too share the productive ethos. We live in a productive society, animated by productive people, which profits immeasurably from productive practices. Why wouldn’t we share that ethos?

Consider one of the fundamental principles of the productive ethos – the quantitative principle. Though it may be possible to argue that an academic whose pile of publications at the end of a stipulated period – say the period covered by the annual report – weighs ten pounds is more productive than an academic whose publications over the course of the same period weighs only five pounds, still we might wonder what we actually know about either person’s work as a result of the application of the quantitative principle. For instance, if Hamlet were one of the documents tucked into that five-pound package while the ten-pounder included two recent volumes by John Grisham, surely we would want to revise our judgment. In any event, if an unvarnished application of the quantitative principle seems unlikely and insufficiently nuanced to be a legitimate measure of performance in the context of an annual academic report (though I would caution anyone about underestimating the proclivities of the administrative caste when it comes to the ethos of productivity), we might add the matter of the work’s “impact” to the calculation to arrive at a better metric. Impact too is a quantitative measure, though a more complex one. It asks concerning the effect of one’s work on other things – institutions, political and social events, people – both within and without the university, though today preference is given to the latter in keeping with the business ethic underlying the productive ethos.

The impact test is one that Stephan Collini has analyzed in his recent book What Are Universities For? Collini teaches us that the most problematic aspect of the impact test derives from the term itself. To impact something is to strike or bang into it – in my experience never a good measure of anything except perhaps in war and at those demolition derbies my father used to take me to. But setting aside the silliness of the term, a more troubling picture emerges regarding its actual consequences when tied to funding formulas. As Collini demonstrates, you can have an absolutely first-rate piece of scholarship that illuminates, say, the transition from a feudal to a capitalist economy, that ranks as completely worthless when measured by its “impact” and when compared to the impacts of “products” issuing from other faculties within the university.[4] Placed alongside a new gadget for collecting pennies, the impact of which would be staggering, this little corner of human experience seems trivial at best. But what an odd inversion of things that judgement entails. A gadget which, beyond its economic potential, could not hold your attention for more than a few moments trumps an intrinsically interesting field of study whose complexity alone offers the mind a rich, expansive field in which to explore the human condition. No wonder humanities professors are unhappy. How could they possibly compete with penny rolls? And why would they want to?

Collini wishes to defend humanities education, but like all of us today he has trouble knowing how best to do so when all the measures of intellectual worth seem to guarantee the irrelevance of our teaching and research from the outset. In other words, the game is rigged, and Collini knows it. This is the thing I find most refreshing about his book – he is not taken in by the old lines and strategies.

During an earlier dispensation of the game, humanities professors naively thought they could beat the odds by playing the game on its own terms. What they did was to concede the fundamental point of the defenders of the productive ethos – namely, that humanities education was intrinsically worthless. However, they argued that the matter of its intrinsic worth being settled, its practical value as a cultivator and provider of intellectual “skills” was considerable. The argument worked well enough for a time, if by “worked” we mean kept the wolves at bay and the reformer’s axe away from the root of the tree. But two can play at that game. Once the concession was made, administrators and fellow-travelling faculty members argued that these skills could be much more effectively cultivated by completely different pedagogical strategies and curricula.

The old argument said: medieval history might be an awful waste of time, but at least it produces people who can think analytically and write clear and penetrating memos once they find themselves in the corporate world. [5] As Collini says, this argument amounts to the assertion that “what is valuable about leaning to play the violin well is that it helps us develop the manual dexterity that will be useful for typing.” The new model says: if it is a waste of time, then it is a waste of time. Let’s get rid of the curriculum and those expensive curriculum delivery units (faculty) and just teach memo writing and critical thinking. That is a parody, to be sure, but not much of one. Every humanities professor feels its contempt somewhere deep down in her bones. (Let me quickly add that this contempt is felt equally by my colleagues in the sciences and social sciences. In the former case, it is present in the denial of funding for “discovery-based” research in favour of short term projects with obvious financial potential and technological applications.)

*     *     *

An old professor of mine used to say that there is living and there is living well. The productive ethos that guides our society has created a civilization that lives more comfortably, more affluently, and longer than any other in history. As to living well, early supporters of the ethos still had enough culture (pardon the word) and sense to leave a few places untouched by its demands. These were, again according to my professor, sacred spaces – churches, theatres, museums, and universities. But the ethos has grown in our time and has spread around the globe. Now we are told that our mere survival is predicated not only on its acceptance but on a single-minded pursuit of its goods in all aspects of our lives. So, we adjust the curriculum, eliminate a couple more departments, and erase yet another body of images of humankind’s long effort to live well. We will survive, as a result, and live, at least for a time. But in those moments when the lights go out and the TV goes dark, I fear we will no longer understand our unhappiness or what we have lost.

 

Notes

[1] George Grant, Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1969), 113-133.

[2] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin, 1990), 78-80.

[3] Ken Auletta, “Get Rich U,” The New Yorker, April 30, 2012. Accessed at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting

/2012/04/30/120430fa_fact_auletta

[4] Stephan Collini, What Are Universities For? (London: Penguin, 2012), 168-177.

[5] Ibid., 91.

Ronald D. Srigley

Ronald D. Srigley is a Board Member of VoegelinView and its former editor (2013-16). He is an Adjunct Professor of Human Studies at Laurentian University and Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Humber College in Canada. His books include Eric Voegelin’s Platonic Theology (Edwin Mellen, 1991) and a translation of Albert Camus' Christian Metaphysics and Neo-Platonism (Missouri, 2008) and Albert Camus’ Critique of Modernity (Missouri, 2011).

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