When I was six years old, I discovered writing. I wrote a tiny little vignette in the elementary school newspaper called “Winter is Coming” – and I knew, from that point on, that writing and me were meant to be. Since then, I’ve written almost unceasingly, including seven novels, countless short stories, and this website. Writing, if nothing else, is my true passion, the spark that lights my fire. It is this passion – Eros – that I would want any higher educational system to harness and turn into meaningful work.
However, we live in an age that discredits, deconstructs, and ultimately devalues the notion of Eros. Eros – the term from which we get the word erotic – in the simplest sense, signifies the Greek term for “passionate love”. In the classical sense, Eros implies three qualities: imagination, which begets passion, grandeur, which justifies passion, and commitment, which maintains and ultimately rewards passion. It is in these three qualities of Eros in which I believe our culture has strayed.
For this article, I define the humanities as the expressions of meaning that stems from the pursuit and practice of Eros love. Every work of genius – every great painting, every great musical composition, and yes, every great scientific theory and mathematical breakthrough is an act of Eros love realized to a creative end. It is true that I define the humanities beyond art, or literature, or music – that I include the sciences and mathematics as well. But it is the way in which these subjects are taught, not the subjects themselves, that categorize a learning opportunity as part of the humanities. Are these subjects being taught in a way that emphasizes the pursuit of the universal, that encourages its students to dream big and commit bigger? Is it Eros at the heart of every class, every college experience?
I assert that most of what we learn on college campuses today is not just separate from the humanities, but antithetical to its pursuit. Our government-industrial complex treats education as a career mill, rather than an opportunity to fully probe the depths of the imagination. Our school departments reinforce provincial race/gender/sexuality critiques that sap the grandeur out of a humanities education. It all adds up to the gradual decay of Eros in our age, and with it, the passionate love that has always defined and given meaning to the pursuit of the humanities.
The Career Mill
The devaluation of Eros starts with the devaluation of the imagination. A UCLA study concludes that “freshmen now list getting a better job as the most important reason to go to college in an annual UCLA survey of first-year students… Previously, the top reason was learning about things that interest them.” In the Era of the Great Recession, with jobs becoming ever scarcer to an increasingly educated labor supply, more and more students are willing to trade the pursuits that spark the stirrings of their imagination for the ones they deem higher-paying.
These trends reflect a larger societal debate over the purpose of college and the government’s role in education the public. On February 28th, 1967, then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan famously said that “taxpayers should not be subsidizing intellectual curiosity” but should be only contributing when the state has interest (i.e., when the student can get a productive job from his/her degree). The movement to change the mission of the university from one of the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of a career had its roots in even earlier figures, however. Booker T. Washington argued that for the Negro to progress, “knowledge must be harnessed to the things of real life.” Both modern progressivism and modern conservatism contains some powerful arguments for a college system devoted to careers.
But put this debate in scale: we’re talking about a person’s life here. One has four years to get an education in anything they seek; one has the rest of his or her life to go to work. Must we tack on the first four years of one’s adulthood onto the career grind?
Unfortunately, the reality of our societal emphasis on degree-getting and the high cost of college make my wish that people would pursue that which sparks their imagination… well, a wish. Many others would weigh those factors and choose the less imaginatively satisfying but more lucrative major in a heartbeat, and I can’t blame them.
There is something truly tragic about our reality, however. Because it is one thing when a college seeks to assist students in finding careers. It is another when a college rebrands its entire ecosystem for that purpose – and then students buy into it. And yet, here we are. Ever since the movement to turn colleges into glorified career centers gained steam, we’ve witnessed music centers closing, history libraries gaining cobwebs, and Adam Gopnik forced to defend his own English major. And as long as students continue to believe, as politicians and government incentives believe, that their imaginative pursuits come secondarily to a high-paying job, we’ll continue to see the humanities get the short end of the stick.
For the humanities to survive, we need to return to an educational experience that values the curious expression of the imagination. “The reward” for reading, Gopnik argues, “is that it remains the one kind of time travel that works, where you make a wish and actually become a musketeer in Paris or a used-car salesman in Pennsylvania.” Gopnik argues that the imagination allows for a sort of vicarious experience essential to the pursuit of all greatness. The power of big dreaming is that those who dream big may one day see their dreams become reality (with interest), while those who don’t dream will never accomplish even that which they do dream (with apologies to Matthew 25:29).
Illusions of Grandeur
The loss of Eros in our culture extends farther than governments and politicians and businessmen, however – this malaise has infected even academia, and precisely the very departments that we would never think would take their eyes off the ball. And yet, the contemporary trend among the so-called “humanities departments” is to provincialize, to flout the transcendent grandeur at the heart of Eros and sell themselves out to none other than… politics.
May I present to you the Race/Gender/Sexuality critique, which I will abbreviate the “RGS” critique, as one of the exemplars of this provincialization. To all the college neophytes out there, the RGS critique is a particular kind of focus in higher education that emphasizes the social construction of experience through the lens of privilege and oppression. The RGS critique has stemmed from a number of disparate sources, but most prominently from the post-structuralist Foucaultian emphasis on ideas being agglomerates of cultural pressures and Eric Hobsbawm / E.P. Thompson’s Marxist “New Left” doctrine. In short, it is a critique born and bred in the world of politics, and it’s not particularly subtle about it, either.
Advocates for the RGS critique claim that we need a political critique because the reality is that politically oppressed voices have historically been suppressed in the humanities fields. I certainly recognize that these voices need to be expanded and that many of these concerns are fair and legitimate. However, the RGS critique has become more than a way for oppressed voices to break into the field; it has become in many ways the dominant drive of the field itself. And that is why I have become concerned.
How pervasive is the RGS critique within the humanities? In a startling analysis of North Carolina public universities’ English departments, Pope Center scholar Jay Schalin studied the ideological tendencies of English professors, particularly whether they were influenced more by RGS critiques or more traditional critiques. After leafing through the published papers of all these professors, he concluded that an astounding 69 percent of English professors in NC public universities currently publish and teach from the RGS critique, a dominant – and silencing – majority within the department. The policies of many college English departments reflect this overwhelming seizure of the study of English. In just one example, UCLA ditched its requirements in Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer for its English majors and replaced it with a requirement “in total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.”
Whether you believe in the oppression structure emblemized by the RGS critique or not, if the humanities wants to slip out of its funk and return to its purpose of instilling Eros in its students, then it must escape the hegemonic reign of politics over the arts; it must represent itself as something more. With the RGS critique, we’re being fed a framework so tied up in the politics of the day that it lacks any sort of transcendence, any sense of grandeur beyond the immediate political needs of the now. When we invariably replace the pursuit of the transcendent with the interests of the provincial at a rate such as this, we corrode the deep longing for grandeur at the heart of Eros in favor of narrow identity politics.
Today’s politics is draining, soulless, and cynical. To wed the humanities with the game of politics is to sap the majesty and grandeur from it – to bastardize the original, erotic, purpose of pursuing the humanities in the first place.
Reversing the course of the humanities was never going to be easy. But there is one particular cultural trend that I fear will make any attempt all the more fruitless. Our culture has grown increasingly skeptical of commitment – the same commitment at the heart of Eros, the same commitment that enables works of Eros to be produced as projects of the humanities.
Our increasingly isolating cultural tendencies have made us warier of building relationships with other people. As Americans moved out from longtime communities and split themselves into nuclear structures, they removed themselves from the intergenerational bonds that had used to inform their human connections. We began to isolate ourselves, valuing flexibility and economy of living over the community bonds that raised us. As such, we trust less; we commit less.
Social media was introduced to us as a way to rebuild these connections. And yet these are “connections” without commitment, friendships with the ability to block the other person out of your life with the touch of a button. Perhaps that is its appeal. Even as we’ve expanded our friend list to the thousands over Facebook and Instagram, a new study points out that we actually have fewer close commitments than before, keeping an average of only 2 best friends into adulthood, down from 3 twenty-five years ago. Could it be that what’s really going on here is that we are becoming a culture afraid of making commitments, preferring to sit back on a screen, where we can enter and exit a conversation with such ease, instead of taking relational risks in the hopes of real connection?
And it’s not getting better the younger you go, either. In college, the preferred way of asking someone out has become over text rather than in person, to lessen the blow of rejection – but also to highlight its impersonal nature. Millennials are also having much more casual sex than their parents, as Brooke Wells, a scholar at Hunter College, explains: 38 percent today compared to 25 percent twenty years ago. In today’s party culture, college students are freer to engage in physical “relationships” without any sort of emotional commitment, often hooking up with others in the hour they meet them. Afraid of commitment, afraid of risk, afraid of pain, my generation is being taught to seek the momentary over the meaningful.
These particular relationship trends are bad for the humanities because Eros, the passionate love at the root of the humanities, implies a relationship view of knowledge – that the best way to access knowledge is to love pursuing it, to truly commit to it. It was the passionate relationship he had with music that pushed a deaf Beethoven to draft an Ode to Joy. It was their covenant with engineering that gave the Wright brothers the blueprint for an airplane. Yet our culture preaches the opposite: comfort, at the expense of commitment. When our culture no longer sees or values such dedication, then our culture has turned away from true passion, and thus, the Eros that keeps the humanities aflame.
But there is a way in which we can read these cultural trends as a potential opportunity for the humanities. In digitally-obsessed age, people are beginning to notice more and more the downfalls of living behind a screen – evidenced by their 40 percent higher loneliness rates and social isolation. Even though millennials have more casual sex, they also have fewer partners – suggesting, at least according to Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego University, that millennials maintain more friends with benefits, social grey areas that require the intervention of the humanities to define. Similarly, the college emphasis on finding jobs has prompted a glut in the labor supply in STEM fields, causing jobless STEM majors to question the purpose of their four years of college. And the overwhelming prevalence of the RGS critique has prompted many intellectual, liberal thinkers to question its place in the liberal arts. Ironically, the de-eroticization of the world has resulted in a need, more than ever, for the humanities to come back in and redefine what has been currently gained – and lost. It was not too long ago when J. Alfred Prufrock delivered his monologue of loneliness and “wasted years”; perhaps it is time for the next generation to step up and become prophets and preachers of a new age.
In Don DeLillo’s short story “Human Moments in World War III,” the narrator orbits the Earth on a satellite while the world is immolating itself in another World War. When his transmitter picks up strange sound feedback, his central command attributes it to “selective noise.” But the narrator pushes back.
“‘It was a voice,’ I told them.
‘We copy selective noise.’
‘Someone was talking, Colorado.’”
Out here, in the midst of this lonely expanse of space, the narrator must still grapple with the deepest questions that cling to every human on this Earth – and beyond it. What is life? What is human? Even teetering on the edge of civilized life, in the deep and distant future, people will always need the humanities, because people will always be asking and attempting to answer the deep questions that probe the depths of one’s belief. For the humanities’ power is its power to project the erotic essence of humankind – our fundamental desire to pursue something earnestly and passionately, to commit to something that sparks the imagination and harnesses in us a sense of grandeur. Our culture, our academia, our government may devalue it now – but at the heart people will always need it. That’s why, for all my criticisms of it, I still commit to the humanities. I commit because I believe in it, because I believe in that first little spark in that poem that I wrote at the age of six.
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Identity Politics: http://www.thefeministwire.com/2016/08/william-ruhm/
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