Darkside of the Sun: O, the humanities!

Mike Corrigan

Mike Corrigan

By Mike Corrigan

BN Columnist

What do Americans think about? Money, mostly, and how to get more. If you want to make money, then study money. Become a slave to money. Choose a field in one of money’s approved courses. Money wants you to become a consumer of products made more cheaply someplace else, and prefers that you not think about what that means for your economic future. Public health, the common good, these things have little to do with money, and so they are being phased out. Nature, too, is going fast — but don’t worry about it. Who needs nature when you can have a bigger shopping mall, or get there quicker in a jet, or take down the Amazon forests for cow pastures and soccer stadia? People should be asking these kinds of questions every day: Of what good is nature? What are people for? Is man basically evil, or just Donald Trump?

A globalized and even romanticized ethos of economic growth at any cost has led inexorably toward, among many other things, the phasing out of the humanities in our schools and colleges. Might as well phase out the colleges, then. Because the humanities — history, art, religion, literature, sociology and the like — are not cost-effective. Multiple choice questions can't measure results either, so how do you test for such fuzzy stuff? Study business, where modern free market economic theory tells you that other people have no meaning, no real existence, and therefore no value: all human interactions are basically just transactions, everything can be reduced to dollars, the bottom line, profit and loss, winners and losers. In America, as in totalitarian states, efficiency is everything.

So, young people are advised to study inside over-managed boxes of over-tested, over-Common Core’d schools, keep within some narrow discipline, aim for a high-paying career — and don’t for God sakes look out the window. There might be poverty out there, and people living actual lives. No need to think about them, class — even if most of you are about to rejoin them in a few hours, and maybe for the rest of your time on earth.

Since it’s difficult to commodify the humanities, they are considered irrelevant by the bean counters and bureaucrats. College itself has become a completely commodified experience. That’s why kids expect As: they paid for them! And paid. And paid. Private college debt is now greater than credit card debt. And the young people who owe that money are just starting out on careers that will probably remunerate them less than they planned, now that compensation no longer is tied to increasing productivity. The stock price benefits from increased productivity, but wages don't. Corporate personhood loves its stockholders; its work force, not so much.

Learning, thinking, talking, reading and debating — the very language of the humanities — that is what the Founders thought we should be doing with our free time, not rooting for the Red Sox or watching The Biggest Loser or taking a fourth job to pay for a third car. Today, money has so little to do with democracy, it’s breathtaking. Money has tamed our intellects and subverted our values. It runs our political system and it makes all of our consumer choices for us. We “choose” between Tweedledum and Tweedledee every couple of years, between Coke or Pepsi every hour, McDonald’s or Burger King every day, this piece of junk or that one, constantly. If we are exposed to enough ads, eventually no choice matters. Our choices will all be made for us. I buy, therefore I am.

Despite all the great cultural wars of our times, everyone demanding this right or that one, or insisting that someone else not be recognized as a citizen, or maybe not even as a human, we must remind ourselves that intellectual freedom is freedom, too. In fact, it's the primary freedom worth having. I say use it, while it’s still on sale. Because you can't kill the humanities without killing the human — but you can starve both to death. And these days, it has been reported, starvation is good for you.

Still, Mike Corrigan is looking even less emaciated lately.

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