by Finbarr Curtis
This one time in college I learned that if you work hard enough you can get Sonic Youth to play Eric’s Trip. It’s not that complicated. You just yell the name of the song until Thurston Moore says (pretty much to shut you up): “Okay, okay, we’ll play it.” As the third track on Daydream Nation, Eric’s Trip is an education of sorts, but not the kind offered by college. As the song tells us:
I can't see anything at all
All I see is me
That's clear enough
That's what's important
To see me
Back then, I probably found more irony in the lyrics that authorial intent would have it. Coupling “I can’t see anything at all” with “All I see is me” came across like a disavowal of anything like “enlightenment” and seemed calibrated to measure just the right amount of ironic distance native to the New York punk scene of the last millennium. But now I’m not sure. So it might be better a couple decades later to read the mantra “to see me” at something like face value. It’s a safe bet this was meant as something countercultural, a quest for interior fulfillment at the expense of conventional measures of educational, career, and worldly success.
Eric’s Trip’s pedagogical philosophy would seem, then, to be a far cry from the sober warnings to undergraduates to think about the marketability of college degrees in the humanities. In this post, I want to think about what people are seeing when they look for the “value” of humanistic education. My view is that supporters and critics of the humanities, while seemingly at odds, actually share the view that an education should satisfy what students really want, or should really want. Choosing whether to satisfy some deeper longing or material need, students can either free their minds from social constraints or happily enslave themselves to the capitalist vision of worldly success. I propose that these options miss the point by trying to figure out what the humanities give you rather than what the humanities produce.
On the pre-professional side, we are by now all too familiar with the penchant of various and sundry career advisors who warn against humanistic education. Nervous undergraduates find themselves cautioned against majors here, and here, and here. This cautionary literature is full of bon mots like: “Philosophy might improve your mind, but it won't do much for your pocketbook.” The reigning theory is that undergraduates with career training will be showered with job opportunities that will make them the envy of the dithering humanists who spent four years skipping through a field of daisies and majoring in miracles to pay back their student loans.
In response to such careerism, anxious humanists often defend college education as a route to some elevated meaning, experience, core, mojo, essence, critical thinking skills, or intrinsic value that transcends material needs. The life of the mind teaches students to be more than cogs in the machine. We humanists are not just teaching stuff; we are teaching life. We help you to see the real you. That’s what’s important. High cost education buys a special kind of commodity that is priceless. This often makes for strange bedfellows between a political sensibility critical of social inequality and a classical view of education as the aesthetic cultivation of a well-rounded individual. Celebrating a romantic ideal of youth as a time to fight the powers that be, humanists encourage students to seek freedom from economic determinism. The humanities promise human flourishing liberated from material necessity, social conformity, and institutional constraints.
This is a seductive and not entirely unpersuasive line of reasoning. For one thing, it would be hard to imagine a more vapid, nihilistic, and self-satisfied group of humans than the philistines writing all this career “advice.” Clearly, we do not want our students to end up like them. But humanist resistance to our being bought and sold might also betray an underlying status anxiety that Marx and Engels described prophetically in the Communist Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.” Imagining ourselves set apart from the ordinary world of material necessity, scholars feel capitalist infiltration as a profanation. Marx and Engels had little sympathy for mourning lost haloes. Far from rejecting capitalist inequality, longing to exist outside the market reverts to a tradition in which education is a luxury item enjoyed by those with the leisure to appreciate finer things.
An F.F.M. Man
To be sure, one can reasonably argue that leisure provides a social space for critical reflection upon economic and political life. But holding out for elevated aesthetic cultivation or spiritual satisfaction can sound like an elitist claim that humanists are somehow better humans. Extolling our students to become intellectual elites instead of economic elites is likely to face pushback from those who know many fine human beings who did not go to college. Such anti-elitism has a long tradition in American celebrations of common sense as the antidote to the abstractions of the university professor. In Moby Dick, for example, Ishmael tells us: “A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” Or take the case of Al Smith, the New York governor and progressive reformer. With an eighth-grade education, Smith was an autodidact who contrasted his practical experience as a laborer with the fancier credentials of his colleagues. In one exchange in the assembly chamber, Smith touted himself as a graduate of the esteemed F.F.M. academy:
Mr. Wende said, "Mr Speaker, I have just heard that Cornell won the boat race." Merrit said, "That doesn't mean anything to me. I'm a Yale man." Hammond said, "It doesn't mean anything to me. I'm a Harvard man." Phillips said, "It doesn't mean anything to me. I am a U. of M. man." I was all alone, the only one of the quartet left standing, so I said, "It doesn't mean anything to me because I am an F.F.M. man." Assemblyman Hoey shouted out, "What is that Al?" I said, "Fulton Fish Market. Let's proceed with the debate."
Extolling his F.F.M. credentials, Smith parodied the elitism of his fellow assemblymen. Rather than mere book learning, Smith had a practical education learned from working with fish. But there is an important difference between Smith’s F.F.M. and the university envisioned by the human resources cognoscenti. The Fulton Fish Market did not attempt to train Smith to be governor. The same could be said for Ishmael’s Yale College and his Harvard. The partisans of pre-professionalism do not argue that we should emulate Ishmael’s practical education as much as they assert that Ishmael would have been better served with a four-year college education in whaling so that he could then get a job on a whaling ship. In other words, the irony of the supposed practical job-skills philosophy of education is that it proposes a preposterously inefficient and expensive form of unnecessary training.
The call for job skills, then, is a fairly weak argument for maintaining the extensive institutional apparatus of the university. Tellingly, however, the focus on career preparation is not usually a call-to-arms to the more obvious position that universities themselves are wastes of resources. Students focused on financial gain still want the benefits of a four-year college “experience.” In practice this supports the branding of “college” as a four-year superfun resort community. While most students actually enrolled in college have jobs and commitments that prohibit participation in undergraduate bacchanalia, this does not limit the resources poured into maintaining the college brand as a place of expensive leisure.
So I get it when humanists try to resist narrow market logics. But trying to demonstrate that education is a priceless commodity reinforces the perception that scholarship exists apart from the material world. It might be useful, instead, to reflect on the alternative educations of Melville and Smith. Their schooling was edifying not because it gave them any particular skills or liberated an interior core of human experience. What they learned was how to work. In this way, they got the kind of education that Marx saw as a defining feature of becoming human. That is, they learned how to labor and, in turn, participated in producing human society. As stated in the German Ideology, “Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.” Possible objections against anthropocentrism aside, what I am interested here is the idea that human satisfaction is gained from work and not only in the commodified benefits of work.
Instead of trying to calculate the value of the humanities, then, we can more profitably ask what the humanities produce. My sense is that when people talk about the intrinsic value of learning, they are really pointing to something like the satisfaction gained from doing good work. Stereotypes about an idle life of leisure aside, most humanists are remarkably hard-working people. The courses we teach encourage and reward hard work. We respect thorough and exhausting efforts to produce good scholarship. What might be felt as a profanation of something priceless might be better described as a reaction to the way capitalist markets often replace good work with cheap, exploitative, and bad work.
The Exemplary Character of Production
So what makes for good work in the humanities? To answer this, we can consider some similar conversations about artistic labor. In his “Author as Producer,” for example, Walter Benjamin addressed communist authors who wanted their work to have practical effects. Rejecting the coupling of art and leisure, revolutionary authors sought to depict the real conditions of the proletariat. Benjamin, however, was not impressed by authors that positioned themselves as something other than writers to establish their revolutionary authenticity. In his view, this writing failed to produce art because authors missed the material labor inherent in their own work. As Benjamin explained, “An author who teaches writers nothing, teaches no one. What matters, therefore, is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce other producers to produce, and second to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better the more consumers it is able to turn into producers – that is, reader or spectators into collaborators.” Authors who mimicked other forms of production failed at the task of imagining and producing an “improved apparatus” to put at people’s disposal and, in turn, produced nothing.
Marxist artists might seem like polar opposites from human resources apologists who happily identify as slaves of capitalism, but the connection I see is in the contention that art did real, practical work only by serving something outside of art. Benjamin rejected this, but not in a way that invoked the intrinsic value of art as a priceless commodity protected from the world of material production. I propose that a similar confusion exists in how we talk about the humanities, whether as defenders or critics. That is, what the humanities (and on this there are no significant differences from the sciences and social sciences) produce is not something intrinsically valuable but is instead an activity that involves rigorous, precise, and critical labor within the artifices and conventions of academic disciplines. These disciplines do not reveal the inner you as much as they introduce you to different kinds of work that participate in producing a social world of which you are a part. What might be distinctive about scholarly labor is that it provides an opportunity to imaginatively reflect upon and criticize the political, social, biological, economic, legal, and ecological limits that human beings work with when they produce their social and physical environments. Advocates of career training propose, however, not to reflect upon these limits in any critical or thoughtful way as much as they seek to train young people to accept their existing world as a taken for granted, unchangeable thing that must be passively consumed. Confusing training with education, they produce no scholarship in that they do no critical or imaginative labor.
The humanist as a producer, unlike the advocate of pre-professionalism, imagines what kinds of conditions can sustain satisfying work instead of alienating work. When the university does its job it provides resources to imagine and produce labor in ways that are sometimes but not always available in the alienated world in which we live. A university that fails to produce this produces bad work.
What the humanities, social sciences, and sciences have in common with vocational training is that they give you nothing. What scholarly disciplines do, however, is to provide support, resources, and guidance for your labor. There are in the many Yale Colleges, Harvards, whaling ships, and Fulton Fish Markets of the world lots of forms of satisfying work apart from what takes place in a university. But one simple piece of advice is that if you are going to attend college, you might as well do what it does well. College can teach you how to critique a book, or do ethnography, or perform an experiment. These are the kinds of work that college is good at. These practices teach habits of rigor, discipline, and critical evaluation that are distinctive to education. The point here is not that these are intrinsically valuable or an essential part of being human, but that they help you to produce the labor that you are doing as students.
Humanistic labor, then, involves you in painstaking effort to produce a world with other people. As David Foster Wallace put it in a Commencement Speech about liberal arts education, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated and understanding how to think.”