The jobs economy isn’t everything

Pettigrew applies logic to the debate over the value of arts

We scholars of the arts are used to the attitude that what we do is a luxury at best and a silly waste of time at the worst. But one rarely sees that contempt stated as baldly as it was last week by Luisa D’Amato in The Guelph Mercury.

I have no interest in rehearsing at length the standard arguments in favour of education in the liberal arts, important as they may be. I’ve done so here and here and here and here.

For now, let’s just remember that people do other things than work. They vote, and serve on juries, and raise their kids, and make a thousand critical judgements over the course of their lives.

Wouldn’t it be nice if some of them had been taught to think about more than how to build and market the next generation of smart phones?

The problem with arguments like D’Amato’s is that they assume that the one and only thing that the public wants and needs is a troop of workers to fuel a productive economy. But when did profit become the only worthy goal of our civilization? Imagine if we applied such thinking to other public services. D’Amato writes:

Universities take the hard-earned money of students and their parents, and provide an education in any cool topic they want — anthropology, English literature, women’s studies — without helping these young people to strategize for a job later. The students blissfully become experts on, let’s say, colour symbolism in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, without ever realizing that in the “real world,” they have almost no chance of making a living from their new-found expertise….Universities should have paid attention long ago to the disconnect between themselves and the job economy.

Let’s leave aside the simple fact that arts graduates do get good jobs—I worked with plenty of them when I was in the publishing business—and ask what would happen if we applied this logic to say, health care, or public safety. We would have to make claims like these:

Hospitals take the hard-earned money of taxpayers and lavish it on the elderly who pay few taxes themselves and who no longer work productive jobs. We need to stop coddling these nursing home fogies and provide care only to those people who are going to contribute in the real world.

Police officers take the hard-earned money of taxpayers and waste their time looking into robberies and assaults against individuals, when there is tax fraud and income tax evasion to be investigated. Police should long ago have looked at the disconnect between the crime agenda and the job economy.

Outrageous, of course. But no more outrageous than saying that studying the liberal arts is useless unless it provides a clear and direct path to helping rich people get even richer.

Indeed, instead of of being annoyed that universities are doing so little to cater to private employers, we should, rather, be scandalized that they are doing so much.

Consider Business Administration programs, which, by the way, enroll more students than the Humanities. Business education exists primarily to train workers to manage private enterprises. As such it represents a massive public subsidy to the private sector.

Rather than harrumphing about students wasting time with medieval poetry on the public’s nickel, we should be demanding to know why taxpayers are expected to pay to train accountants and hedge fund managers.

As for Chaucer, it turns out that The Canterbury Tales is not mainly about colour imagery after all. One of Chaucer’s abiding concerns in that remarkable collection is to critique those members of society who pretend to high ideals but are really concerned with the petty, the flashy, and the superficial—like the hypocritical Monk who abandons study, prayer, and humble labour for fine clothes, rich jewellery, and lavish hunting expeditions.

We may not have as many monks as we once did, but hypocrites and philistines still abound.

The lessons of great literature are as relevant now as they ever were. Let’s not begrudge a bit of public money to those who want to learn them.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University. Follow @toddpettigrew and @maconcampus on Twitter. Click here to like us on Facebook.