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A Mind is A Terrible Thing to Waste

Now that we have officially elected an elitist as president, I can finally come out of the closet. Although close friends and family have known for years that I am an elitist, I guess it is time to announce myself publicly. It seems that people are enjoying casting stones at both the president and others who value education, the arts, and other elitist values — such as speaking in full grammatically correct sentences, reading books and talking about them, and other such unnecessary activities, so I thought perhaps I might come out in support of such frivolous wastes of time.

I know that these are hard and difficult times and that looking for jobs and finding jobs and saving money is all that people seem to have time for any more. In fact, I read today in an article in the New York Times that people don’t even have time to read a newspaper any more they are so busy. On The Daily Show the other night, apparently people are so busy tweeting and twittering that they don’t even have time to listen to the president talk about how bad everything is and how it might even get good again some day.

Which is why, of course, moviegoing is way up and reality television shows are stronger than ever, and television viewing in general hasn’t gone down, and no one has noticed any reduction in the time people spend on Facebook or Internet surfing and I would sure like to see the statistics for the number of visits to porn sites: have they gone down since people are out of work? I mean, everyone has time to do all that and tweet, but no one has time to read a paper or a book or go to a museum or figure out how to keep arts in our schools. That we don’t have time for because that kind of stuff is elitist and unimportant. Right?

But, hey, I’m just postulating here.

So the main thing is that we all have to figure out ways to get jobs and make money and anything that doesn’t have anything directly to do with that is a total waste of time. So says a recent article in the same (elitist and apparently unread by the masses) New York Times which basically says that a traditional liberal arts education is in trouble (again and forever, it seems) because it can’t easily be translated into a job that one can get paid money for.

Although some in the article are apparently trying to figure out ways to “market” a liberal arts education, because, hey, it’s really all about marketing, right. Not value. Even though the market-driven economy has proven to be a big bust.

There are some holdouts, thank God, like Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, one of those liberal elite education institutions that routinely gets shat on (no, I didn’t go there; I went to another elite college that really gets shat on) who says, wisely: “There’s a lot more to a liberal education than improving the economy. I think that is one of the worst mistakes that policy makers often make — not being able to see beyond that.”

The article further quotes Andrew Delbanco, director of American studies at Columbia (one of the universities, you may remember, from which Barack Obama graduated) as saying that “(Obama) makes people feel there is some kind of a common enterprise, that history, with its tragedies and travesties, belongs to all of us, that we have something in common as Americans.” This is, Delbanco, reminds us, a president who reads and invokes Shakespeare, Faulkner, Lincoln, and W.E.B. Du Boise, men, whom the more educated among us may indeed have heard us, but few have actually read, and names, other than Lincoln and Shakespeare, which would not ring a bell on many a city street.

But mostly the holdouts are outnumbered.

And even though the actual numbers of those humanities majors has remained stable for about a decade at eight percent, according to the article, the “humanities share of college degrees is less than half of what it was during the hey-day” of the mid to late 60s.”

But so what? Right?

Who needs ’em?

Who needs to read books by old dead people? Who needs to look at art by old dead people? Who needs to listen to music by old dead people? And who the hell needs to have his or her mind challenged by stuff that is hard or difficult to understand at first glance? I mean, really! Don’t you go to college just to get a job in the first place? Isn’t it a place to lay your money down and get some, well, marketable skills so that you can go out into the marketplace and find gainful employment and work the rest of your life at some job and make some bucks?

But a university education was never meant to prepare men and women for the job market. It was mean first for only the privileged class, of course, and then with the wonderful GI Bill after World War II, for our fighting men and women to be able to go to college and better themselves. Better themselves. When my father graduated after serving in the Navy, he was not prepared to be the businessman he became; but he was an educated man in a way he would not have been had he stayed in the abject poverty in which he was raised. He had been exposed to art and science and literature and history; he had been taught and those lessons made him a man of the world who could do anything. A good liberal arts education serves not as a stepping stone to a job in a bank or driving a truck or working in a business or even becoming a doctor; it serves to help one think critically, read with great pleasure and a keen eye, observe the world with something other than the prejudices and callowness of youth. A liberal arts education makes one wish to continue that, it makes museums and books and photographs and music and paintings that challenge not a difficulty but a bridge to climb with delight at the journey. Because one knows that one can accomplish it.

Who needs literature?

I don’t know who else does. But I do. And not because I am a writer, but because I am also a reader and a thinker and because I believe that a mind, one of our most wonderful of God’s gifts, is a terrible thing to take for granted. Roger Cohen, one of the Times’ best writers, says it beautifully in a recent essay on reading and connecting and wondering: “Perhaps the Age of Excess had to end before we could all turn inward just enough to rediscover the gold standard of the perfectly formed phrase and make connections again.”

We need to read so we can think about things other than ourselves and our problems. All of us right now are suffering. But so have people in the past. And so will people in the future. An education in the humanities shows us that; it puts it all in perspective. If it is true that larger universities “routinely turn away students who want to sign up for courses in the humanities” what does that say about us? Isn’t that just as horrible a sign as the fact that so many students can no longer afford to go to college at all?

If being an elitist means that I still and will always care about nurturing my mind and the minds of others along with my body and that no matter what job I have or do not have I will make the time to read and think and wonder– that an inner life will live with any outer life I make, then I will wear that banner proudly. Too much is made of our society’s preoccupation with its busy busy busyness, but stop and think: how much time do we waste: On hours of terrible television, on endless useless activities that get us nowhere, on being bored and angry and tired, on surfing the net for nothing, on feeding our various addictions, on buying self help books to aid those addictions: you name it. I think we have more time than we think. I think we have more head space than we realize. I think we can do more with our minds than we ever dreamed possible. And I believe that we need to open up those minds to things that scare us or we think are too difficult to deal with or that we never imagined we might like. That’s what education does for us. And that’s what an education in the humanities is meant for. Get rid of that and we risk getting rid of our very humanity itself.

(This piece appeared in the March 5 Huffington Post)