A Three-Pronged Approach to Saving Humanities Departments

October 29, 2010

So you graduated with a humanities degree. Well, what are you going to do with that?

I really, really hate this question. There are only 3 answers that make sense to the people who ask it:

  1. I’m going to teachers college/law school.
  2. I’m going to grad school (be careful – this one only staves off the questions for another few years and then they come back louder and more persistently than ever).
  3. I have no idea. I just wasted the last four years of my life. Yep, I’m unemployed, bitter, and poor.

For many humanities majors, the trouble with life is that it doesn’t end with university – unless you seek to become a professor in one for the rest of your life, which is a whole different story that I’m not going to talk about today. In reality, most humanities majors will not apply their deep knowledge of the sea battles of 1812 or the role of family in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in their day-to-day jobs. Many do not even want to. They aren’t able to respond to the many, many people who ask the question above without feeling as though they have to either defend their choice of degree because it makes them “well rounded” and “interesting” or denounce it as useless in helping them find employment.

So a lot of commentators think this means humanities programs are useless, and call for eliminating French departments or combine Comparative Literature departments with a whole host of others to save on administration costs. I’m not going to get into why this is a bad thing; I think that’s fairly obvious and, besides, I write about it all the time. Instead, I’m going to advance a theory about how to fix it.

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Democracy Rules! 10 Great Reasons to Vote

October 25, 2010

Voting is both a privilege and a duty. If you’re an apathetic type, consider the following 10 less commonly heard (and only slightly sanctimonious) reasons why you should take some time off work to mark an “X” on a ballot today.

1. You’re one of the lucky few in the world who is able to do so.

Accurate numbers on this score are not easy to come by, but this report from the Hoover Institution ranks about 60% of the world’s nations as democratic in the broadest sense, namely that they hold elections. The more stringent classification of a full “liberal democracy” includes electoral competition for power but also:

  • Freedom of belief, expression, organization, and demonstration
  • Protection from political terror and unjustified imprisonment
  • A rule of law under which all citizens are treated equally and due process is secure
  • Political independence and neutrality of the judiciary and of other institutions of “horizontal accountability” that check the abuse of power
  • An open, pluralistic civil society
  • Civilian control over the military

By this measure, the number of global democracies drops to only 37% of nations worldwide. Wikipedia tells us that this is less than 15% of the global population. When you think that (due to age) only about 60-70% of the population in a full democracy can actually vote, that number drops to under 10% of people living in the world today.

2. Voting makes you disproportionately powerful over your fellow citizens.

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Champions of Ignorance and Mediocrity

October 22, 2010

The world is down on merit, it seems. In addition to the post I wrote on the subject, three separate articles this week have argued that the decline of the meritocratic society and rejection of current elites is proof that something has gone very wrong. But it’s not our meritocratic society that’s the problem. It’s the way we feel about it.

Whither Elitism?

Maureen Dowd in the New York Times writes that Sarah Palin and her ilk are “making ignorance chic” by disparaging the cold and cowardly “elites” who went to Ivy League schools and “refudiating” proper English. As Dowd writes, Palin “believes in American exceptionalism, but when it comes to the people running the country, exceptionalism is suspect; leaders should be — as Palin, [Christine] O’Donnell and [Sharron] Angle keep saying — just like you.” Presumably, the “you” in this case is also ignorant, and proudly so.

It’s enough to make any politician shy away from a good education, lest he or she be labelled another spineless member of the establishment. At best they face the charge of wasting their potential and failing to implement good ideas, like Obama’s heath care plan, or just about anything in Miller’s original plan for Toronto. At worst, they are humiliated, losing their seat (or their legacy) to candidates who think homosexuality is caused by brainwashing or who refer to fellow elected officials with racial slurs.

It’s a sad decline for a noble idea, and it might be just the beginning.
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Make Money First: The Trouble With Meritocracies

October 19, 2010

For a while now, I’ve been trying to put together a post about the value of polymaths in modern society. 200 or even 100 years ago, such people would need no defenders. What could be more valuable or intrinsically rewarding than being interested in everything and interesting to others? Yet today, polymaths are often seen as dilettantes, unable to focus enough to be serious about something and get a job. There is work, and then there are hobbies, and one should learn to tell the difference and divide one’s life into segments. Few careers reward diversity of knowledge. Fewer still pay well. My tentative title was going to be, “Great Careers for Polymaths,” but the idea made me queasy. Why, I asked myself, do I need to justify having multiple interests with the language of making money?

Because, I realized, we value wealth first. What I mean by “first” is that the goal is to be “secure” financially before seeking career satisfaction, getting in shape or getting married. Wealth is the elusive gateway to a complete life, but many mistake it for a complete life in and of itself.

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“My, Those Are Spiffy Sunglasses. Did You Fall Down A Mine?”

October 14, 2010

Hope, and capitalism, have won out in Chile.

For the past few days I, like the rest of the world, have been captivated by the ongoing saga in Chile as 33 miners were rescued from almost 700 metres below ground, all emerging with shouts, laughs, and plenty of thanks for God and the scientists who have spent the last two months trying to get them out. Frankly, it’s great to hear some good news from the world media, which recently have been depressing us endlessly with their tales of woe about the recession, the impending political reign of morons, and the demise of their own industry. The great mining rescue has also provided the best branding opportunity this year: Oakley sunglasses have suddenly become the eyewear of choice for the discerning miner.

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Follow Up: Exploring Identity Through Historical Crime Fiction

October 12, 2010

We tend to like our heroes in fiction to come with obstacles, moments of indecision and crisis, and genuine confusion about how they fit into the world, so much the better when they overcome them. Yet our historical heroes are often portrayed as fully formed characters, certain of themselves and their actions. Hindsight has a way of smoothing out the details and sharpening the focus of individual and group identities.

Fiction does not. Like the best revisionist historian, it “problematizes” identities by zeroing in on the conflict and confusion. This is why I was happy to discover a novel recently that illuminated the confusion of a whole historical period through the identity struggles of its main character.

In response to my last post on problems with agency in historical crime fiction (and indeed, history in general), one of my readers suggested I read A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss. I am very glad I did, for aside from being a delightful work of fiction, it also allowed me to reflect further upon the differences between writing non-fictional and fictional history. The plot, in brief, involves murder and conspiracy, as the protagonist attempts to discover which shadowy figures and institutions are responsible for the death of his father. It centres on the beginnings of the London Stock Exchange in 1719, just before the South Sea Bubble, when the idea of money was changing rapidly. Instead of tangible coin or goods, the new wealth was in paper, in the form of stocks and other promises of money. The story grew out of the author’s graduate research on how people at this time viewed themselves through their money, and we see that this is in fact a central focus of the book.

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