“The Unemployment Line: It’s Not Just for Philosophy Majors Anymore”

by Patrick on February 27, 2009

That line is from a Simpsons episode that aired about ten years ago.  It looks pretty prescient now.  This article in the New York Times details one of the unexpected side effects of our current economic hiccup — universities are cutting back on their liberal arts programs in favor of courses of study that offer more clearly defined paths to employment.  The last paragraph is really the thesis of the piece:  “The essence of a humanities education — reading the great literary and philosophical works and coming “to grips with the question of what living is for” — may become “a great luxury that many cannot afford.””

Obviously this is being driven by student demand — it’s not everybody these days who can afford to spend four years reading Kant and arguing about which Eisenstein movie is the most important — but it strikes me as pretty tragic.  I think of a liberal arts education as being the basis of creating an interesting individual, the kind of person who’s fun to sit next to at a dinner.  I think it’s a shame that fewer people are going to have that kind of experience and become that kind of person…and fewer people are going to get my jokes, most of which require an understanding of The Dialectic of Enlightenment.  Of course, my priorities were always probably a little bit different.  I went to the University of Chicago, where they told us straight away that they weren’t going to show us how to make a living but rather how to make a life.

What’s interesting about this story is what kind of long-term effects will this downturn have on American letters?  Nobody ever got into writing for the money, and now, I would imagine, there’s even more incentive to find a job that will be in demand.  Between this pressure and the uncertainties in the publishing world at the moment, I have to wonder if we’re going to see fewer people writing or a marked decrease in the quality of written work.  Does anyone else have this fear?  Will emerging platforms like blogs and self-publishing ebooks entice new, different writers?

[Edit:  Of course, it may lead to there being more writers than ever, as people flock to graduate programs in creative writing to prolong the period before they have to get “real work.”  Who knows?]

(Thanks to Paria for the link.)