The Broad is Back!

May 10, 2007

Cut flowers

Filed under: American culture,New Broads — by maggiec @ 5:36 pm

Cut flowers really look lovely, and they smell nice and they are great to have around.  But when they are detached from their roots, they eventually whither and die.  And that’s what’s happening to American culture.  Too many Americans are cut off from their roots—their American cultural roots—and the culture is starting to fade and whither.  Lest you think I am anti-American or harsh to my fellow Americans, let me say that the exact same thing is happening in Europe.  When I teach cultural studies and I mention Calvin, Descartes or Locke, I often meet blank faces.  When I ask where secular humanism comes from, I hear silence.

This source material isn’t easy to read, I know, but my students often don’t even know the names.  Calvin and Hobbes?  A comic strip.  Homer?  A donut-eating loser.

When did I become reactionary?  How did this happen?  I don’t think of myself as reactionary.  I like to think of myself as Leftist.  My cousin thinks I’m a bleeding heart liberal, I know.  But then that term liberal—the liberal arts.  I also believe that the liberal arts are still of value.  But the world has changed—knowledge of the liberal arts is not needed for success in the world.  Once again the liberal arts have become elitist.  Maybe for a bright shining moment in the 60s and early 70s there was a time when “everyday” folks could be a liberal arts major with no negative ramifications, but today, one must be wealthy, or willing to face a lifetime of low-paying jobs in order to truly delve into the liberal arts.  Oh, sure, I have a job as a college professor—an English professor.  But I make tens of thousands of dollars less per year than my colleagues in the sciences.  I make less than most public school teachers, and kids getting out of MBA programs often start off making more than I do—me, with my PhD and 18 years of teaching.

According to Liz Pulliam Weston, MSN Money Central’s contributing editor, “the Census Bureau’s figures show that someone with a liberal arts master’s degree earned just $5 a month more, on average, than someone with a bachelor’s in the same field ($3,460 compared to $3,455). In fact, the average liberal arts M.A. earned about $300 a month less than the average bachelor’s degree recipient.” (“Is Your Degree Worth $1 Million—or Worthless?”)

Some truth in humor: The graduate with a science degree asks, “Why does it work?” The graduate with an Engineering degree asks, “How does it work?” The graduate with an Accounting degree asks, “How much will it cost?” The graduate with a Liberal Arts degree asks, “Do you want fries with that?”

How many parents bemoan a child choosing a “useless” major like English?  Why did I want to weep when my bright, beautiful niece chose to major in English?  Then she added anthropology!  The scholar, the humanist with the fine liberal arts degree in me knows these choices will enrich her life and make her develop as a person.  The realist in me facing huge student loans says, “honey, be a lawyer!”

But as an English professor, I find myself “selling” English as a major to other people’s children.  In practical terms, it’s actually a very smart undergraduate choice.  Law schools love English major applicants and businesses love to hire English majors.  Why?  Because we can discuss Shakespeare and Fitzgerald?  Hardly!  Because we write well, know grammar and think logically.  But to go for an MA or PhD in English?  I tell my students, “Don’t even bother unless you have the fire in your belly.”  If I can talk them out of it, they shouldn’t attempt it at all.  It’s not a career choice; it’s a vocation—a calling to one’s spirit.

Do today’s young people even need all this liberal arts “stuff”?  Many young people, especially those who work with computers, IT and technology, have decided to skip traditional liberal arts degrees, with their need for a balanced curriculum, and have moved to schools that offer technical programs, streamlined to allow them to learn and be out in the “real world” making money in half the time needed for a traditional degree.  Is this inherently bad?  Part of me says, no, but other parts of me say yes.

Do people really need to know the roots of their culture?  Do they need to know the history and philosophy on which their society is based?  Today it’s common to say “I am proud to be an American.”  And I am.  I am proud to be an American, because I’m proud of what America stands for.   When younger people say “I am proud to be an American,” do they know why?  Or is it all just rhetoric they learned?

I am proud to be an American because I believe in America’s ideals.  I believe that I come from a “Republic of Virtue” based on the highest ideals of Christian humanism, where freedom, justice, equality, honor, liberty and responsibility are exalted, cherished and protected.  (OK, I know, these are the ideals. Reality is often different from the Ideal, but I’m a realistic idealist, what can I tell you?  At least we are trying.)

I believe that even when America, and Americans, fall short of the mark, which happens far too often, it is important that at least there is a high mark for which we are reaching.

So, all this has me worried.  I come from a country full of cut flowers.  I sound terribly reactionary and conservative, but I say anyway, not enough people take the time to learn about our culture.  I have a pretty broad view of what makes a culture, though, so don’t give up on me yet.  I’ve also become one of those annoying people who ask “what do they teach kids these days?” And I want to fix that—hey, that’s me—think big.  To that end, I’m working on a project right now—a book length exploration of why Americans today are the people they are, or aim to be.  And what you see here is the preliminary musing about that.  This blog is my trial balloon.  I’ll be posting things here in the coming months as I work on this project just to see what people say.

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