I’m only able to report on my acquaintance with Bryan in a somewhat superficial way based on his Facebook posts and emails to me, which are sometimes painful to read, but the information I’ve gathered should be enough to frame the discussion that follows.
Bryan is a queer black man in his mid 30s. He studied literature as an undergraduate, and as a graduate student he received a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing. He was socially reclusive during the MFA program, and I was told that he worked as a security guard during the evening. I was always pleased to see him at the few social events where our paths did cross and found him to be friendly and soft-spoken.
Several years after we received our degrees, we exchanged messages on Facebook, at which point I learned that Bryan was pretty poor. He disclosed that he was a sex worker; he had significant amounts of student debt; he had no time for creative writing; and he was having difficulty finding a steady job that would provide him with the benefits to which, as an educated member of society, he felt entitled.
My heart went out to Bryan during this conversation. But mostly I left our conversation feeling angry at the system that had let him down, the capitalist system wearing the guise of self-empowerment that had transformed another energetic, free young man into a debt slave like so many others. Above all, I was enraged at the humanities, an ill-defined field of study absorbed by theory and ungrounded to practice, for pumping Bryan up and dumping him in the street.
Although Bryan and I are very different in terms of our identities and financial resources, we were both led unsuspectingly into the humanities without quite realizing that its rapid metamorphosis over the past century had created a dramatic misalignment in expectations versus reality.
The Way I Understand It
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were a small number of American colleges and universities that made up an informal system intended to reinforce — can you guess? — white cultural power, history, and tradition.
Even if you had enough money to go, you still had to get accepted.
And acceptances were based primarily on who could provide a recommendation for you, with the presumption that each recommendation was basically an agreement among wealthy white people to further their own power.
The atmosphere of this ancien régime was perceptible to me when I — a young middle-class white man with wealthy, well-connected relatives — began to look into undergraduate schools in the 1990s.
At that time, I was informed by my father that the wisdom of my grandfather, who had gone to Harvard University in the late 1930s, suggested that one should go to a liberal arts school and major in something like English or History before deciding whether to proceed onward to a higher degree.
What my grandfather was still remembering were the days when your undergraduate program of study at one of the small elite colleges in the United States was mainly for building on your elite boarding school experience, bolstering your cultural rather than professional credentials.
This was because, based on who you were — a white male with powerful cultural connections — a humanities education was only tangentially relevant to your ultimate field of work.
If you were going to become a technical professional like a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, you would go on to learn the ropes of your chosen career after having absorbed white male culture by taking courses in the humanities as an undergraduate. If you didn’t want to become a technical professional, not a problem — your knowledge of the humanities allowed you to hold your own at a cocktail party where, presumably, a somewhat older gentleman would inevitably say, “You seem to be all-around smart and white like me. Why don’t you come work for the CIA?”
But something about this process was broken in my family by the time I arrived on the scene.
My father took his father-in-law’s advice, majoring in Political Science at Columbia University and then going on to pass the bar exam and become a lawyer.
My father did not go on to become a highly paid lawyer like my grandfather, however, but a modestly paid legal services lawyer.
This did not stop my father from dutifully transmitting to me the knowledge imparted to him by his father-in-law without regard to the context of enforcing white cultural power — that I should attend a liberal arts college and major in one of the humanities like English or History and then, if I wanted to go on to a higher technical degree, I should do that.
Never doubting whether I had received anything less than the keys to success, I dutifully majored in English at an elite liberal arts school and decided that I was not interested in going on to graduate school. But instead of finding the success I had been promised after graduation, I found myself dumped on my ass; that is to say, the cocktail party and the older white gentlemen who was supposed to offer me a job didn’t materialize.
I’m not bringing this up to say that I wish I had more access to an elite network than I did in those days or that I wish I knew how to be a more oppressive white man.
Rather, like an image made by rubbing a pencil over tracing paper, I’m trying to get the shape of a thing without being able to look at it directly.
Some Data to Process
According to U.S. Census data, 37,199 Bachelor of Arts degrees were awarded nationwide in calendar year 1910. A century later, in 2010, that number had ballooned to 1.65 million BAs awarded — an increase of 4,435 percent.
But this increase is modest compared to the growth of advanced degrees in the United States: in calendar year 1910, 2,113 American students obtained a master’s degree and 443 obtained their doctorate; by 2010, these numbers had exploded to 693,025 MAs and 158,558 doctorates, for a growth of 32,798 and 35,791 percent respectively!
These data can be compared to the relatively minor population growth of 333 percent in the United States during the same time period.
The rapid growth of academia as a segment of society, particularly in the area of advanced degrees, has had several main drivers, but they have all been primarily market-based: among them were the GI Bill, which provided federal money for veterans of World War 2 to attend college; the availability of new federal loans; and the willingness of private lenders to step in and make loans during the massive post-war expansion experienced by the United States.
Since America is basically capitalist, and capitalists love business opportunities, over time the concept of the American college came to represent more than the furtherance of white cultural power and tradition — it came to represent a business opportunity, a simple issue of demand and supply.
There were not exactly rules about who could open a college or university, and many capitalists took advantage of the vacuum to build new networks and organizations that did not reflect the old money and values of what is today called the Ivy League.
That members of the white elite found success after graduating from college became part of the mythos, a selling point for those who clamored for the same level of access.
As the decades passed, new networks were created outside of the old system and many, many Americans found great success and mobility thanks to their college education.
It’s Gotten Better, Sort Of
Today the children and grandchildren of the elite 1 percent are still able to attend their college of choice based mostly on the strength of their family connections, references, and money.
In contrast to the American college system in the 1800s and early 1900s, however, in the 2000s elite “legacy” students represent only a small portion of the overall field of college attendees.
Many, many Americans are leveraging networks that didn’t exist a century ago and finding success after attending college. Many others, including my friend and former MFA colleague Bryan, are not; they are choosing a major in the humanities, in the liberal arts, in basically anything that used to be part of the catch-all curriculum that allowed rich well-connected white people to enforce their cultural power, and then they are launched on a program of study without regard to the original context for which that program was created.
In the humanities, which was previously the only field of study necessary to bring you a satisfying career as a member of the white elite, to major in English or History today is barely sufficient — one who is elite and white must almost always go on to a higher degree such as law or international relations to compete with other well-heeled high achievers. If one is poor and nonwhite like Bryan, one is presumably at an even greater disadvantage.
Unfortunately — and perhaps it’s because of the career disadvantage faced by those who are unable to leverage an elite network, wealth, whiteness, or any combination of them — undergraduate students in the humanities are often lulled into graduate school in the humanities, over a period of years accumulating debt and avoiding the acquisition of technical skills.
The situation is made more difficult when you consider the wide variety of fashionable and interesting themes, topics, and critiques one can study and analyze within the humanities — Batman, zombies, webcomics, necrophilia, the TV show Outlander, Mazzy Star, and the Black Panther are just a few of the more interesting paper topics presented at the biggest humanities conference in the country, the Modern Language Association’s annual convention, this past January.
For someone like Bryan, a queer black man, there may also be a certain cathartic appeal in the humanities.
The safe, progressive space of the humanities curriculum ensures that anyone with an ax to grind against the culture of straight white men will find more than enough grindstones and plenty of instruction and encouragement.
And yet in thinking about the liberal agenda of the humanities, so obviously in tension with the explosive growth of the business enterprise that is the American college system, I can’t help but recall the infamous “lampshade trope” Hollywood scriptwriters use when their story comes to rely on a predictable plot twist or absurd coincidence.
By having their characters acknowledge the absurdity (“wow, what are the chances of running into you here?”), Hollywood scriptwriters allow the audience to overlook an unrealistic plot twist and continue to suspend disbelief.
Lampshading is precisely what humanities administrators are doing by kicking back and allowing a curriculum focused on cultural wokeness, decolonization, deconstruction, and overall queerness (in the current academic vernacular) to pass muster as sufficiently relevant to be worth the price tag. Thus the dream-like trance of the humanities is perpetuated, and students and faculty continue to suspend their disbelief that the system they are involved with is not essentially a capitalist enterprise.
Is there a better way to reduce the professional risks involved with majoring in the humanities?
Can a better balance between capitalism and human enlightenment be found?
If there is, nobody has been able to articulate and implement it.
The only wisdom one can garner from all this is to go into the humanities without stars in your eyes, to recognize that personal and professional networks have always served, and still do serve, as the surest path to career success both within and outside academia.
Though the degree one gets and the college one attends may help open the door to opportunity, there’s no guarantee of it — unless one is part of the elite.