AS someone currently employed as an academic (getting paid to read, think, and write about history), I’ve given some thought to the business and privilege of the “leisure” arts, and while shot through with issues of class and discourses of national development, I’ve been thinking about this in the context of what a society teaches its youth to aspire to and to value. Education design is ultimately a question of what society one hopes to create in, for, and despite of the larger global context in which it is situated.
Only those from certain backgrounds with financial security and who lack the kind of middle class paranoia that drives people to secure constant employment and a safety net can afford to carelessly study philosophy, be a poet, major in something like comparative literature. These always have been the province of the gentlemen, the aristocracy, those in general who don’t need to work. The last places that preserve a world of “useless,” “non-compensating,” and “leisure” arts in our global economy are the PhD programs that pay full tuition and stipends to their students to make possible the continuance of that kind of scholarly work (and make it available for at least several years to anyone who qualifies, thereby somewhat enlargening the pool of people with the leisure and security to dedicate years to thinking about philosophy without monetary worries).
As universities, particularly in the US, however, increasingly are run as if they were corporations, seeking greater donor bases and returns on investment, schools become more “pre-professional” and de-fund the liberal arts. This occurs even in the Ivy League, and if the Ivy League “can’t afford” to fund the humanities then what schools in America can? Moreover, with the rise of adjunct professors (contract, temporary employees with no track for advancement toward stable income, and no benefits) does it even matter if you can shepherd PhD students through 6-9 years of study if there are no protected academic jobs upon graduation, due to such de-funding? Whither the humanities?
China produces a dizzying number of top-level engineers yearly, and there are, of course, non-economic reasons for Chinese citizens (many newly out of poverty) to keep their noses to the ground and to choose not to study their country’s turbulent, often painful history, not to question its current government. But what of its deeper history—its millennia of philosophy, literature, and art? Surely, the country will look different in the future when its best and brightest have for several generations at that point geared themselves toward engineering and commerce to the detriment of other subjects. There is a great story about George F. Kennan, the American foreign service man stationed in Russia who formulated the US’s ‘containment’ policy during the Cold War. As much as he fought to contain the Soviet Union and spread the American way of life, according to his biographer John Gaddis, the last thing he wanted to imagine was a McDonald’s on the Red Square in Moscow. He respected Russian culture too much to be able to want that.
When I think about this with regard to the Philippines, however, is when I sympathize with China. I’ve lamented the “technical” track of high school education in the Philippines that relegates the bottom half of students to performing merely service work, learning nothing above vocational training. Yet, when you have whole communities forced through poverty to eat from our trash dumps, can you really blame us for “selling our people short”? In that sense, lifting millions from poverty in China was the unmistakably right choice. Now that they’ve been lifted, however, what are the society’s dreams? What does it hope to contribute to world civilization and to its successors internally?
We need dreams outside capitalism, don’t we? That’s what theorist Slavoj Zizek’s work on capitalist ideology seeks to impart—that we have to change our dreams. I think about this a lot. Growing up and saving to have a comfortable life of ease with a beautiful family in a shining house—is this all I’ll ultimately have? Is there something more I can want? When I picture my life and what I want, I recognize that those wants are bourgeois, perhaps inescapably so given our global political economy. But, like the scene in the recent film Boyhood, I don’t want to reach the end of my life, look around myself, and cry on the kitchen counter, saying: I thought there would be more.
I think that it matters what you teach your youth and it matters what you teach your whole society, particularly your best-and-brightest, to value and to know. If you create a system in which the best-and-brightest are ever more isolated and value socio-economic status, won’t you only achieve the creation of a feedback loop accompanied by a deracination of dreams outside of one’s class and outside of the whole system of monetized status? I want there to be more than that.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.