Happiness and the Humanities

Chris Beha’s investigative report (Harpers, Oct. 2011) on the for-profit higher education experiment is an impressionistic view of the inequities of degree access and funding. Not quite Maigret goes to [night] school, but this is US culture, the land of opportunity, and of second opportunity. Is the for-profit model hopeless? Cut to England, where the LRB Blog reports equity firms are about to seize a market opportunity: the purchasing of Universities by private hands. The degree is the product by which we’ll catch the conscience of the customer. Yet Beha suggests an important question: Is college making us happy?

Maybe college isn’t necessary or desirable for everyone. But has innovation and reform in higher education been hampered by the same self-serving forces that Joel Klein has argued explain the failure of American high schools?

It’s been a rough month for the Humanities. In Florida, there’s talk of limiting degrees offered to those that are “practical.” One wonders what those might be in the current job market. We need a new word: merittechocracy. But isn’t the market already moving in Florida’s direction? Humanities enrollment and attrition rate at UCLA suggest Westwood is no longer the bohemian capital of LA. The UCLA 2010 annual report offers more insight: “At the same time, we conducted a thorough review of our academic programs with the goal of streamlining majors, reducing unnecessary units and courses, and helping students graduate in a timely manner. We also pursued initiatives that will produce new revenue streams, including an enhanced emphasis on translational research, which will deliver more of our faculty’s inventions into the marketplace and potentially lead to licensing and royalty revenues for UCLA.” The product is big business.

But there’s a reading crisis spreading perniciously throughout the land. And reading is important. In a November, 2007, report from the National Endowment for the Arts, “To Read or Not to Read,” Chairman Dana Gioia had this to say about reading: “All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals—whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their educational level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact— books change lives for the better.”

The first front on which to begin combating poverty and inequality is reading. And who’s got the books, if not the Humanities? But if the Humanities, now on the Endangered Animals list, become extinct, who will ask the question, “Are you happy now”?