O Brave New World that has such Fart Jokes in It: Politicians Persecuting the Arts in the name of Commerce

When the Arts and Sciences play nicely, something amazing happens. Through experimentation and expression — hard-won data and expertly honed craftsmanship — we achieve a more complete understanding of life on Earth and the extent of the cosmos. The Natural History Museum in London, England, proves just that:

Michael Benson: The Art of Otherworlds” by the Natural History Museum, London

Outreach efforts at the NHM, London celebrate interdisciplinary collaboration. For one, the Museum’s YouTube channel showcases a special love affair between the Arts and Sciences and how experts and laymen, alike, reap the benefits.

But in other parts of the world, a war is brewing…

Last year, the Japanese Minister of Education, Hakubun Shimomura, sent a letter to Japan’s 60 national universities with Humanities and Social Sciences programs. The letter ordered these universities to abolish their Humanities and Social Sciences departments and “to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs.” Shimomura’s bargaining chip: funding. In response to criticism, Shimomura has said that this was all a big misunderstanding. Yet, the order stands. 26 Japanese universities have announced that they plan to phase-out their Humanities and Social Sciences programs beginning in 2016.

The action coincides with the structural reforms detailed in Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s stimulus plan dubbed “Abenomics.” In a keynote address at the 2014 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Abe remarked, “Rather than deepening academic research that is highly theoretical, we will conduct more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society.” To be clear, Abe and Shimomura use “society” as a rhetorically sensitive synonym for “the market” — healthcare and infrastructure sure but, really, money money money. After all, the ultimate goal of Abenomics is to stimulate a Japanese economy that has been stagnant for two decades.

Backlash has been international but Abe’s and Shimomura’s plan is not without local support, even in academia. Professor of International Politics Yoichi Shimada of the Center for Arts and Sciences at Fukui Prefectural University has been quoted, “People who study philosophy or French literature do not easily find jobs and don’t contribute much to society. This would be beneficial to them.”

Japan’s attempts to mold academia to fit commerce is reminiscent of academic unrest stateside. For a brief stint, I taught English composition and rhetoric at Auburn University. I can still hear my students groaning, “Why do we even gotta take English? Don’t everybody speak English?” (Real quote.) Or, “Shit! I’ll appreciate music when they start playing Def Leppard.” (Not my student. I overheard this statement at a urinal in the men’s room at the Department of Music’s Goodwin Hall. Funny thing is, at the time, Def Leppard was a couple decades removed from cultural relevancy. I guess Def Leppard was this guy’s idea of classical music.)

Granted, these examples are anecdotal and there are more to the Humanities than English and Music Appreciation but these complaints circle around a common theme that I’m sure you have heard if you have ever been or been around an opinionated high school or college student. “How is this going to help me in the real world?” Or, “How is this going to help me be a nurse/lawyer/doctor/etc.”

In my lectures and in the margins while grading papers, I often found myself trying to persuade rather than teach. “An in-depth understanding of proper grammar and mechanics really does aid humankind, seriously!”

I could have simply been an incompetent instructor but it seems that, now more than ever, Americans believe that the sole ends of education is employment. (Historically speaking, young George Washington was educated in etiquette and how to be a proper English gentleman — a discipline, as his surviving notes suggest, that he pursued with sincerity. Could you imagine teaching today’s teenagers and young adults the importance of posture and grace in dining? I dare say they would revolt!) This bias is slipped into pop-culture ad nauseam. Lily Aldrin on How I Met Your Mother hoped to be a painter. Instead, she taught kindergarten. The titular Vicky in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona is working toward a Master’s degree in Catalan identity. When another character asks what she hopes to do with that degree, she responds, “God, I don’t know, uh, maybe teaching, maybe curating.” I was tempted by the darkside (Liberal Arts) after 6-and-a-half semesters in pre-med. Time and again, I was asked with unrestrained disdain, “What are you going to do with an English degree?” My answer, “Go to grad school, duh!”

I now write for a tech company and work alongside an army of brilliant engineers. My position, my entire field (technical and professional communication), exists because engineers are notoriously and seemingly universally incompetent communicators. It’s not that engineers are incapable of communicating well but, perhaps, their focus is or has been elsewhere. Perhaps, language and communication can be easily taken for granted when learning to write software or to calculate the trajectory of rocket ships. I mean, don’t everybody speak English?

Effective communicators are sought after in other fields, as well. Paul Tudor Jones, founder of the Tudor Investment Corporation and billionaire, has said, “The single most important thing you need to learn for any job in business is how to communicate – how to write a memo, how to talk, how to think.”

Yet, throwing anecdotes and quotes back at Abe and Shimomura via the internet void is easy. The simple truth is, for thousands of years, liberal (broad, inclusive and comprehensive) higher education has existed with the Humanities and Sciences perched happily side-by-side atop the Ivory Tower. Trade school fits Abe’s and Shimomura’s vision of “practical vocational education” more aptly than the university. Still, the problem goes deeper than curriculum.

Maybe I’m moved by a reckless sense of rugged individualism (or arrogance) but I believe that education, regardless of discipline, serves the individual first and society by proxy. The aim of higher education is to develop well-rounded, critical-thinking, responsible and diligent citizens. I cannot speak for the tuition situation in Japan but tuition is out of control in the United States. I could not imagine spending $85,000 and wading for 11 years through student-loan debt to spend the rest of my life doing what the government has decided “better meets society’s needs.”

A society in which the individual and individual pursuits exist solely to serve the market is a terrifying prospect. It’s a totalitarian, anthill ideology that grates against human nature. (One approach to cramming this square-peg ideology into round-hole reality has produced Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. Another approach produced Nazi Germany. Still, another produced West Germany and Stalin’s USSR.)

I do not wish to argue that the individual is owed anything for existing but neither does the individual choose to be or to be brought and naturalized into any given system. Simply, no one’s options or prospects in life should be narrowed by some suit-wearing politician who has decided that the purpose of humanity is to increase the gross domestic product. Governments and government institutions exist to serve the people, not the other way around.

Art will happen. People will create and share and express themselves. If for no other ends, art will always exist to entertain, at least. It just seems as though, if you remove the forum for intelligent discussion and experimentation (a forum thousands of years in the making), you can hope and expect nothing – absolutely nothing – more thought-provoking than slapstick and fart jokes. No doubt, slapstick and fart jokes abound in any culture (and I’m using the two examples here to represent low art as a whole) but what value has a society that is content with that being the pinnacle of its artistic expression?  But maybe that’s where society has been heading all along. Who am I to say otherwise?

In my marriage, my wife represents the Sciences and I represent the Arts. That’s not to say she doesn’t love the Arts or that I don’t love the Sciences. We do. We joke, however, that the Sciences save lives and that the Arts make life worth living. It’s not that simple. Both save lives. Both make life worth living. Through open discourse and interdisciplinary collaboration, we answer and ask new questions and, in doing so, continue to learn. Many minds work in many ways and there are infinite angles to view and scrutinize all that exists. It takes collaboration and mutual respect to paint the fullest picture of what we know — to look into infinity and say, “This is us. This is humanity.”

Interesting Stuff:

Natural History Museum, London on YouTube

Japanese government asks universities to close social sciences and humanities faculties


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