Is the decline of the Humanities responsible for Wall Street Corruption?

Andrew Delbanco’s view in a recent Huffington Post essay is “Yes”, at least to some indeterminate degree, though I admit that the title of his post “A Modest Proposal” gave me some pause given its Swiftian connotations:

What I do know is that at the elite universities from which investment firms such as Goldman Sachs recruit much of their talent, most students are no longer seeking a broad liberal education. They want, above all, marketable skills in growth fields such as information technology. They study science, where the intellectual action is. They sign up for economics and business majors as avenues to the kind of lucrative career Mr. Smith enjoyed. Much is to be gained from these choices, for both individuals and society. But something is also at risk. Students are losing a sense of how human beings grappled in the past with moral issues that challenge us in the present and will persist into the future. This is the shrinking province of what we call “the humanities.”

For the past twenty years, the percentage of students choosing to major in the humanities — in literature, philosophy, history, and the arts — has been declining at virtually all elite universities. This means, for instance, that fewer students encounter the concept of honor in Homer’s Iliad, or Kant’s idea of the “categorical imperative” — the principle that Mr. Smith thinks is out of favor at Goldman: that we must treat other people as ends in themselves rather than as means to our own satisfaction. Mr. Smith was careful to say that he was not aware of anything illegal going on. But few students these days read Herman Melville’s great novella, Billy Budd, about the difficult distinction between law and justice.

Correlation is not cause, and it’s impossible to prove a causal relation between what students study in college and how they behave in their post-college lives. But many of us who still teach the humanities believe that a liberal education can strengthen one’s sense of solidarity with other human beings — a prerequisite for living generously toward others. One of the striking discoveries to be gained from an education that includes some knowledge of the past is that certain fundamental questions persist over time and require every generation to answer them for itself.

via Andrew Delbanco: A Modest Proposal.

This is consonant with Delbanco’s thesis–expressed in his book College:  What it Was, Is, and Should Be–that education in college used to be about the education of the whole person but has gradually been emptied of the moral content of its originally religious more broadly civic vision, and the preprofessional and pecuniary imagination has become the dominant if not the sole rationale for pursuing an education. I am viscerally attracted to this kind of argument, so I offer a little critique rather than cheerleading.  First, while I do think its the case that an education firmly rooted in the humanities can provide for the kinds of deep moral reflection that forestalls a purely instrumentalist view of our fellow citizens–or should I say consumers–it’s also very evidently the case that people with a deep commitment to the arts and humanities descend into moral corruption as easily as anyone else.  The deeply felt anti-semitism of the dominant modernists would be one example, and the genteel and not so genteel racism of the Southern Agrarians would be another.  When Adorno said that there was no poetry after Auschwitz, he was only partly suggesting that the crimes of the 20th century were beyond the redemption of literature;  he also meant more broadly that the dream that literature and culture could save us was itself a symptom of our illness, not a solution to it.  Delbanco might be too subject to this particular dream, I think.

Secondly, I think that this analysis runs close to blaming college students for not majoring in or studying more in the humanities and is a little bit akin to blaming the victim–these young people have inherited the world we’ve given them, and we would do well to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what kind of culture we’ve put in place that would make the frantic pursuit of economic gain in the putative name of economic security a sine qua non in the moral and imaginative lives of our children.

That having been said.  Yes, I do think the world–including the world of Wall Street–would be better if students took the time to read Billy Budd or Beloved, wedging it in somewhere between the work study jobs, appointments with debt counselors, and multiple extracurriculars and leadership conferences that are now a prerequisite for a job after college.

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2 thoughts on “Is the decline of the Humanities responsible for Wall Street Corruption?

  1. Pingback: What College Should Be: Andrew Delbanco’s Errand in to the Wilderness | Read, Write, Now

  2. Pingback: Interview with Andrew Delbanco: Students, you have saved others, now save yourselves | Read, Write, Now

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