By John Allemang
From Globe and Mail Saturday June 12, 2010
University students worried about getting a job see the study of the humanities as a waste of precious time. Research funding (of the new $200-million Canada Excellence Research Chairs, for example) overwhelmingly favour the useful sciences, politicians see technical skills as the key to global economic success and cultural commentators bash the liberal arts as a naval-gazing luxury. Times are hard for humanists.
But when economic growth becomes the focus of education, both democracy and human decency are in jeopardy. In her new book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton), acclaimed University of Chicago philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum argues that our culture of market-driven schooling is headed for a fall.
As the critical thinking taught by the humanities is replaced by the unexamined life of the job-seekers, our ability to argue rights and wrongs is silenced. In a society of unreflective, undiscerning yes-men and yes-women, politics becomes meaner and business can invite disasters such as the economic meltdown or the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
It is the rifle-like mind-set dedicated to the pursuit of "profit" that drives the corporations, and for the last twenty-five or thirty years has driven the best and brightest of the students to work for hedge funds, the financial services sector. In fact, the CEO of Citigroup earned some $54 million last year, while the 25th ranked person in the hedge funds industry "earned" $154 million last year, according to a book entitled "More Money than God".
There are visionary CEO's who will argue that if you give them a graduate of English Literature who has found and can find the patterns of metaphors in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales from his/her liberal arts education, they can teach such candidates how to read a financial statement in a mere half-day.
It is not only the capacity to argue the ethics of a situation; it is also the capacity to see beyond the literal.
I had the opportunity to provide some assistance for a small music festival within the last twenty-four months.
A group of dedicated women had done the "trench work" for the festival for the last quarter century, and were getting tired. The service club that was supposed to be provinding the financial backing had been selling a form of lottery ticket, long past its prime in the marketplace, with the surge of 649 and Max Lotteries in Ontario.
Having been a youthful candidate in such festivals, I know first-hand of the personal preparation that is required to enter, and the benefits from a useful and insightful adjudication. I also had a clear vision of how the festival could reach more, and less affluent young musicians. After making as few recommendations, and generating a new "look" to the festival publications, I found that those who had previously been involved, especially from the service club side, were getting nervous about the changes.
Acountants and business people are victims of their own limited vision; they are bound by the mind-set of the balance sheet, which governs all organizations, including the non-profits. However, there are times when change requires a little imagination, and a little faith and a little risk-taking, and the mind-set and attitude of these people, as far removed from the "music" at the core of the project as they could be, (some would call it a "tin-ear" mentality) was going to "cap" the project's potential for a very long time.
Such a mind-set is, unfortunately at the core of much of our public debate. "Penny-wise, and pound-foolish" was the way the aphorism went fifty years ago. Today, only the penurious have any kind of influence...certainly those with vision are kept in the backroom, muzzled and brought out only if and when those in charge need some "revitalizating" project for their political cache.
The straight-line mentality of the accountants does not reduce the potential for curves and three-dimensional thinking and executing; it eliminates such potential.
And we are all the poorer for having succumbed to their "parsimonious" attitude of "scarcity" leaving the potential for "plenty" writhing in pain on the sidelines from "lack of use".
Their imaginations have become as parched as their balance sheets, and the projects, including their own corporations are suffering from their "inside-the-box" religiosity, something they want us to name as "responsibility"....and we dare not, at our own peril!