The pressure to be happy and the crisis of the humanities, part II

Opinion by Alex Bayer
Jan. 24, 2013, 11:50 p.m.

This column is the second in a two-part series examining the connections between happiness, pressure and the study of the humanities at Stanford.

Last year, I found myself debating three of my friends, all some variation of techie-ness. “Humanities feed your soul,” I offered desperately. I criticized excessive time and money spent on research, since much of it is simply funneled into the vortex of academia, never to be seen again. My friend pointed out that research could cure cancer. I felt tempted to fire back that cancers are often traced to man-made chemicals, more often that not produced in these very laboratories, and then launched into a tirade about the ghastly ways in which technology has compromised meaningful human connection. This did not get me very far. “Well,” I offered, stomaching my lack of conviction, “In grief, what do you turn to? Science may explain death, but it does not heal grief. A poem can make you feel better.” This was met with blank stares, so I quickly amended it: “A song can make you feel better.”

I left the room, disappointed that I had only managed to half-heartedly convince them (and even that wasn’t such a sure point, for maybe they had just taken pity on the dying pit bull). If anything, I had become less convinced myself. I hadn’t been able to prove the worth of the humanities; I hadn’t even addressed what makes writing a novel as equally important to civilization as designing a wind turbine. A song can make you feel better. Was this paltry line my best argument?

In Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life,” he advises his friend Paulinus, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” To imbue our lives with wisdom and clarity, look no further “high priests of liberal studies,” the philosophers who have taken to task hard questions like, “What is the meaning of life?” Seneca writes: “By the toil of others we are let into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light… None of these will be too busy to see you, none of these will not send his visitor away happier and more devoted to himself, none of these will allow anyone to depart empty-handed. They are at home to all mortals by night and by day.” For now, I like to think, a good book will suffice.

I do need to make one important clarification: lest this argument be mistaken for a critique of the sciences and a manifesto declaring that all students should be classics and English majors, I should say the problem here is not biology or computer science or mechanical engineering. There are plenty of devoutly passionate students who study the sciences (and can understand them, God bless you), who want to push the fold of human knowledge further, who dream of changing the world for the better. This is as noble a cause as any.

No, the problem is the never-ending career fairs, the looming recruitment rounds, the pressure felt by so many here to not just secure a job, but a damn good one, one with the kind of clout and money-earning potential to make the university proud. I wonder: how many graduates become elementary school teachers who arguably have an impact unparalleled by other professions? What is that number compared to the number of students who enter consulting or marketing, neither of which they likely knew about in high school and, I suspect, aren’t terribly passionate about even as they go down that route? The curiosity students have nourished since childhood is squandered in professions whose focus is, in the ultimate end, to make money.

Choosing this path is not unreasonable. Job security is frightful right now, and many take these positions knowing it’ll help them land better ones they actually like doing.

But I fear too many students are getting sucked, irreversibly, into a vacuum wherein profit is an impostor for purpose and competition a means of lifestyle. The worst part is that the university, with its eagerness to bring recruiters and its more-than-friendly, deeply biased relationship with Silicon Valley, promotes these kinds of jobs. I went to a job fair at White Plaza once. I passed booths touting careers I had never heard of, firms with sterile names. It was all very intimidating, so I beelined for the Walt Disney booth, hoping to find their information about being a story-boarder or an artist. Standing behind a girl dressed in business slacks, I scanned the poster. Disney was here to recruit future marketers, legal team members, potential executives. My grin faded.

Stanford’s approach to career-building is very one-sided. Where was the creative contingent among all these employers? Where were the architects, where was National Geographic, The New York Times? Perhaps companies like these don’t pluck smart college students like consulting firms do, but with Stanford’s resources, is it out of their power to bring them to campus for at least an information session? Why are the heroes, touted by Stanford’s press, the people who have made the most money and won the most medals? What about the activists, the teachers? Why do I not hear about achievement outside of the context of winning and prestige? A liberal arts education is not a trade school to be wealthy or “successful.” The reason we come to college is to challenge our minds, become better thinkers, better human beings, armed with knowledge of life’s truths and conviction in who were are to venture into the real world and face its inevitable hardships.

I urge the university to take a look at how its utopian-like pressure to be happy and its biased emphasis on “profitable” jobs actually undermines students’ ultimate happiness. In fact, these misguided priorities get in the way of letting students do what they are meant to do in college: wade into the self-discovery that arcs across our maddening existences. At its purest, education isn’t about providing us with answers, as the promise of a lucrative job might lead one to believe. As educator Mark Lilla put it, speaking to a group of freshmen: “The real reason you were excited about college was because you had questions, buckets of questions, not life plans and PowerPoint presentations. My students convinced me that they are far less interested in getting what they want than in figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.”

Alex would love to hear about your experiences with the humanities. Email her at [email protected].

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