Humanities

Donald Trump is a living, walking ad for the importance of the humanities. He’s too old to have coasted through the 1960s untouched by any of its idealism and issues of social justice, but there you have it. The president exemplifies all that a successful businessman aspires to be: a single-focused, short term, ruthless champion of the bottom line — now abroad as well as at home. Business people don’t like to admit this, and often tout their business’s foundations, charitable activities and the like. But those secondary non-profit-earning activities are just window dressing so that the real activities – the ones that make money – appear somehow more socially focused and responsible than they really are. Businesses make money. That’s what they do and that’s all I expect them to do. That’s why we need government, the counterweight to business that can rein in the self interest of business and eliminate the most egregious business practices like child labor, 100-hour mandatory work weeks (without overtime or benefits), workplace safety laws, and on and on. It’s why Republicans harp so much on getting rid of government. Do you think businesses would be doing any of those things if they didn’t have to?

Our president’s bio tells us that he graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Its recent mission statement reads, in part, that the school “was forged by founder Joseph Wharton, who had a vision for a business school that focused on rigorous analysis, actionable knowledge, and responsible leadership.” It goes on to state that “Wharton’s reputation as “the finance school” is well earned. The rigorous and relevant data analysis that drives Wharton Finance is true of the entire School (their capitals, not mine). Wharton analytics fuels (their grammatical error, not mine) data-driven decision making, helping you to become a visionary and pragmatic business leader in any career you choose. I spent more time than I planned to trying to figure out Wharton’s overall undergraduate cost, although annual tuition alone is $49,000 and change. The much-ballyhooed MBA program, for the first year, costs $109,450, which includes tuition and fees at $76,580 and $22,450 for room and board. Veterans get a break on the $2,000 application fee. There are a number of areas of concentration listed, among them finance, accounting, behavioral economics, marketing and real estate, to name a few. The Social Impact and Responsibility concentration, followed by an asterisk, is a secondary concentration (meaning you have to study something more “business-oriented” as a primary area of study). Enough of that.

So what would your options be if you chose to study the humanities? Let’s take UC Berkeley, a California public university, as an example. Though I’m sorry to say the humanities don’t have their own stand-alone department anymore, they still exist within the Arts and Humanities division. Among many other disciplines, you can study literature, art history, French, German, philosophy, the performing arts, archeology, Buddhist studies, and War Crimes Studies. And in-state tuition is $11,220 (still too high), not $76,580 like at Wharton. All the aspects of being human, past and present, are represented in the Division of the Humanities. The first page of one of Berkeley’s websites features an announcement of a meeting of the “World’s next generation of human rights investigators,” a reminder that admission is free to the botanical gardens on the first Wednesday of the month, and a lecture on folk textiles of Japan. There’s not a course on making money or acquiring and growing wealth. There’s also, interestingly, a quote by 1960s activist Mario Savio, of all things, who says in the quote, that “…the issue at Berkeley was student free speech.” Savio’s famous 1964 speech on the steps of Sproul Hall is timeless, and encapsulates the need for citizens to recognize when the government goes off the rails and turns away from the greater good. He said, in part, “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

Now if you were going to create a hypothetical U.S. President out of whole cloth, who would you rather have? Someone who spent a lifetime learning how to beat the competition and make a buck, or someone schooled in the art of being (and understanding what it means to be) human?

U.S. presidents have brought all kinds of backgrounds to the job – generals, lawmakers, and business persons among them. But Trump has raised this narrow, really parochial, business outlook to new heights as he has chosen one businessperson after another for his cabinet. The interests of business permeate everything he does. A quote from his website reads “What separates the winners from the losers is how a person reacts to each new twist of fate.” The uncertainty of unexpected events is even described in business terms.  In Trump’s world there are winners and losers, and losers don’t count for much. I could go out on a limb here and speculate that Trump probably even thinks that all poor people are losers. He has no interest in helping the poor overcome their difficulties or providing the opportunity and means they need to pull themselves out of poverty. He’s gone so far as to sharply limit the federal food stamp program in the Department of Agriculture, its cost so negligible that it barely registers on the U.S. budget’s bottom line. The U.S. Census reports that the rate of children living with married parents who receive food stamps has doubled since pre-recession 2007. Today an estimated 16 million American children, about one in five, receives food stamp assistance. How does he expect hungry children to learn anything? Would a humanities student educated in the responsibilities of government, knowledgeable about the crippling effects of poverty, support this move? I think not. What about health care? Would a broadly educated citizen attuned to the critical need for healthcare be less inclined to view it as just one more entry in a profit and loss ledger, and more inclined to consider it more broadly as an essential component of the greater good? I think so.

I get that there are more technical job opportunities for young people in this day and age. I understand why students so inclined need to prepare for those business opportunities. But I’m sick to death of hearing that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is the be-all and end-all of twenty first century education. The value of learning to be a responsible and effective citizen is something that past presidents have nearly all recognized. Unlike the alarming man-on-the-street interviews that TV likes so much, where people don’t know who the vice president is, how many justices there are on the U.S. Supreme Court, or who their elected representatives are, there may in the future be more people around who know the answers to, and understand, those questions. A citizen unschooled in the history and institutions of his or her government is easily swayed by the TV-friendly, bombastic words of a dictator – someone like Donald Trump. An informed, logical citizen would be less likely to believe false claims, obvious ploys to obscure the truth (while secret meetings on the healthcare bill and the budget go unmentioned), and other untruths that undermine our government and ultimately democracy itself. The government is all we have between us and the insatiable greed and acquisitiveness of corporations and the richest among us. We should all know more about it.

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