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AUGUST 15, 2011 2:48PM

During tough times, humanities are a luxury

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            My generation has always befuddled my grandfather.

            He was a child of the depression, working on a failing farm in Iowa as far back as he could remember. Up at dawn to milk the cows, straight to bed after supper. His parents struggled to fill his dinner plate and stretched to buy a new pair of shoes when his were outgrown. He’d fall asleep to whispers in the next room, always about money, food, how to stretch those ends a little further to make them meet.

His senior year, he won a scholarship to go to college. After he got his degree, he settled down into a drafting job for something like 30 years. He never really loved his job. He never hated it either; it was just what he did to pay the bills. That’s what a job was for.

            So you can imagine how odd he found it when all three of his grandchildren chose degrees in the humanities, studying poetry and theater with very little prospect of ever making money in those fields.

            Around the time my siblings and I graduated high school, though, the economy looked darn near invincible, and we felt like we could do anything. College was for exploring our passions, trying new things. Choosing a major was not so much a move to secure a career (poetry and theater, remember?) as it was a construction of identity. I am poet, hear me roar.

            In a way, I guess we felt pretty entitled. Yes, I knew I would never make as much money in the humanities as I would in say, engineering. There were a lot of jokes in my circle about how we’d all end up living in cardboard boxes. But in all those jokes, there was still the assumption that, inside that box, we’d still be writing poetry all day. It was an odd point of pride to claim the term “starving artist” as one’s planned career of choice. We all felt we deserved to have careers doing what we really loved.

To say that we were naïve idealists would be a huge understatement.

            But now it’s looking like the economy might snap some of us out of our bordering-on-stupid brand of optimism. A Gallup poll earlier this year showed that fewer than half of people in our generation believe we’re going to have a better life than our parents.

With pessimism like that, you might do something like, well, not majoring in poetry. These days, students are picking majors that’ll help them get jobs, not explore a passion. Our time for passion has passed. Picking poetry is probably a one-way ticket back to our parents’ basement, saddled with $40,000 in debt. (This is a way less romantic-sounding situation than the cardboard-box-dwelling artist’s.)

            For Grandpa, this was always obvious. When he was young, you didn’t choose or lose a job (as I’ve done many times) based on whether or not you “really loved it.” You’d choose or lose a job based on whether it paid enough for you and your family to get by. And then you stuck with what he calls “honest work,” because you needed the security a steady paycheck brings.

            Let’s face it as honestly as we can: When times are tough, humanities are a luxury, usually better relegated to the realm of hobby than career path.  

            But to bring just a smidge of that optimism back in, I will say this: Grandpa still got to be an artist—just not from nine to five. But that still left evenings and weekends. Now that he’s retired, he shows his watercolor paintings in local galleries and art shows.

So what if he never loved his job? It paid for his paint.

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There are only two things you can do in life: what you were put here to do - or not. One's identity does not change with the economic tides. We're all appalled when we read of the forced labor of the Soviet gulag and yet we praise it as "practical" here in our own society.

The "luxury" that needs to end is that of letting the rule of money reign over our lives.
Yeah, amymh2011, I totally agree with you. I'm like your walking example, actually, that a freshman in college has no clue about what they'd really like to do. I think a big part of that problem is that our school system doesn't really prepare us for the working world b/c it is academically-driven, not so much apprenticeship-driven (for lack of a better word). So while you might (as I did) really enjoy your journalism classes, you might hate (again, me) your journalism internship, which you took your senior year, just as you were about to graduate. People do figure out what they really want to do through job experience, not in college classes, in my opinion, anyway.
Interesting thoughts, Alex. I think the work environment has so changed from 50 years ago or 25 years ago…that it is very hard to compare. My degree was in Fine Arts (studio arts). A very impractical degree. I did not earn a living doing something I loved until I was 42 years old. I'm glad my mom has lived long enough to see her investment in my education pay off! I read a book in my late 30s called "Do what you love and the money will follow." There was some truth in that. But there is some truth in what you say as well.
I'm glad you added a note of optimism at the end. Earning a good living in the humanities is a long shot, but our society really does need historians, philosophers, language experts, religion experts, musicians, poets, and so forth. And everyone needs at least some background in the humanities, if only to make sense of the world.
You are a very good sport about today's grim realities. And your grandfather sounds like a solid role model, under the circumstances.
This is really good, thank you.