Current Book: Louis Menand – American Studies
Last night I read “The Long Shadow of James B. Conant” an essay from the above mentioned book. I case you don’t know who Conant was (I didn’t), He served as Harvard university’s president from 1933 to ’59 and was intimately involved with the creation of two items that certainly had a great deal to do with shaping my consciousness: the atom bomb and the SAT. As fascinating as that info is what really caught my eye in the essay was Menand’s capsule history of US university ideology in the twentieth century. It’s notable for its weaving together of demographic and political explanations for the rise and fall of notions like meritocracy. All of this may seem pretty opaque but it touches on a private theory of mine regarding the rise of MFA programs and departments of arts practice within liberal arts institutions during the Seventies.
At mid century College education was being touted as a “unifying force” in american society; a way codify and pass on democratic values in a society without a central religion, and with atomizing family and class structures. This was the prevailing view for the postwar generation and colleges based their curriculum around inculcating the values that were felt to be necessary for future captains of industry and government. All of this made sense while the economy was expanding but by the early seventies the US was faced for the first time since the turn of the century with a generation of people who could not expect to have a higher standard of living than their parents had. How to stop them from tearing down the society in their frustration? Train them to be artists. Why? Because in the arts, people luxuriate in a split consciousness not found any where else in society.
By being involved in the arts in American today one is able to assert something for perhaps the the first time in western history: that what one does for a living is distinct from what one is. In other words, I’m working as a waiter, but I’m an Actor. The nature of this assertion made it possible for large numbers of people to make peace with their downward mobility because they had been offered something in exchange: a notion of self as separate and untouched by occupation. And so there rose an “artist lifestyle” that valorized living in discarded commercial spaces, wearing thrift shop clothes, working in food service jobs, etc, etc. Things that twenty years earlier would have been regarded as the mark of a hobo, not of a boho.
Today most colleges have some sort of arts major and can we say that we are better off? Do we have better art, music, theater? a better society? I’m the product of such a system and I can’t say that I don’t feel subtly duped in some way, like I’ve been handed a box of milk duds and pushed to the sidelines.
Take a look at the Menand’s essay, which offers other delights, such as a prose style I can only sigh after. It actually doesn’t assert any of the things that I have just put out here, but it does provide a very different way of thinking about the supposed “culture wars on American campuses”