Remember when action heroes could be archaeology professors?
The liberal arts have gotten a bad rap lately—or, if you believe the cover line on the September 17 issue of The Weekly Standard, are dead. A mere month and a half before a presidential election, the conservative publication took time out of voicing support for Mitt Romney's business-minded ticket to have writer and retired lecturer Joseph Epstein lay out a paean to Epstein's own days first as a student and then as a teacher of liberal arts. In praising Andrew Delbanco's book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Epstein spends thousands of words arguing that a liberal arts education isn't what it used to be—though he provides little hard data to support this claim—before concluding that professors' willingness to politicize and expand core curricula is to blame. Whether or not you agree with the arguments presented, the tone is decidedly dour.
It looked for a while, though, like there might be hope for this generation to get its great liberal-arts pop champions—from, of all places, 'The Office'
What's fascinating, though, is the way that pop culture seems to be just as bearish on the liberal arts as The Weekly Standard is. Two new films offer their own slightly negative take on this academic field and the people who are drawn to it. Those movies, along with a slew of other works, contribute to the impression that the entertainment industry's on a professionalism kick, glorifying start-up CEOs and humanizing otherwise villainous corporate types while leaving its portrayals of the humanities decidedly one-dimensional.
The most recent offender is Liberal Arts, which was written and directed by television star Josh Radnor and opened on September 14. The main character Jesse (also played by Radnor) is a former liberal-arts student whose life is a mess. He works a boring, dead-end job as a college admissions counselor. His girlfriend has just left him. He doesn't even have the wherewithal to stop a random stranger from stealing his clothes at a public Laundromat. With nothing else to do, Jesse travels to his alma mater to attend the retirement dinner of his mentor Prof. Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) only to discover that the man that he has long admired is in bad shape as well. Hoberg is lost; he makes a big fuss about retiring before realizing that teaching is all he has and unsuccessfully begs to get his old job back. Jesse does find some solace in the company of undergraduate liberal arts major Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who makes her romantic feelings towards the much older Jesse quite obvious early on. The audience then gets to witness the travails of three characters whose stunted social skills and immature inclinations leave them ill-equipped to deal with life's problems. The film strongly implies that their common fascination with the subjects they study—their love of music, books, and intellectual thought—is partly to blame for their predicaments.
Hello I Must Be Going, a romantic dramedy starring Melanie Lynskey and Christopher Abbott, also opened this month. While the film is not overtly about the field of liberal arts, it nevertheless hints that this track of study is not adequate preparation for the real world. The protagonist Amy (Lynskey) is a former aspiring photographer who neglected completing her master's degree in order to marry a hot-shot New York entertainment lawyer. After her husband cheats on her and then asks for a divorce—at one point he tells her that he wanted to be with someone who was successful—Lynskey finds herself living with her parents in the same community she grew up in, too depressed to leave the house and lacking any sort of prospects. She bides the time by having an affair with 19-year-old actor Jeremy (Abbott) who secretly hates acting and aspires to write a novel. The backdrop of their romance is a rich Connecticut suburb filled with lawyers and investment bankers, making the misfit lovers' lack of regard for their future all the more pronounced. The pair has no interest in facing the question of what comes next until a turn of events forces them to confront what the rest of their lives will hold.
What gives? Why are so many works perpetuating the stereotype that liberal arts programs cater to Peter Pan boys and girls and sad-sack professors, none of whom have the emotional intelligence to deal with life's problems? Part of it could be recession-era scapegoating. And part of it is that the cultural heroes of the moment are largely start-up kings like Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobses who dropped out of college to pursue fortune. You can see similar strains of thought in Scott Gerber's recent Atlantic piece critiquing the liberal arts curriculum for inadequately preparing entrepreneurs.