Pop Culture Has Turned Against the Liberal Arts
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.
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.
It, of course, wasn't always this way. Remember Indiana Jones? The title character, played by Harrison Ford in the prime of his alpha-male A-star days, is a professor of archeology. He got his love of academics from his father Henry Jones, a professor of medieval literature. It is these two men's fluency in liberal arts—that and the younger's proficiency with a bull-whip, a revolver, and his fists—that qualify them to travel the globe and battle Nazis while searching for long-lost archeological treasures. If those films were released today, I wonder if some Hollywood producer would insist that the Jones boys be changed from professors to executives at a private treasure-salvaging company. The idea that liberal-arts lovers can be heroes seems even more antiquated than the artifacts the Jones' are after.
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. While this mockumentary about the white-collar employees of a paper company in Scranton, Penn., has seen better days, I've always harbored a secret wish that the show would conclude with Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) and Pam Beasley (Jenna Fishcer) leaving the Dunder Mifflin paper company to pursue more creative endeavors.
Bear with me here. During the course of its nine-season run, The Office has had several central storylines: the incompetence of corporate management, the awkwardness bred by forced socialization in workplaces, the growing irrelevance of paper. But the most poignant storyline of all has been the plight of Jim and Pam, two intelligent individuals who every day are faced with the dreary realities of working in a corporate office. Watching these characters struggle with the soul-crushing ennui induced by nine-to-five workdays in jobs that are not intellectually challenging is what I'll remember most about The Office. Their frustrations have been equal parts humorous and heartfelt. Neither seems capable of escaping from the rut of Dunder Mifflin, though the audience knows that they each have the potential to do so much more with their lives.
And both characters have, yes, shown an interest in liberal arts. Pam is an artist, but even though she briefly flirts with becoming a graphic designer—the corporate world's idea of art—she ends up becoming a paper salesman like virtually every other employee in the office. Jim is also a salesman—I don't think it's ever mentioned what he studied in college—but there have been moments in the show where Jim has shown an affinity for books and less-corporate pursuits. He certainly never expresses the business ambitions that Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak) or Michael Scott (Steve Carell) have demonstrated during the course of the show. Jim seems like he'd be more at ease in a high-school English classroom than an office.
But last week's premiere of The Office's final season quashed my hopes. The episode implies that Jim plans to leave Dunder Mifflin to start a sports-marketing business with a friend from college. Pam doesn't seem to have any grand future plans and is more content to focus on raising the two children she and Jim have had. It's a sad turn of events. The world does not need another fictional hero like Jim venturing down the path of entrepreneurship. In some sense that path is consistent with the show's overall storyline, which has long implied that the modern office crushes entrepreneurial spirit, but I can't help but think that the show's creators would have been taking more of a creative risk—and making a bigger statement—if they opted to have their protagonists leave the business world entirely. Jim and Pam are this generation's Ross and Rachel, and because so many people can identify with the challenges of working in an office, I can't think of a more fitting ending to the show than to have them walk into the sunset to pursue passions that are about more than just the bottom line.