Andrew Delbanco’s view in a recent Huffington Post essay is “Yes”, at least to some indeterminate degree, though I admit that the title of his post “A Modest Proposal” gave me some pause given its Swiftian connotations:
Correlation is not cause, and it’s impossible to prove a causal relation between what students study in college and how they behave in their post-college lives. But many of us who still teach the humanities believe that a liberal education can strengthen one’s sense of solidarity with other human beings — a prerequisite for living generously toward others. One of the striking discoveries to be gained from an education that includes some knowledge of the past is that certain fundamental questions persist over time and require every generation to answer them for itself.
This is consonant with Delbanco’s thesis–expressed in his book College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be–that education in college used to be about the education of the whole person but has gradually been emptied of the moral content of its originally religious more broadly civic vision, and the preprofessional and pecuniary imagination has become the dominant if not the sole rationale for pursuing an education. I am viscerally attracted to this kind of argument, so I offer a little critique rather than cheerleading. First, while I do think its the case that an education firmly rooted in the humanities can provide for the kinds of deep moral reflection that forestalls a purely instrumentalist view of our fellow citizens–or should I say consumers–it’s also very evidently the case that people with a deep commitment to the arts and humanities descend into moral corruption as easily as anyone else. The deeply felt anti-semitism of the dominant modernists would be one example, and the genteel and not so genteel racism of the Southern Agrarians would be another. When Adorno said that there was no poetry after Auschwitz, he was only partly suggesting that the crimes of the 20th century were beyond the redemption of literature; he also meant more broadly that the dream that literature and culture could save us was itself a symptom of our illness, not a solution to it. Delbanco might be too subject to this particular dream, I think.
Secondly, I think that this analysis runs close to blaming college students for not majoring in or studying more in the humanities and is a little bit akin to blaming the victim–these young people have inherited the world we’ve given them, and we would do well to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what kind of culture we’ve put in place that would make the frantic pursuit of economic gain in the putative name of economic security a sine qua non in the moral and imaginative lives of our children.
That having been said. Yes, I do think the world–including the world of Wall Street–would be better if students took the time to read Billy Budd or Beloved, wedging it in somewhere between the work study jobs, appointments with debt counselors, and multiple extracurriculars and leadership conferences that are now a prerequisite for a job after college.