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Monday, February 26, 2024

Column: The new philistinism

Recently, after admitting to having earned a bachelor’s degree in English, Mitt Romney waxed pontifical on the wisdom of studying literature: “As an English major, your options are, uh, you better go to graduate school, all right? And find a job from there. You really don’t want to take out $150,000 loan to go into English because you’re not going to be able to pay it back. You might want to think about something else that meets your interest.”
I agree that nobody should take out a student loan if they can help it (they rarely can), and I’ll also concede that English majors aren’t as highly sought after by employers as nursing or mechanical engineering majors, but I think Romney and English’s countless detractors are missing the point.
Majors like English, philosophy or history are valuable, not in spite of the fact that they are far-removed from immediate practical application, but because of it. As Alan Liu and others have argued, the humanities’ withdrawal from present professional concerns allows it to act as a kind of storage mechanism, analyzing and archiving seemingly useless documents of the past that would otherwise be obliterated. Without the training required to read and understand it, our record of historical experience would disappear along with our critical understanding of the present.

We can see this in a very real, material way in publishing. How many presses would go out of business and how many books would cease print if universities did not create a constant demand for them? Modernist scholar Lawrence Rainey is correct in suggesting that college is the new patronage system for daring, experimental literature. Though it’s certainly true that many authors hold an ambivalent, if not hostile, relationship to the academy, humanities programs are critical in redistributing money to a chronically underfunded cultural sector.

Humanities departments therefore play a vital role in the artistic life-support system. But for people like Mitt Romney, anything without market value is utterly worthless — just ask a former Bain Capital employee. In the spirit of preserving past culture, and with no offense intended to the Iron Age people or their descendants, I think we should resurrect a long disused term for Romney: He is a philistine.

Goethe, an outmoded humanist, defined the philistine as one who “not only ignores all conditions of life which are not his own but also demands that the rest of mankind should fashion its mode of existence after his own.” Contracted into an impoverished present, unable to see beyond the horizons of his or her own situation, the philistine cannot imagine the other worlds and other systems of value that art and literature represent. While the opportunist and the cynic at least have scrap and strategic vision, the philistines are uninspired, utterly incapable of thinking outside whatever small con they’re running at the moment. From the philistine, we only get the interminable repetition of the same and a few self-satisfied anti-utopianisms.
While the term “philistinism” has been tarnished from naive and condescending misuse, there are ideological philistines from every class and background. Romney is a bourgeois philistine whose every comment presupposes that we share his outlook and privilege. He therefore imagines young people to be junior plutocrats running cost benefit analyses on their majors. If you already expect to lead an entire lifetime of luxury and culture, it is easy to forego a few years of curious inquiry and self-exploration to learn Excel spreadsheets.
And soon, even the sensible majors join the frivolous ones on the unemployment lines. Even professional labor is becoming increasingly automated and deskilled. When there are hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants for each remaining job, the English major at least has some good reads to show for her education.
But the philistines are winning. Because most humanists choose aesthetic over exchange value and because the capitalist state can no longer pay for more than its barbarism, humanities programs are slowly being liquidated. The university becomes job training for careers that won’t exist in four years and soon only the children of wealth will afford the chance to dabble in cultural studies.
While the humanities preserve oppositional energy and a critical distance by maintaining their autonomy from the rest of the capitalist economy, our alienation means that we have little say in the wasting of our profession. It should come as no surprise, then, that professors and graduate students are becoming radical and turning to direct action, as they should. Our training has taught us to see past the present crisis and to know there’s something on the other side.JORDAN S. CARROLL, who would also like to point out that a graduate education in English is not a fast track to a job, can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.


  1. Good column–English is an honorable and useful major and employers and grad schools know that the graduate can write and be analytical. English majors can always teach, attend law school, write professionally, etc… I think it’s one of the most ‘practical” of the liberal arts majors.


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