American culture is facing a crossroads. The brutally capitalist economic state that exists in this country is pushing our culture to a breaking point wherein common values are destroyed and profit is all that is left. As it expands, more parts of society are commodified, and those unable to keep up are left behind and ridiculed in the public eye. In no place is this felt greater than in higher education. The decline of arts, social studies and many other staples of rich culture is the result of their lack of commodification, which is the most dangerous form of anti-intellectualism in America: “unreflective instrumentalism”.
This form of anti-intellectualism has infected many facets of modern society, most notably educational institutions. Colleges are becoming more influenced by the values of industry in terms of the staff they employ, the skills prioritized for students and even their goals of institutional economic contribution in the case of some public universities. The prioritization of economic output has led to STEM and business fields becoming increasingly popular and well-funded, often to the detriment of their arts and humanities counterparts. This view has been reflected in common culture, with stereotypes of arts and humanities majors being frivolous and fiscally irresponsible. Yet, this view fails to take into account the cultural death it is rushing towards and the value of education outside of profit motivations.
The devaluation of thought which does not directly equate to capital gain is a result of the brutal economic survival of the fittest system here in America. The constant risk of not making ends meet requires people to make choices for security and ignore that which has intrinsic value, which is often not something profitable. It is this unspecific, specialized and profit-driven work that leads to Americans feeling alienation from one of the most important parts of their lives.
The value of an education in the humanities also presents itself in the functioning of society as a whole. The direction of our technological power will not be driven by the engineers who made it. The bombs our military uses, the social media that rips away our time and the algorithms scanning our data are only as harmful as people allow them to be. If people at the helm aren’t educated in the social and ethical implications of our great technological power, this will only hurt people at home and abroad.
The democracy we live in and value so much is also jeopardized by the devaluation of thought. The ability of the citizen to reason, understand policy, make informed choices and ultimately elect leaders seeking the common good is only possible if a liberal education is emphasized. This nation claims to value the democratic ideas of freedom and civic responsibility; however, these can only be achieved through education and not through any type of vocational-specific training. The more we allow people to lack in their communicaton abilities and become less educated in the political world, the more we allow polarization to divide and paralyze this nation. It is no overstatement to say that our ability as a nation to respond to crises is defined by our ability to connect and come together, which is only possible through an education that acknowledges the value of communication and common values.
As students, we see this problem play out in our daily lives here at the University of Connecticut. I’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have too, that so many people are choosing their majors and potential workplaces solely based on salary. Now this is not at all to put down anybody in this situation, but it does raise the question of how many of us would do something different if we didn’t face the pressure of making ends meet. These alternate pursuits have such incredible value that are put down by the fact that they do not align with the capitalist economic system, and it is a constraint we must undo for ourselves and the rich culture we all enjoy.