Twenty-five years ago, when I would tell people I was studying History at University, I was met with, if not exactly a sneer, a scoff, and a shrug of the shoulders. Then, you could still make a decent living in careers like PR and advertising, or aspire for the civil services, post a liberal arts degree. Maybe I’m viewing the past with rose-tinted nostalgia, but learning for the sake of learning was still considered a beautiful thing. Unlike youth now, we weren’t conditioned to plan life moves Class 9 onwards; nor did our family members expect we choose degrees that would catapult us into corporate positions the second we graduated. Return on Investment (ROI) was an alien concept and ambling along without a plan was perfectly acceptable.
Needless to say, those days are long gone. I was reminded of that magical time, languid hours immersed in reading and thought, when I watched a campus drama, The Chair, on Netflix recently. A professor finds herself heading a floundering English department of an Ivy League university where enrolments have dipped because of their perceived (low) market value.
World over, there is dwindling interest in ‘soft’ subjects and a thrust on STEM, where it is assumed (correctly) that future earnings are. (A depressing aside, is the near complete absence of TV shows on academia, the shabby-genteel life of the mind doesn’t appeal to youthful imaginations. Aspirational millennials far prefer backstories of bankers and drug dealers, or other more lucrative professions—the literary classroom, alas, is not ambitious enough.)
No doubt, in a world beset by climate change, food shortages and inequality, it sounds embarrassingly self-indulgent to be focusing on, say, analysing the 14th century poet Chaucer, a big part of the coursework of an English Major. Certainly, it could be considered an elitist choice, if it wasn’t also true that many of the people choosing computer science and data analytics would probably opt for something else — if they had the financial freedom to broaden their interests instead of narrowing them. One must salute this generation’s hard-nosed practicality: bills need to be paid, first and foremost. More and more, there is a detached sort of acceptance when it comes to choosing careers: what doesn’t make money, isn’t worth pursuing.
The problem is that in the chase for security, people are embarking on paths that set them up for less fulfilling lives. This trend of relentless self-optimisation disregards our fundamental need (to paraphrase Marie Kondo) to feel occasional bursts of joy. What you enjoy doing now is far more important than betting on some distant payoff, which in all likelihood will turn out to be a miscalculation because most people have absolutely no idea what makes them happy. I see this pressure to be productive everywhere, even at my book club, which is largely a group of devoted fiction readers. Every couple of months someone will sanctimoniously suggest a book on cryptocurrencies, the aim, of course, being to improve our minds (and our options). But people are not machines. We are nourished by music and beauty, and silent contemplation, as much as we are by good food and drink.
The humanities primarily seek to broaden our understanding of the world. Philosophy begins in wonder, noted Aristotle centuries ago in The Metaphysics, when insights into human nature were gleaned from myths and poetic fables. Does inquiry ever end? Life’s bigger questions transcend time, nor do they ever lose relevance. The worth of interpreting Plato or Kant can never be measured in monetary terms — the benefit of clarity reveals itself slowly, and much later. We will always need the scholars who put the human experience in context, and continue asking questions of the world around us.
The writer is director, Hutkay Films