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The humanities shall rise again, like Lazarus, or Nosferatu, thanks to native advertising

January 5, 2014 11:30AM ET
We've long heard about higher education's problems. Here's a solution.
Oliver Burston/Getty Images

ITHACA, N.Y., the Patent Office — Scarcely a day passes that we don’t hear about higher education’s “crisis in the humanities.” Or should I say, scarcely a decade. The first book by that title came out in 1964. Others followed, and the funeral procession has been swelling since, like some sort of Mardi Gras parade snaking lugubriously through the hallowed halls and middlebrow magazines of a nation in cultural mourning, while the corpse himself — a sprightly young assistant professor when he first clambered into the casket — leans and loafs, puffs on his pipe and scowls at the crowd, props himself on his elbows between fully recumbent sabbaticals and carries on lecturing.

The problem, you see, is low enrollments. Well, the real problem is professors failing to make the humanities matter to new generations. Actually, it’s budget cuts. Hold on, the problem is minorities, feminists and other vexatious types whose shrill resentments drown out the serene, humane inclusiveness of straight white men like Friedrich Nietzsche and Ezra Pound. The problem is jargon. No, the problem is that no one in a technocratic, modern economy believes any longer in liberal education on humanistic principles. Oh, hell, I don’t know what the problem is. I’ve been Googling all afternoon and still don’t have a definite answer. But who cares about problems, we’re Americans — what we want are solutions. Reader, I’ve got one, and hoo-boy, is it a doozy.

It makes absolutely no sense that liberal education should become an unsustainable extravagance — for individuals, for families, for the nation — at precisely the historical moment that information itself became free.

There is no reason, that is to say, that the best which has been thought and said, the sweetness and light of liberal learning, cannot be shipped to our nation’s staring citizenry on flashing, jingling, casino-like rafts of sponsored content.

I once floated on my back in the Bay of Naples with that city’s splendors ringing me, with Capri twinkling at one end of my sightline and Mount Vesuvius smoldering at the other. Was the grandeur of that ageless view in any way compromised by the Coke bottles and condom wrappers bobbing in my midst, the faint taste of petroleum in my mouth, the obscene remarks of fishermen trolling past, or the simmering wavelets of chronic diarrhea I suffered from that summer? Reader, I like to think it was not.

To those who argue that only the humanities can produce a “critically literate citizenry competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life,” J.M. Coetzee recently posed a challenge. Why not just teach the skill itself — critical literacy — through a couple of abbreviated courses, rather than demand it be arrived at through years of immersion in literature, philosophy and the arts?

What bananas. Like those perennial bores who argue that reading Shakespeare will help students in their future careers as hedge-fund managers or whatever, on the ridiculous grounds that “every workplace values great communicators,” Coetzee cheapens an elite brand with his talk of usefulness. When someone decants a bottle of Cristal into a plastic jug and begins discussing its nutritional value, it’s time to kick him out of your wine cellar.

A liberal education is the ultimate in long-form, prestige content. It is its own justification. Its integrity, radiance and timelessness must be preserved intact. Only in this way can it be optimized as a means of selling the attention spans of young people to advertisers. We can do this, people. Nay, we must: Our very heritage is at stake.

How would it work? Subtly, especially at first. Higher education can follow the lead of digital publishing and “go native,” seamlessly blending sponsored content with curricular content. An English professor, for example, needn’t awkwardly announce that “this Wallace Stevens poem was brought to you by our corporate sponsor.” She can simply tweak the poem’s refrain, as unobtrusively as possible:

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of Häagen-Dazs ice cream.

Stevens’ supple metric can handle it. Free verse ain’t free for nothing.

If such changes are carried out incrementally, chances are no one will even notice. And if they do, honestly, so what? Cultural critics as conservative as T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom agree that the canon is a living, changing thing.

Such “in-line” product placement — for all its limitless potential in the fields of history, literature, film and visual studies (and other content-rich disciplines) — is not the only means of monetizing the growth of the mind. With the advent of “smart,” electronically interactive classrooms, and the steady replacement of textbooks and notebooks with Kindles and iPads, the dream of a pedagogy rooted in advertising can become a reality. A lecture on the Founders’ dreams of freedom, or black slaves’ deferred realization of it, could be whipped up into a veritable word cloud of promotional possibilities.

Great thinkers from John Locke to Alan Dershowitz have helped to produce our modern notion of the university as a “marketplace of ideas” — but who, in a free society, is to say what qualifies as an “idea”? Who, in the digital age, can say definitively where the domain of “ideas” ends and the realm of “stuff” begins? Alternately, let us concede, for the sake of argument, that Kant’s categorical imperative is an idea of manifestly greater weight than a single mother’s secret trick for slimming flabby arms. Can we not leave it to our students to make this discrimination themselves? To have professors and administrators decide this for them — isn’t that flirting with totalitarianism?

Knowledge acquisition and material consumption are both fundamentally erotic. I’m convinced that if you attached brain-imaging helmets and genital sensors to shoppers at Barneys and museumgoers at MoMA, you’d see pretty much the same color patterns. With those patterns in mind, reader, visualize 500 young people listening to a spellbinding lecture on German Romantic painting. What happens to all that arousal when the bell rings and it’s time for recess? In about half of them, it simply dissipates. They deflate like balloons, buzzing around the lobby and bumping into one another. The other half walk in a zombie-like trance state to their dorm rooms, where they smoke dope or begin copulating. In all of them, though, the moment is wasted, channeled as it isn’t into boosting the economy and saving the humanities.

Imagine instead that the university has provided ad agencies with the art history professor’s syllabus and course enrollment information. These agencies would then have the digital identities (the email addresses, mobile numbers, Facebook and Twitter accounts, etc.) of 500 young people who had spent 53 minutes of a given day turning rapt, rapturous attention to Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.” If those kids’ meditations on the Romantic Sublime can’t be parlayed into a purchase from Lands’ End’s winter catalog, then I don’t know humanity, or the humanities for that matter.

Forbes magazine some time ago began hosting searchable, storified promotional content on its website as a way of steering traffic to itself. After a lot of hand-wringing and public soul-searching — all of it rather brand-enhancing in its own right — The New York Times announced its decision to do the same. Such stories look and feel like “native” in-house productions, in the same way that quicksand looks like regular dirt.

University course catalogs can do the same. A course on “the contemporary avant-garde” seemingly offered by the comparative literature department will turn out to be a series of weekly promotional events staged by Amazon’s publishing arm. The “cultural studies graduate seminar” on the cult of domestic efficiency from postwar America to the present is actually a sort of semester-long infomercial on the “Slap Chop,” hosted by Vince Offer.

Faculty who are denied tenure can become “liberal arts consultants,” with partial or total third-party endowment for their salaries, and still offer their usual courses, albeit with a richer infusion of sponsored content.

Parents have the option — at any point in the course of their children’s progress toward a degree — of upgrading them to Premium Bachelors™, a traditional educational experience. Students paying Premium Bachelors tuition are provided with un-supplemented course catalogs and unaltered textbooks. They receive no text alerts or pop-up ads on their phones or tablets during lectures, and their social media coordinates are not harvested in real time by the university’s marketing and communications arm. Any credits previously accrued through sponsored courses are retroactively subtracted.

Upon graduating, Premium Bachelors receive a tasteful but unmistakable star on their gowns, mortarboards and degree certificates, and next to their post-nominal degree letters, signaling to their parents, parents’ friends, future employers and indeed the world at large that they had received a superior, ad-free education; one, that is, untainted by the vulgar and pernicious logic of branding. Not, you know, that there’s anything wrong with that. 

Curtis Brown is a writer based in Montreal. His work has appeared in Bidoun and the Beirut Daily Star.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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