It is no secret that North American state, provincial, and federal governments view academic higher education as an economic tool. It is such a tool, I believe, and a powerful one at that. Besides breathtaking innovations in health and the sciences, and besides the training of most of our managerial, public service, and white-collar jobs, the four-year undergraduate degree–including all its inefficiencies and foibles–is a highly effective place for preparing students to engage in the workforce. There are lots of failures, and 10 to 1 plumbers will make more money than poets. But in North America, the University is a multi-trillion-dollar industry that remains one of our most powerful economy-shaping tools.
It is rare enough when politicians and bureaucrats recognize this fact, and rarer still when they truly understand the power of the University as social formation tool. Even when they do, the University often gets reduced to its sheer economic utility. In a 1967 stump speech for a room in the California governor’s mansion, Ronald Reagan argued that the “state should not subsidize intellectual curiosity.” You know, reading history for the sheer love of it. Or philology–what’s the point of all those old words? Or philosophy, a discipline that needs a good hard dose of reality if there ever was one.
And don’t let me get started on poetry. All those years of having bleary-eyed students take precious time from being the future accountants and statisticians and economists of the world, talking about paths dividing in woods and battered hearts and the quality of assonance in Eliot’s lyric….
Anyhow, that’s the mindset of much of the bureaucratic background of higher education, and is even becoming a dominant view from Presidents’ offices. I was a higher ed student for eighteen years, I have worked in government policy development, and I have taught in five institutions over fourteen years. This utilitarian viewpoint is real and present.
So, I must admit, that on this particular day, I took great pleasure in frustrating a good ole utilitarian.
We were working on some policy development, where I consistently pushed for a bigger vision of what it means to shape students for the future. There were the usual mixed motives in the room: people who benefited from a liberal arts education, people who did a job-track education like accountants, statisticians, and economists, and people who were trying to hold together public opinion and public good–usually things that are in conflict where we live. And, no doubt, there were people who just wanted to go to lunch and wished that we could get the job done.
“It’s all well and good that people want to take history or religious studies or English, but we’re paying half the bill and students have to find a way to pay off those student loans.”
It’s a common refrain. Anyone that has struggled to pay a student loan knows that it has a good amount of truth in it. Americans feel this heat more as governments contribute less, so the debt question is even hotter there. Still, it fails to understand the whole picture
I smiled to myself and pushed back–though I knew that I would ultimately lose this one.
As I was on the data team, I had the figures in front of me. I showed the lifetime earnings figures of graduates, a study on twenty-year discipline earnings, a report on recession resilience (we were recovering from a near-recession at the time), and our plans for population development. This had little effect on my number-crunching accountant-statistician-economist, who was clearly getting upset at this warm-hearted, dreamy-eyed nonsense. So, I reminded him that “we”–the government, the community, the people that pay us to argue about these issues–only pay 42% of the bill, and the economic spinoff of the University was such that was almost a 3:1 GDP return on investment. Knowing that using Denmark as an example would cause his colour to deepen from a frustrated pink to an angry crimson–any time you want to frustrate a Canadian bureaucrat, bring up Scandinavia–I instead asked him if he would like to hear the academic CVs of the University’s leadership, board, and seven-figure donors.
He wouldn’t like that, actually. My accountant-statistician-economist friend shot back with a student loan figure–quite accurately–and put his hands up with a “what are you going to do with guys like this?” kind of exasperated salute. One of my friends in the room who is sympathetic with my cause but much more practical, turned to me with a smile and asked:
“What is it that you are doing your PhD in, Brenton?”
Without a pause, I answered:
“Fantasy literature. It’s like studying poetry, but even less useful.”
There was a hearty chuckle at my self-deprecation, and the policy meeting moved on. Our government continues to support higher education at a level that would make many working-class students in the world heart-sick with longing. In particular, if you are a strong PEI student and work 15 hours a week, you can probably get a Bachelor degree–even in poetry–with no student debt. But our support is such that the University will slip away from its role as a place to explore ideas and think freely to a white-collar vocational institute–though one with a better pub and bigger library than most trade schools. The proof will be what happens when the poets, literary critics, philosophers, and historians in the faculty of Arts retire or move on. What they do with those faculty positions will be the statement of the University’s 21st-century heart.
It is a hard age for poets and lovers of literature–even as studies argue that readership of poetry among Millennials and Gen Z has doubled in the last few years, and there is evidence that the Harry Potter bounce in youth readership has settled into long-term trends. The irony of poetry and literature being under threat in Prince Edward Island is particularly pungent. Though we are in many measures the poorest province in Canada, a great deal of our economic strength comes because of L.M. Montgomery. Her Anne of Green Gables has captured the hearts of millions throughout the world, and tourists from all over travel to visit the land of Anne, this island of Lover’s Lanes and Rainbow Valleys and Lakes of Shining Waters. Tourism is PEI’s 2nd biggest industry, contributing 6.5% to the Island’s struggling economy. Anne is quite right that “PEI is the loveliest province” in “the finest country in the world” (Rainbow Valley, ch. 2), but there are many beautiful places on our globe. Thanks to Montgomery, little Prince Edward Island is on the map.
And, of course, L.M. Montgomery was a poet, publishing more than 500 poems in her lifetime. She is the perfect picture of someone who could have put her hand to a quite literal plough and supported her family and community in tangible ways. Instead, she took the risk to become a writer. It’s true that she was not anything as useless as a scholar of fantasy literature, but as a poet she was pretty close.
So I find it interesting to find in one of Anne’s books a surefire way of getting rid of poets–and presumably other people who get in the way of economic progress. In this case, Susan Baker–the stolid, dependable, no-nonsense and good-hearted manager of the Blythe household–is probably concerned with the moral failure of most poets. We all know how poets can be rascals. But her solution to Walter’s dreamy plans of being a poet could be one that we could try to cleanse the University of non-utilitarian students: an “emulsion of cod-liver oil.” The scene is the Blythe kitchen, where Anne, Susan, and Miss Cornelia are talking about the importance of good heart work–a clear picture of old fashioned Scotch-Presbyterian sensibilities at play. Anne’s children are, as usual, chasing fairies and fireflies in Rainbow Valley, between the Blythe house and the Presbyterian manse.
“Where is Walter?” asked Anne.
“He is up to no good, I fear, Mrs. Dr. dear,” [Susan answered]. He is in the attic writing something in an exercise book. And he has not done as well in arithmetic this term as he should, so the teacher tells me. Too well I know the reason why. He has been writing silly rhymes when he should have been doing his sums. I am afraid that boy is going to be a poet, Mrs. Dr. dear.”
“He is a poet now, Susan.”
“Well, you take it real calm, Mrs. Dr. dear. I suppose it is the best way, when a person has the strength. I had an uncle who began by being a poet and ended up by being a tramp. Our family were dreadfully ashamed of him.”
“Who does, Mrs. Dr. dear?” asked Susan in genuine astonishment.
“They tell me Milton could not get along with his wife, and Shakespeare was no more than respectable by times. As for the Bible, of course things were different in those sacred days—although I never had a high opinion of King David, say what you will. I never knew any good to come of writing poetry, and I hope and pray that blessed boy will outgrow the tendency. If he does not—we must see what emulsion of cod-liver oil will do.”
Fortunately, Susan’s cure fails to drive the poetic pulse from Walter’s heart. But the next novel, Rilla of Ingleside, is a stunning demonstration in a time of war of the powers of good poetry. And it may serve, a century later, as a warning of what a world of utility and technology and government looks like when stripped of its poetry and fairy tales.