Higher Education and the State of Public Humanities

Big Bird was almost executed in the last election, and his stay of execution was a relief to progressives and liberals.

An email exchange with a colleague reminded me about using Sesame Street in a class activity for teaching about the “death of the humanities.” Introduction to Humanities that semester focused on public humanities and the democratization of the humanities through new technology. New technology meant writing, the printing press, up to the internet, of course. Maybe students would feel empowered if they could connect “great art” or “high art” to DIY art [we watched performing arts fundraiser Ben Cameron’s Ted Talk for this]. By seeing how wealth and class stratification deprives access to art, maybe they could also understand the revolutionary significance of museums. Maybe they could have realized that they too could define, criticize (in more than a “glandular” way), and theorize about art, the humanities, and politics if they understood public humanities.

I was wrong. The instrumentalist corporate mentality has won the day.

Some of the modules were neat, though. For a section on reading icons and symbols, I put together images of crosses from early Christianity, through the Renaissance and Reformation, to Piss Christ and the KKK. Those images had a visceral impact on students, but maybe it was just for the showmanship.

Later, I cut up pennies to talk about taxes funding the NEH. I passed out the pieces and asked students how many would give their piece to fund public humanities. No one, not one student, would give their mangled penny, not even for Sesame Street. One student explained that Dora the Explorer provided an adequate alternative. Students could not articulate the critical differences between Dora and Big Bird, much less explain the political and educational differences between the two shows or argue why one was better than the other. All they could say was they “liked” Dora better so why pay for Big Bird.

Big Bird was such a touchstone during the recent presidential election. Whether this translates into significant changes in policy, funding, education, or aesthetics remains to be seen. It’s good that Big Bird “didn’t get his neck wrung,” however. Students educated under the banner of “how does this get me a job” will elect officials who will defund Big Bird, even though it might not happen this cycle. Why should we pay for PBS if we get YouTube for free? Unfortunately, YouTube is actually quite costly, and the hidden costs and politics of doing business are going to bite us in the ass if we ignore them.

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