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Commodify the Classics!


Older denizens who came of age when the groves of academe blossomed now worry they will soon look upon bare, ruined choirs. The assumptions we long held about higher education have one by one withered and died. This is particularly true in the liberal arts, where class enrollments hemorrhage as quickly as tenure lines atrophy, funds for travel and research evaporate while salaries stagnate, and the two growth sectors are those of adjuncts and bureaucrats, both of whom are equally divorced from the traditional work of research and teaching.

Humanities professors have come to believe that we have no one to blame but ourselves. (Shouldn’t we have known better than pursue a career in teaching the liberal arts?) But is this, in fact, true? Or is it not, rather, that we have been taught that teaching the humanities is not meant for profit?

This is the title, it so happens, of a recent book by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. In Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, she worries that a model of higher education based on profitability will produce “a greedy obtuseness and a technically trained docility that threaten the very life of democracy itself.” Some of my more caustic colleagues might characterize this as a question only someone who (like Professor Nussbaum) teaches in several departments at an elite institution like the University of Chicago can really afford to ask.

But I, for one, wonder if the sports bar near the large public university where I teach offers a different response to Nussbaum’s affirmation.

I happened to be grading papers there during our most recent bout of March Madness. As the games came and went, my original bracket grew as divorced from reality as my original syllabi always drift from the realities of the semester. But as I swiveled my head from one huge flat screen to the next, watching replays of dunks follow replays of commercials, the two worlds began to merge. I gazed at players who were wearing the same apparel and using the same tools of the trade that the commercials were hawking, invariably with the NCAA’s seal of approval. Unable to distinguish any longer between commercial breaks and fast breaks, I had something of an IPA-phanie.

Product placement, as we know, has worked wonders for the coffers of the NCAA and university sports programs (but not for the bank accounts of student athletes, who, of course, are happy to play solely for love of the game). Though the NCAA has made it difficult to know how much it earns from these deals, conservative estimates begin in the billions. From wearing Nike caps and drinking from Gatorade cups, to watching two-legged Reese peanut butter cups work up the crowd and the MVP climbing a Werner stepladder to cut down the net, the NCAA has, through the genius of transforming players into sandwich-boards, monetized nearly every nook and cranny of the game. (The net and the scissors, as far as I can tell, do not yet have official sponsors.)

Why can’t we do the same for the humanities? Rather than mock or criticize the commercialization of sports, which is our wont, let us instead emulate it.

Here, then, is a modest proposal. Take the auditorium, rather like the one where I lecture on the “great books” from time to time. Rather than conceive of the seating arrangements for purposes of taking attendance, let’s do so with an eye for taking a share of the proceeds. Like a football stadium or basketball arena, seats should be priced according to their proximity to the action.

Does this mean we will charge a premium price for the front rows? Not at all: in general, the least sought after seats will be those closest to the lecturer’s glistening forehead and scuffed shoes. Instead, the most sought after seats will still undoubtedly be those in the imaginary skyboxes at the rear of the hall where students most like to snooze or surf. Just like real skyboxes, where the game is an afterthought, ticket holders for these seats have not come to see, but merely to be seen by the teaching assistant taking attendance.

As for those luxury rows in Purgatory Class, further down but not yet in the professor’s infernal orbit, why not increase their legroom and add headrests? And let’s supply them with cup holders for the energy drinks and lattés that will be sold by teaching assistants—or, let’s call them “humanistas”—at the door.

While the students settle in with the frothy mugs of mead—Beowulf is today’s text—the large screen behind the lecture stand will flash friendly requests to put mobile phones on lecture-mode and helpful reminders that podcasts of the lecture will be available for purchase that same evening. Against the backdrop of Titian’s “School of Athens”—but one with Plato pointing to a can of Coke Classic, and Aristotle pointing to a can of Pepsi—there will also be previews of upcoming lectures, accompanied by mighty, though scripted, clashes on HumanitiesCentral between the show’s resident realist and romantic.

And let us not forget highlights of the week’s Phantasy Philosopher match-up, for example with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche facing off on the meaning of their great shocks of hair. (“Isn’t this much ado about nothing, Fred?” “Isn’t that precisely the point, Art?”)

The professor will eventually step onto stage, decked in a Rate Your Professor baseball cap—a hot red chili pepper emblazoned over the visor—and Kaplan GRE Study Center sweater, which he takes off halfway through the lecture to reveal a Term Papers to Go shirt, emblazoned with telephone number and the logo that declares, “Endnotes Are Only the Beginning.”

Swishing a bottle of San Pelligrino, the professor will punctuate his lecture with reminders of the three-credit, fourteen-day, five-star hotel trip to Italy he will be leading next summer. As the lecture fades to an end, the strains of Nino Rota’s theme song will filter from the sound system. Puffing out his cheeks à la Don Corelone, the professor will look at the skyboxes to the rear, while the “humanistas” pass out loan applications, and he’ll tell the students in his very best Brando that this is an offer they can’t refuse.

Perhaps, before long, this will be a scenario that we professors can’t afford to refuse, either.