Carnival barkers are the best at making suckers cough up cash they don’t have. Preying on the vulnerable and naïve is an art: it’s just not one that Arts professors have any business exploring.
In like my first or second year as a professor I was asked to spruce up the Arts Faculty recruitment slideshow, blow Business away at the upcoming post-secondary recruitment fair. They told me to jazz up those boring stats, show the kids that theory is where it’s at, can you dig it? As you can tell by the slides above, I clearly didn't.
Normally, for an evidence-based post-secondary institution, you’d expect rigour to support the claims made. As it turns out, not so much. When it comes to increasing enrollment, you can make any claim you want. Where on good earth did that list come from, and how long ago? How many of our own, actual, students have become, for instance, “Landscape Consultants”? Who are these students of ours who now gloriously circumnavigate the globe, eagle, arts-trained, eyes always on the lookout for chinch bugs and unevenly fertilized lawns? Was two, maybe three, decades of crushing debt worth investing in an education that qualified you for nothing and taught you the values of a world that no longer exists?
If any of my students had submitted that slideshow as a term paper, it wouldn’t fly. There is no acceptable evidence for any of the claims being made. The glibness of its rhetoric is disingenuous. You won’t work at Starbuck’s? I’ve seen my former students working at Starbuck’s; also at The Bean Scene, in menswear at The Bay, Value Village, Shopper’s Drug Mart, Petland and two different liquor stores. Starbuck’s is actually a pretty good job to get in a lot of small towns. Maybe, up until the 1980s, a university education was a good return on investment, one that prepared students for a society that still valued employees who knew a thing or two besides just work. But it’s not like that now. Tuition is exorbitant. Starting salaries are slight. Career jobs don’t really exist. If you can prove otherwise, show the evidence. Making unsubstantiated claims about the life-altering properties of a degree in order to get 18-year-olds, and their families, to part with a significant amount of money, is just snake oil mountebankery on an industrial scale.
Worse, it is no longer at all certain that an Arts degree has any value, practical or economic, in contemporary Canadian society. As an example, of an Arts education no longer mattering in practice the way it is taught in principle, consider how it comes to pass that a post-secondary institution, offering extensive Arts offerings, produces marketing material littered with claims for which it cannot provide evidence. If rigour and research mattered at all, either at the administrative or faculty level, documents like this could never have been drafted. If we really imagined our loyalty was to our students and their families, and not to our salaries and our pension, we’d be delivering a significantly more sobering picture of future prospects to potential Arts students.
As it turns out, the disdain for Enlightenment values doesn’t stop at disregarding research; it extends to the ethical autonomy of Faculty, too. There is what we teach in the classroom, inspiring lectures about the inherent universal value of the Enlightenment, the dignity of the individual. And then there is real life in Canada, where these things no long matter and the entire enlightenment project has been made subservient to the pursuit of wealth and the normalization of the corporate hierarchy which organizes it. Tenured professors these days are allowed to speak their mind with the lusty and full-throated independence of first-term liberal backbenchers. Whatever you believed before you were hired, you check it at the door. Get bums in seats; or, get out!-you bum.
Nightmare Alley--both the novel (1946) by William Lindsey Gresham and the film adaptation (1947)—is a story of a carnie psychic act where a two-person team reads the minds of a room using a complex, well-rehearsed system of signals and signs between them. They sell hope to people without any. In the end, the psychic—played by Tyrone Power, pretty much the one and only time 20th Century Fox let him play a baddie—falls from grace. We owe the word “geek” to Nightmare Alley. It was obscure lingo before Gresham made it famous. A geek is the circus freak who bites the heads clean off of live chickens. Nothing in the world is more debasing than that.
Except, I don’t know, man. Selling kids on a lifetime of despair because you’ve been told to and because you’ve come to enjoy the perks of your position is right up there. Standing at those recruitment booths, you sometimes get to wishing you’d chosen the chicken instead.
“Step right up and try your luck at an Arts degree!”
I still find it remarkable that the copyright to Nightmare Alley, the novel (1946), has passed to the same guy who owns the rights to the whole Narnia enterprise. Nightmare Alley is one of the creepiest film noirs of all time and the only one I know of where the hero ends up drunk in the dirt killing chickens with his teeth. Narnia is about a magical lion who thinks he’s Jesus Christ. Gresham was an alcoholic, nasty while drunk apparently, and this cost him his marriage. Gresham’s wife, Joy Davidman, a Jewish poet recently converted to Christianity, moved to England inspired by the religious writings of C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s spiritual guidance became a romantic relationship. As the subsequent marriage produced no children, Lewis’s estate has passed to Davidman’s two surviving children, from her marriage to Gresham.
For her portrayal of Davidman in the cinematic version of Shadowlands, a story about this romance, Debra Winger was nominated for an Academy Award in 1993. Nightmare Alley was nominated for no awards, but Tyrone Power nonetheless maintained that it was his favourite of all the films he made.
The Killers do C.S. Lewis? Ok, Edelwyn, you sold me.