In Defense of Nonsense

An academic scandal is afoot. Heedless of economic turmoil and a vortex of national spending, American college students continue to borrow a staggering amount of government-subsidized loans. Making matters worse, these students dump this funding not in profitable coursework like business or accounting, medicine or science, but in studying transvestite drama queens, lewd comedies, and graphic violence. In some courses, they even memorize adulterous, homoerotic love poetry! As nauseating as it might sound—students across the country rack up a life time of debt to take courses in…Shakespeare.

Whatever will our nation do to stem the tide of decadence and brainrot?

I am, of course, being satiric (but only partially so in my description of a typical Shakespeare class). I don’t know many people who cry foul when our students read Shakespeare, but it’s a different story when the description above applies to modern art. Many of us fret over the idea that colleges teach our children nonsense coming from our popular culture despite being perfectly fine with teaching nonsense from our past. Thus the problem is not that we teach nonsense in colleges but that too many people in our society lack appreciation for a broader range of nonsense.

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Discussion of academic absurdities usually arises late in the summer. As parents send their freshman off to the dorms, news outlets like to scandalize them by listing some of the more fantastical or suspicious-sounding course titles being offered. Fred Lucas of CNSNews  jumped the gun a little early this year in order to respond to President Obama’s recent attempt to win back the college-vote in the upcoming election. The target of Lucas’s attention was University of Colorado, a school whose Women and Gender Studies program includes a course on “Disney’s Women and Girls,” and where the full cost for an on-campus in-state student this year was $26,877.

The article observes that President Obama had just delivered a speech at the University lamenting how the costs of education are spiraling out of control. Lucas knows his audience, though. He does not outright condemn courses on Disney characters, or the government loans that enable them to exist. Instead, Lucas not-so-subtly nudges his reader towards a conjecture that cultural centers and experimental courses contribute to high tuition: “Obama did not address any causes for the increasing costs, or the question of whether a school’s allocation of resources to courses and programs is a factor.”

The reader comments that follow the article make the connection easily enough, and it’s really the comments that concern me the most.

Pseudonymous user “blurredtruth” writes:

“This institutions [sic] need a reality check…funding this time [sic] of nonsense?”

Shortly thereafter comes this little chestnut from someone going by the designation “Reardon:”

“What are you to do to support yourself with a degree in ‘Women and Gender Studies’?  Sounds like a deep in debt burger-flipper to me.”

And one more for good measure by “jtrollla:”

College is mostly a joke and/or fraud. Those of us who were alive before the current Phanerozoic Eon remember when colleges were for people who desired to further their education and be challenged intellectually. College was not for everybody and there was no stigma attached to those who went to work or the military. Too many college courses are now playskool sessions…

On the one hand, I completely understand the concern that university educations can be financially bad investments. Courses in Disney films, Star Trek languages, Harry Potter novels,  Joss Whedon scripts, and comic books are not likely to lead directly to a highly lucrative job that will pay off student loans any time soon. On the other hand, reasons do exist to justify such classes.

1. Courses on the popular are…well…popular

Courses such as “Disney’s Women and Girls” are a response to market demands. Whereas Lucas implies that a course in Disney is a silly waste of an investment, the fact is that students choose to enroll in such classes, often at the expense of more “productive” courses. If a student takes on over $100,000 in debt, then the school needs to provide courses that the student wants to take. Otherwise, the student will invest his or her loan at another institution.

As a teacher and an academic advisor, I know that many students sign up for these classes expecting them to be easy grades. They often aren’t; or, at least, they are no more or less likely to be an easy grade than a course with more traditional content. Even when these are “cake” classes, though, what alternative would we like to see? Should loans not be given to students attending schools with courses that aren’t directly related to worldly productivity? As someone who supports vouchers for elementary schools, I would hate to see a precedent set where the government refused academic aid on the basis of the cultural content of course offerings. Shouldn’t we let the market determine what is worth studying? It’s also notable that these courses can exist to serve general education requirements or students looking to take classes outside of their major. Perhaps a bachelor’s degree in Cartoon Studies from Acme U goes too far, but why begrudge a chemistry major the chance to spend a semester critically analyzing Snow White?

2. Intellectual challenges do not need to be serious to be rigorous

To make this point most clearly, one can turn to Saint Thomas More. His Utopia is learned, thoughtful, hilarious, and goofy. Most tellingly, he keeps his detractors on their toes through a self-deprecating humor that gets right to the heart of my argument. In Utopia, More relates a (fictional) encounter with a sailor who has been to the idyllic island paradise. That sailor’s name is Raphael Hythloday, a pun which Robert M. Adams “fantastically” translates as “God heals through nonsense of God.”

It would be easy to dismiss More’s fantasy about a make-believe island as dross. An island where everyone is perfectly happy, where virtue is always rewarded and vice always punished, and where foreigners willingly offer themselves as slaves because slavery in Utopia is better than freedom in their native lands? Puh-lease. It’s saccharine rubbish and little more than early modern wish-fulfillment. Or, at least, that’s precisely what More would have his detractors think. One must be the right kind of reader to appreciate Utopia; the wrong kind of reader would reject it as a mere toy.

I’m hardly making the claim that every (or any) example of modern popular entertainment is as clever or complex as More’s speculative fiction, but I am suggesting that we shouldn’t underestimate what looks simple. We easily dismiss something like Disney cartoons because we associate them with children’s entertainment. When we do so, we forget the countless hours that go into producing an animated film; we forget the long list of credits which consist of professionally-trained adults; we forget that behind every Disney cartoon or television show is a vast industrial machine of adult artists, adult marketing agents, adult producers, adult actors (sometimes), and adult writers…to say nothing of the material nature of publishing and distributing any given piece of entertainment, or the processes at work to mass-produce countless collectibles and licensed goods ancillary to the entertainment. Disney’s output looks simple by design—but if Disney simplifies reality, it has done so after the laborious work of a complex corporation. In Renaissance studies, we call this sprezzatura…and Disney sells it by the ton.

More significantly, such “simplified” entertainments often serve as our children’s first introductions to morality and ideology. We should be as curious about the side-effects of consuming popular culture as we are about anything we would eat or feed our children. Even when nonsense is “bad,” that doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to it intellectually.

Recently, Donald DeMarco wrote in a Crisis column:

I do not enjoy the wooden heroes who appear on the pages of Ayn Rand’s novels. More than that, however, I would be gravely irresponsible if I were to introduce her fictional characters that pretend to be models for living human beings to any of my youthful descendents.

Coincidentally, DeMarco compares Rand’s world to a Disney cartoon. I would suggest that the oversimplification of life that DeMarco believes makes Rand so dangerous makes her precisely worthy of academic study. The university classroom is designed to apply pressure on texts, to critique, to understand why they are successful and where they fail us. As a literary critic, I encourage my students to understand that it is not always a matter of what we read, but how we read. Those of faith can handle serpents…even of the rubbery, anthropomorphized variety. 

3. Popular courses are often a bait-and-switch

A course on the popular is often (pardon the proverbial Disney expression) the teaspoon of sugar which helps the medicine go down. To be honest, I loathe when teachers pander to students. Few things strike me as more pathetic than a professor trying to act like they “get it” when they don’t. That being said, when a teacher has a genuine intellectual curiosity about the popular, he or she can reach students in ways that other professors cannot. Even when a teacher is honest about their own distance from popular culture, the willingness to engage students on their terms can inspire students to reciprocate and become more receptive to advanced content.

We live in a culture steeped in expensive, immersive, highly affective media. Like it or not, our current crop of college students owe much of their imaginative capabilities to Mickey Mouse…much more than they do to any of the classical authors. Our youth’s minds develop in an amniotic fluid of cartoon princesses and singing animals. Shouldn’t they take a moment to reflect on the possible consequences of their own cultural consumption? Isn’t it wise to consider how modern modifications of ancient myths and fables alter our perspective of our world? C.S. Lewis, for one, lamented a modern prejudice against fantasy and fairy tale, which really only became kid’s stuff due to Victorian ideology. Before the infantilization of the fairy tale, it was a noble tradition that adults understood as embodying society’s most precious wisdom.

I’ve suggested that there is inherent value in helping students understand the world they are already in. But studying the popular has added value later in a student’s career. Once students have a surer footing in the familiar, they have a more stable climb to worlds beyond their own.

4. Universities should be more than technical institutes

The American higher education system has been suffering from a multiple-personality disorder as of late. Many assume that higher education is supposed to prepare one for a job—rendering it little more than a ritzy, residential technical institute. Universities were not meant to be vocational schools, at least not in the modern sense. Classically speaking, universities trained young men for futures that required well-developed minds—largely through lives of public service via the Church or State.

If one were planning on (or more likely destined for) a “real job,” he would pursue an apprenticeship where he learned the right way to hammer on an anvil or curve the letters of his italic. He lived more or less as a servant to his master, and (if I can overgeneralize) masters didn’t actively encourage apprentices to snoop too far into intellectual matters beyond their concern. When we disparage universities for not preparing our youth for productive careers, and when we attack schools asking questions about our culture that we don’t want asked, we are really saying that we want more people to adopt apprenticeships for their college years.

Maybe this is a good thing, after all. Even though an apprentice is more or less a slave during his training, he becomes a freeman after his apprenticeship is over. Today, we encourage our university students to be free thinkers, and then force them into financial bondage once they graduate. Something has indeed gone topsy-turvy. We seem to be living in a world of Swift’s fantasy rather than More’s.

So maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps Fred Lucas and his commentators are not so worried about the merits of experimental classes as they are worried about the high cost of experimental classes. Perhaps they would be perfectly fine with a world where we could have both the freedom of a university life and freedom from debt—a world where we could all afford to pay our own way through college and use those years as a time to contemplate the questions that matter most to us personally. But now I see that I really am talking nonsense.


  • Peter Freeman

    Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

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