The Declining Relevance of Cultural Institutions

In a viral essay, Richard Hanania asks Why is Everything Liberal?. He cites examples such as universities, schools, teachers, etc. being overwhelmingly liberal. But quantity is not the same size. Yes, the left has control of most of the cultural institutions, but the size and importance of those institutions relative to the overall economy and society, is possibly shrinking, in part due to fragmentation and the rise of alternative media such as on YouTube, as I discuss in the post The Declining Relevance of the Mainstream Media. The mainstream media, especially cable media, has pitifully low ratings and fandom compared to entrepreneurs such as Bezos and Musk and compared to major social media personalities such as Joe Rogan, Pew Die Pie, and Tim Pool.

Humanities departments operate on a shoestring budget, and existing programs face budget cuts or being phased out altogether, whereas STEM departments are not only inundated with applicants but also loaded with cash:

University of Montana’s College of Humanities and Sciences faculty are criticizing a $2.6 million budget cut proposal, noting that the cuts would cause “deep and irreversible damage” to the college and the university, Missoulian reported.

The proposed cuts would remove $2.6 million from the College of Humanities and Sciences budget by 2023’s fiscal year. and written by anonymous UM faculty and staff.

The combination of Covid and the superior career prospects of STEM have contributed to this trend:

Many institutions, particularly small colleges, face pressure to pivot their academic offerings to meet current student demographics and job market demands, leading to a preference for technical training. Austerity measures due to COVID-19 are accelerating that trend. The University of Evansville, for example, is considering closing its philosophy and religion department.

Nationwide, so-called liberal arts colleges are eliminating liberal arts degrees, such as anthropology, political science, and music. Redrafting college programs around STEM and business offerings could fundamentally shift colleges’ identities, not to mention students’ futures.

Even Harvard has seen humanities enrollment fall in half, from a low percentage to an even lower one, showing that the humanies have never been that popular despite all the hype they get:

Enrollment in the humanities is down at Harvard College—and nationally, the number of bachelor’s degrees in the field has fallen by half from 1966 to 2010, from 14 percent to 7 percent of all degrees taken. The news media periodically highlight such statistics and raise the cry that the humanities are in decline, perhaps reflecting diminished relevance to contemporary society. Theories offered to explain the trend include preprofessionalism among students on financial aid worried about a tough economic climate and technological gadgetry’s relentless challenge to sustained observation and reflection.

According to US News, there are “3,982 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the U.S. as of the 2019-2020 school year”, and if we assume at least 90% of these institutions are all controlled by the left (which I think is a reasonable assumption), so nominally the left wins in terms of numbers. But many of these colleges are small and not influential. But even the biggest and most prestigious of colleges cannot compete with the multinationals. The Ivy League has a combined endowment of $140 billion, but by comparison Disney is worth over $300 billion, and ABC, Viacom, and CBS are worth a combined $90 billion. Nike, which is worth $265 billion, running ads promoting fat acceptance or Disney promoting diversity by re-coloring the characters of its popular franchises, has much more of a societal impact than anything produced by any college, at least in recent history. And much of the wokeness anyway seem to be concentrated within only a handful schools anyway. When as the last time there was controversy out of Dartmouth, U. Penn, or Brown about social justice issues? Which goes to how how uncommon these events are. College is surprisingly uneventful, not the culture war battlefield that the media makes it out to be.

Yes, in regard to higher education there is the indoctrination factor, but I think both sides overestimate the efficacy of propaganda. Consider how much effort the liberal media expended in 2017-2019 ‘exposing’ Trump’s misdeeds (such as casino losses, tax irregularities, etc.) yet Trump in 2020 got 10 million more votes than in 2016. All that propaganda was for naught: very few minds , especially in swing states, were changed by anything published by the New York Times, The Atlantic, or The New Yorker. UC Berkeley is listed a major liberal institution but it cannot do much. Unlike mass entertainment, it’s more exclusive than inclusive, and like all top colleges, owes its prestige to its selectivity, status, and good career prospects it bestows upon its graduates. Hence, top colleges serve more to concentrate and confer status than to disseminate propaganda.

Much of the power rather is held by politicians and large businesses-particularly in tech, payment processing, entertainment, and retail–than held by cultural institutions, which compared to the always-evolving private sector are approaching obsolescence in relevance, much like the bowling leagues and rotary clubs Robert Putnam laments about in his 1995 essay “Bowling Alone”. Although some libraries and museums are popular and may even be thriving, particularly in large, metropolitan areas that have ample funding such as the New York City Public Library, a combination of declining demand (due to the internet) and budget cuts have contributed to the lessening relevance of such institutions, especially compared to the likes of Amazon, which is not only the world’s biggest bookseller but the biggest seller of probably anything consumer-related.

In the context of woke capitalism, many of these brands and tech companies are not exactly popular with the left even if they are nominally liberal. Google and Facebook have been criticized by the left for matters pertaining to wages, taxes, privacy, ‘insufficient workplace diversity,’ and being ‘too tolerant of extremism’. Biden has criticized Facebook for failing to divulge user information regarding anti-vaccine content, and even went so far as saying that platforms such as Facebook are ‘killing people with misinformation’. Despite only being .5% of the national workforce, stories about allegedly poor Amazon warehouse conditions get vastly more media coverage than poor working conditions of Disney, Target, Chipotle, or McDonald’s (which if we use indeed.com as an indicator of working conditions, are no better). There is also the question if woke capitalism is motivated by a genuine concern for social justice or is just the latest, bizarre form of rent seeking.

The Twitter accounts of major US politicians, such as Ted Cruz, AOC, and Ronald DeSantis, get considerably more engagement than the @Harvard account or the accounts of almost any professor, except for possibly Steven Pinker (who is more of a moderate or classical liberal than a leftist anyway). It was also Twitter that denied Trump his most powerful platform as well, that being his Twitter account. Disney cannot make people wear masks or stay indoors but politicians can. YouTube is a much bigger platform than any humanities department. It was the police acting at the behest of the federal government (or in the case of the FBI, is the government) who arrested the Capitol Hill protestors, not any of these cultural institutions. However, political power typically only manifests if it’s collective (such as Congress voting on a bill) or unopposed, but business power is more unilateral and centralized, without a need for consensus.

2 comments

  1. “Culture is what’s left over after you forgot what you tried to learn.” – Ezra Pound.

    Everything is culture. Amazon is a cultural institution. It’s not something you hang on the wall for decoration or write essays about. It’s actually learned instinct. And, yes, there is a technocratic managerial – whatever you want to call it – culture. Maybe traditional cultural institutions are in decline (or not) but I assure you new ones are rapidly evolving their own power structures. The explosion in insane prices for artists’ work both living and dead proves it. The reason is irrelevant. It may be for money laundering or pure social status. But that’s part of culture too.

    The arts establishment long ago decided there was no hierarchy in the arts, and so invented Pop Art. But . . . they need gatekeepers because humans crave hierarchy. And so you have Sotheby’s and many others playing cat and mouse games and making money hand over fist. LOL.

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