The Humanities Are the Rodney Dangerfield of Disciplines

This past weekend, I read a few reflections on the meaning of Father’s Day, though the holiday did not occasion anywhere close to as many reflections as were published on either Mother’s Day or Memorial Day. Perhaps the three holidays simply fall too close to each other on the calendar for op-ed writers to keep mustering heartfelt sentiments all the way through Father’s Day. Still, one can’t help but notice that, especially compared to the number and variety of greeting cards provided for sale ahead of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day is almost an afterthought. Those Father’s Day cards that are available are largely humorous, and very few of the cards suggest that fathers are stereotypically sensitive or reflective. To illustrate, I am providing a scan of the card that my son gave to me on Father’s Day:

Father's Day Card 1 Father's Day Card 2

Among this year’s op-eds on Father’s Day, one of the best is Georgia Kovanis’ “How Father’s Day Became the Rodney Dangerfield of Holidays,” which appeared in the Detroit Free Press. Kovanis actually gets her title from a quoted remark by Michael Bernacchi, a University of Detroit-Mercy marketing professor.

Kovanis observes: “Mother’s Day is about floral tributes, restaurants — it’s the most popular day of the year to dine out, according to the National Restaurant Association — and thoughtful gifts and cards that practically declare mom a candidate for sainthood.

“Dad’s day is something different.

“He doesn’t get flowers.

“He’s probably going to end up tending a hot grill, making dinner for himself and everyone else.

“And when it comes to the main event — the gifts — it can be downright sad. That’s because stores are full of things that portray dad as a beer-chugging buffoon who likes to play with fire and toys and can’t put down his iPad long enough to go to the bathroom.”

[Kovanis’ full op-ed can be found at: http://www.freep.com/article/20130616/COL23/306160040/]

Permit me a brief digression. Over the quarter-century that I have been a faculty member at Wright State University, I have taught a variety of interdisciplinary Honors Seminars on special topics in the humanities, including a seminar on the rise of celebrity culture in the United States. In the 1980s and 1990s, People magazine used to produce an annual volume of profiles of the 200 most interesting celebrities of the previous year. When I offered the Honors seminar on celebrity in 1999, I found the 1989 volume in the People series, scanned the photos of half of the celebrities included (every other one), presented the photos in a slideshow, provided the 20 students in the class with copies of a sheet on which I had typed 100 numbered spaces, and simply asked the students to identify the celebrities by their photos. In fact, I went through the slideshow twice in order to allow for some second thoughts on some of the identifications. I expected the exercise to be enjoyable and did not at all anticipate that it would, instead, become for the students an exercise in frustration and futility. The student who did the best on the survey was able to identify just seven of the 100 celebrities.

These dismal results made me think of that famous scene in the film Patton in which the title character reflects on the nature of fame. On their return from victorious campaigns, Roman generals would ride in triumph at the head of their troops and trains of booty through the center of Rome. They would ride on a much-festooned chariots, and behind each of them would stand a slave who would whisper repeatedly in the general’s ear the Latin phrase sic transit gloria–or, fame is fleeting. If my survey results were at all indicative of the broader realities of American popular culture, then contemporary celebrity is not just fleeting but almost as ephemeral as a radio voice, a sheet of newsprint, or a text message.

So, as much as I enjoyed Kovanis’ op-ed, I began to wonder how many of her readers would actually know who Rodney Dangerfield was. And among those who would know who he was, how many would know him simply from Caddyshack and the other films that earned him some degree of status as a movie star quite late in his long career. I began to wonder how old one would have to be to remember Dangerfield’s signature stand-up performances on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. (As a side note, I wonder what is the age above which one can reasonably be expected to know who Johnny Carson was.)

Dangerfield had an odd persona as a stand-up comedian. He presented himself not just as a loser but as the archetypal loser. And he looked like a loser. He could not have been more ordinary looking, and he had a talent for making facial expressions that made you think that if he only could, he would gladly jump out of his own skin. He always wore a black suit with a narrow black tie, and although he always wore a white shirt that looked unusually soft and loose at the collar, he was forever twisting his neck as if his collar and tie were garroting him. He mastered the spectrum of expressions of sadness, dismay, and disillusionment, and he could instantly make his eyes pop round with the surprise of someone who certainly should have seen it coming.

Dangerfield’s monologues were a stream of one-liners unified only by their consistently self-deprecating humor. But they were delivered with just enough distance, just enough worldly awareness, to make them seem funny rather than just pathetic. It was almost as if Dangerfield were talking about a very close but very hapless friend rather than about himself. He was the constant victim of his own limitations and the circumstances that compounded them, the constant butt of the unforgiving honesty of others about his failings, and the prisoner of an exclusively self-referential framing that made jokes at his expense seem an intrinsic part of the cosmic order. All of which would provoke a bug-eyed look of disbelief from him if he were alive to read it.

So for those of you too young to have heard Dangerfield’s monologues or those of you who don’t mind being reminded, here is a sampling. You have to imagine the jokes being delivered rapid fire, with the catchphrase “I don’t get no respect” inserted between most of them as both a pause and a bridge:

When I was born, the doctor came into the waiting room and said to my father, “I’m sorry. We did everything we could, but he pulled through.”

I’m so ugly that my mother had morning sickness…..AFTER I was born.

I’m so ugly that my father carries around a picture of the kid who came with his wallet.

I was such an ugly kid that when I played in the sandbox, the cat kept covering me up.

I could tell my parents hated me. My bath toys were a toaster and radio.

When I was a kid, I never went to Disneyland. My ol’ man told me Mickey Mouse died in a cancer experiment.

Once when I was lost, I saw a policeman and asked him to help me find my parents. I said to him, “Do you think we’ll ever find them?” He said, “I don’t know kid. There’s so many places they can hide.”

I remember the time that I was kidnapped and they sent a piece of my finger to my father. He said he wanted more proof.

I’m so ugly that I worked in a pet shop and people kept asking how big I’d get.

I told my doctor I broke my arm in two places. He told me to keep out of those places.

I went to see my doctor. “Doctor, every morning when I get up and I look in the mirror I feel like throwing up. What’s wrong with me?” He said, “I don’t know but your eyesight is perfect.”

I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous, everyone hasn’t met me yet.

I went to the doctor because I’d swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. My doctor told me to have a few drinks and get some rest.

It’s been a rough day. I got up this morning, put a shirt on and a button fell off. I picked up my briefcase and the handle came off. I’m afraid to go to the bathroom.

A girl phoned me the other day and said, “Come on over, nobody’s home.” I went over. Nobody was home.

During sex, my girlfriend always wants to talk to me. Just the other night she called me from a hotel.

One day I came home early from work. I saw a guy jogging naked. I said to the guy, “Hey buddy, why are you doing that?” He said, “Because you came home early.”

My wife made me join a bridge club. I jump off next Tuesday.

“My wife’s cooking is so bad the flies fix our screens.”

Some dog I got. We call him Egypt because in every room he leaves a pyramid. His favorite bone is in my arm. Last night he went on the paper four times – three of those times I was reading it.

“What a kid I got, I told him about the birds and the bees and he told me about the butcher and my wife.”

“I’m not a hypochondriac, but my gynecologist firmly believes I am.”

Initially, I conceived of this post as simply a homage to Dangerfield and perhaps as a reflection on celebrity and on how our popular culture defines us and, because it is so transitory, divides us, generationally and otherwise.

But then I read Aaron Barlow’s very recent post, “Zealous for the Humanities,” and it seemed to me that this reflection on Rodney Dangerfield might serve a broader point, or at least to open some discussion on some broader points.

I have never done an Honors seminar on Rodney Dangerfield, though I have done one called “John Wayne’s America” (borrowing the title of Garry Wills’s biography of Wayne, which was one of the required readings). I imagine that if I proposed a course on Dangerfield—perhaps focusing on his persona as the embodiment of the American “loser” and a starting point for a consideration of how we culturally, socially, economically, and politically treat “losers” in our highly competitive culture—the proposal would be accepted. And the seminar would end up on one of those lists of ostensibly ridiculous courses that illustrate how a college education is a scam and a waste of money.

I am not going to attempt to justify the content of all college courses whose value may seem dubious, especially to those with very utilitarian views of education. But one of the values of education, and of the humanities in particular, should be that they provide students with an awareness of the world, and of the past in particular, that enriches their lives. I am certain that those last four words already have set some readers to howling, but perhaps it would seem less clichéd if I said, instead, “that enriches their awareness of the present.”

What I am asserting can be—and has frequently been–framed in a very utilitarian way:

Having a fuller awareness of the world makes one not just more knowledgeable but more cognizant of how much one doesn’t know—of the broad reservoirs of human experience and knowledge that may be available if one suspects that they exist and has some idea of how to locate them.

Having a fuller awareness of the world fosters a sense of complexity, of subtlety and nuance, and reinforces the necessity of developing and maintaining not just critical thinking but a sensitivity to how very self-assured critical thinking can become its own trap.

Having a fuller awareness of the world is a necessary component of effective communication. The focus on skills, on conventions and forms, is only one-side of communication; the other side is anticipating the response of the recipient of the message and tailoring the message to get as close as possible to the response that one wants to generate.

Having a fuller awareness of the world is stimulating; it excites the imagination and allows one to “think outside the box” in overcoming obstacles and resolving issues.

Having a fuller awareness of the world fosters a respect for diverse points of view, for the multiplicity of perspectives that increasingly influence every human arena, from economics to politics, from public policy to popular culture.

And, finally, having a fuller awareness of the world allows one to distinguish between being ethical and being judgmental, between values that reinforce commitment to community (at all levels) and values that provide self-referential justifications for self-aggrandizing choices.

When competency in basic skills seems to be in decline, it is natural, and even very laudable, that we should want to reverse that trend. But the utilitarian view of higher education wants to reduce human beings to machines. It ignores that we are continuously developing machines that can outperform human beings in terms physical production and raw calculations. The humanities foster those human capacities that cannot be replicated or superseded by machines.

The ever-increasing rate of automation not just in American manufacturing but in American offices of all sorts demonstrates the corporate short-sightedness of investing in workers who can do only what machines can do, or will shortly be able to do, more proficiently and more efficiently. And asking universities to prepare students for specific corporate positions is a corollary to that sort of short-sightedness. It encourages corporations to treat highly educated employees much as technological devices that become obsolete in just a few years. It discourages corporations from investing in the continuing development of large portions of their workforces, and it greatly reduces most employees’ loyalty to the corporations that employ them.

On none of these counts is simple utilitarianism a sound strategy for sustaining success over the long term.

And a person with some grounding in the humanities would understand that—even if the humanities “don’t get no respect.”

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