Every so often, I like to play this game called “Be the Intellectual.” It’s a game fueled by high pretension; sometimes leading me into an art museum, in which I will pretend to muse at artworks (of which I know nothing about) and stand there, gazing— waiting for the art to speak to me! — gleaming a few extra seconds if the display card to the left mentions an artist that strikes a chord of recognition. Oh Andy Warhol, hon hon hon! Other times, this game takes me to a local bookstore, where I’ll peruse titles. If I see one I like, perhaps I’ll buy it on the romantic premise of “Wow this book is totally gonna add to my intellect and make a better person!”, or at least make me seem like I’m really __cool/ smart/ cultured__ (pick one). But after such a heart-throbbing encounter with a book that seems like a match made in heaven, I almost always fail to complete it. I’ll get in a chapter or two before I’m so mentally fatigued by the act of reading that I can’t remember what I read three pages ago. So, I end up quitting. I play this game, not necessarily to stroke my own ego, but to conform to my internalized schema of what activities and behaviors I believe a college student would engage in. I mean for heaven’s sake, I’m in COLLEGE and I can’t even read 10 pages without getting distracted. I feel as if I have lost touch with culture in the forms of art and literature in both the motivation to appreciate and produce such works. So what’s my point? If any part of this anecdote sounds even faintly familiar to you, perhaps the following claim won’t sound so crazy:
We are entering a cultural dark age.
I’m not a representative for anyone but myself. However, through talking with friends and making observations, I believe my claim rings true to quite a sizable population of Cornellians, if not college students or Americans in general. To clarify, I am talking about culture in the form of creative and intellectually-stimulating media, mostly in the form of art or literature. This is not to say that forms of television, music or other forms of cannot be included under this umbrella term of “culture”, but for the purposes of this article, I will be focusing on art and literature.
Now, if you are to believe me, I posit that there are several underlying factors that have brought upon this cultural dark age, but of the biggest offenders which contribute to my proposed claim is the prevalence of a hyper-intense career-driven mentality, which is something especially noticeable at Cornell. People with such mentality are always looking ahead to the future and conducting themselves in manners appropriate to what may benefit their future selves and careers. Need you only look back several days earlier this week to the disaster that was career fair to understand what I’m talking about: Hundreds of future engineers, analysts, businessmen and what-have-you-nots lined up out the door of Statler Hall, skipping classes to get in, pulling overnighters to perfect their resumes or practice for interviews and enduring hours of queues — even under pouring rain, for a chance to talk to recruiters.
Just to generalize (though this surely does not apply to everyone), people of this sort of mentality tend to strategically plan out their courses by only taking those that are required, have the potential to boost their GPA or will make their coursework seem more appealing to employers. Little room is left for the pursuit of classes in subjects outside of one’s discipline or simply for the purpose of provoking thought. For the career-oriented individual, these neglected classes are oftentimes in the humanities and arts, which can act as vital doors in opening creative alleyways, either in the indulgence or production of culture.
Furthermore, the individual who dons this mentality may find him or herself burdened by an ever-growing time sink. With commitments juggled around between school work, extracurriculars, social life and sleep, there’s little time (or energy) to spend on things like reading or art. So, the flow of culture is stopped. Nothing is created, and nothing is consumed. Instead, it seems that the average person has a tendency to put their free time towards the purpose of relaxation. Perhaps in joint with the ubiquity of smartphones and the Internet, this preference for relaxation over creative exertion leads one to spend their free time in the form of mindlessly scrolling through social networking sites and binging video streaming services. In fact, it’s quite impressive to hear people brag about how many Netflix series they’ve binged when you take into account that the last time they read a book was the 11th grade.
I’m throwing a lot of shade here, I know. But truth is, I’m one of those career-driven individuals that I’m bashing here in this article. My hostility, I think, stems from an internal discord between my ambitions for my future and a fear of losing myself in the pursuit of career. I’m conscious of that, and I’m continually figuring out ways in which I can support both my post-college ambitions and nurse my intellectual curiosity back to health. And I hope others are conscious of this, too. My worry is that, shrouded behind a curtain of success in the fields of medicine, finance and tech, the onset of a cultural dark age may go unnoticed. The pursuit of career and indulgence (or creation) of culture need not be mutually exclusive.