Via Instapundit comes the tragic lament of "Rebecca Chapman, who has a master of arts in English and comparative literature from Columbia University" and who "hit bottom professionally last summer when she could not even get a job that did not pay." In the company of "Willie Osterweil, 25, an aspiring novelist who graduated magna cum laude from Cornell in 2009," and "Rachel Rosenfelt, 26, who graduated from Barnard College in 2009," and other like-minded young'uns, she formed an echo chamber for the palaver of "overeducated, underemployed postgrads willing to work free to be heard on subjects like Kanye West’s effect on the proletarian meta-narrative of hip-hop."
This meditation on optimism from the NYTimes comes on the heels of widespread mockery from rightward pundits of poor, dream-chasing Joe Therrien, who only wanted to be a puppeteer and is now regarded in some quarters as a misfit toy. (Note, though, that Michael Barone, a man of dexter sentiment, defends Therrien, noting that "he presumably felt that he could be a good enough puppeteer to make a living at it and could find a job doing so. That’s the sort of thing the late Steve Jobs told Stanford graduates that they ought to do." The Anchoress also has a thing or two to say in defense of pursuing puppetry, if not paper.
The broad cultural question at stake is whether China has the right idea: to phase out majors and programs that consistently produce graduates who prove unemployable on the basis of their education.
The issue, as always, is the legitimacy and scope of state subsidization. What stake does the government have, in behalf of its citizens, in perpetuating the production of puppeteers (taken as a proxy for the entire class of overrepresented, underemployable domains of interest)?
It's by no means a new theme. Roll back a hundred thirty-odd years, and you'll find Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold arguing against and for the humanities with greater eloquence and insight than any of today's pundits. Later, Dewey wanted to regress toward the mean for the sake of making or half-baking a compliant, progressive workforce. His ideas still prompt controversy among Arnoldites, even if Huxleyites and cynics regard the issue as moot.
Do we want to be pragmatic above all else? Is it unwise for the ideal to temper the real? Folks who discern that they're puppeteers or poets, calligraphers or critics, artisans or artists, shouldn't bear blame and suffer disdain for rolling the dice on their dreams. They only merit mockery when, failing, they whine about how their society's public policies didn't long indulge them.
The pursuit of a culture of literary salons is not a path orthogonal to hard-nosed capitalism; when successful, it's a symptom or index of thriving capitalism. And although taking the risk when times are lean may be ill advised, the humanistic goal of chasing a cultural dream isn't inherently wrong or risible. To the contrary, the humanistic goal is the point not only of the risk, but of capitalism itself, rightly construed.