I recently did what I have never done before. I returned a Netflix movie before I was done watching it. What movie is this? You might ask. The Dying of the Light with Nicolas Cage. Well, you might say, this is not quality entertainment, and I would reply, I love movies and never said anything about "quality." So why did I give up?
One--lack of time.
Two--I vas seriously bored and unentertained Why? Because I knew how the movie was going to end. Huh? Why does that matter? You ask. We all know how movies are going to end. This is true, which is why I needed to figure this out.
Let's view the trailer first.
There you have it. I have to say that I'm a proud Nicolas Cage fan. Apparently among actors, he is regarded very highly (according to Wikipedia). So I am in good company.
Broad story--Nic Cage is a CIA guy who was tortured by a terrorist. The terrorist is presumed dead but Cage believes he is still alive. The terrorist guy, though, had a rare disease and is ailing and will soon die if he is still alive. Nic Cage (I know--his character) is also ailing from a mental disease caused by repeated trauma to the head--the torture session earlier. So you have these two old foes, who nature is killing, but Cage is bent on making sure nature does not subvert justice. So I think the unique angle here is that we don't have the sexy Tom Cruise mission impossible guy who is uber capable, but we have an ailing man who is deteriorating before our very eyes. We see the symptoms play out as the movie develops.
So, over the course of three days, I labored, 20 minutes at a time, to watch this film. Finally, I said, this is not going to happen. I had seen enough. I knew how it would end. With the help of his friends (one played by the remarkable Late Anton Yelchin) he would find this terrorist. There'd be some sort of confrontation and they both die but he gets the satisfaction of meting out justice. (I don't even have time to read the Wiki entry--that's valuable sandwich time.) My question for me is, do I not want to see someone deteriorate before my very eyes? I don't know. Seeing all his "moments" was getting very old and I just could not bear forty more minutes of him losing his temper, or forgetting where he was, or mixing words, etc. Could this be my inability to address human frailty and come to grips with the existential fact of my demise? That could be it, except that one of my favorite movies (besides The Chronicles of Riddick) is Wit.
Here's the trailer for Wit ( I couldn't find a real good one so I went for this. The other ones I found were essentially five minute summaries of the entire movie!)
Wit shows the progression of a devastating ovarian cancer on an English professor. She breaks the fourth wall and so we get these very funny, witty, and brilliant insights into the process. it does get heavy at the end and the viewer is not spared anything. You watch her deteriorate before your eyes and it is painful and hard to watch. From the start of Wit, it is clear that this will not be a happy ending, that we will not be spared the gruesomeness of being a "patient" of this sort, with all its attendant indignity. We know how it ends.
So why would I like this and not Nic Cages' film? Wit is a mirror and Dying of the Light is a blurry facsimile of the human end. Wit engages because it reflects possible truth. Dying of the Light is tedious because there's no real payoff at the end. You don't learn anything at the end (I know. I haven't seen the end. . . . I have a right to my opinion, so back off!)
With Dying of the Light you learn . . . (haven't seen the end so I don't know what you learn). With Wit you learn about the inherent indignity of being a patient. You learn about the perspective of the patient. You learn about what becomes important the closer you are to death.
One irony, as the English professor wastes away, she wants less of John Dunn's poetry, a difficult metaphysical poet, and wants more simplicity and wants to express herself in the most basic of terms. On the other hand, the film features a young resident who is a researcher and uninterested in clinical work. He was a former student of hers which creates an interesting and funny dynamic. But towards the end, her poetry class seems to have provided him the best paradigm for his work and you see the work of the Humanities cheating through and reframing his perspective.
So in the words of Dylan Thomas
"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Inside Higher Ed has a story about U of St. Thomas in Houston which looks like it's forcing out its English and Philosophy faculty to make way for new STEM faculty. They say there's increased demand in the STEM fields and not enough demand in Humanities fields to justify the faculty distribution.
The usual reason given for these moves is financial. Liberal Arts don't seem to offer value, i.e., for what a university spends on the liberal arts, it doesn't see commensurate gain. This sort of reasoning is not new but it is gaining ground among Catholic universities. Catholics schools appeared to be the one bastion of the liberal arts since Catholicism was endemic to the Catholic mission. This meant every Catholic education would have a foundation of theology, philosophy, and courses like English and History.
What it all comes down to is measurement. How do we measure university success? If a university measures success in terms of employment rates then it stands to reason that you reapportion your resources to maximize student employment.
The ancient Greeks were interesting in that it was not uncommon for what we consider professional tasks like engineering, architecture, etc, to be left to slaves or even foreigners so that the Greeks to could focus on what was really important--philosophy, mathematics, culture, etc.
As long our culture is driven by economic concerns and is framed in economic terms; as long as the contextual societal debates are about how to be a real capitalist or Smith versus Marx, then the liberal arts will lose. As long as value is measured in terms of economic output, then there's no where for the liberal arts to go.
It is disappointing when Catholic schools inch toward or flat out run from the Catholic idea of education since Catholic education has the opportunity to be counter-cultural on this front in a good way. Catholic education can define value in its deep, comprehensive way and eschew the move to the economic frame of defining human lives.