La La Land—this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, at least for about 2 minutes—explores an important question. If you Google the film, the primary synopsis that appears identifies that question as: “what is more important: a once-in-a-lifetime love or the spotlight.”
The story is based around two lovers in modern-day Los Angeles: Mia (Emma Stone), who dreams of being a famous actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who dreams of becoming a jazz singer. At a critical point in the story, the two are faced with a decision: will Mia jeopardise what they've got together by going to Paris to shoot a movie?
[Warning: Spoiler Alert] The final scene reveals that Mia chose her career over Sebastian, thus ending their relationship.
When they happen to see each other later in life—Mia having achieved her particular dream of making it in Hollywood and Sebastian now the owner of his own jazz club—they nod and exchange a subtle smile. Do they regret having gone their separate ways, or are they content that, as the haunting “City of Stars” song suggests, “now our dreams / they’ve finally come true”?
In a recent article, Maggie Gallagher suggests that the film sends the unfortunate message that we should preference the pursuit of a career over the pursuit of a relationship. She laments that many critics applaud this message as the more “realistic” and “grounded” option. On that question, I tend to agree with Gallagher’s concern. Our society does seem to encourage young people, especially, to place personal aspirations over commitment to another person, a decision which, down the road, can lead to disappointment and personal emptiness.
Having said this, though, when faced with a similar decision in the early years of our relationship, my girlfriend (now wife) Karin and I chose to endure time apart to pursue wonderful opportunities. It doesn’t always have to be an either-or. With the right grounding, we can often pursue both. (In my book In Love: The Larger Story of Sex and Marriage, I tell how Karin and I navigated our long-distance relationship by committing not to romantic feelings but to seven concrete acts of love.)
However, I want to ask a slightly different question. When it comes to the sorts of careers that require higher education, what pathway does modern western society encourage? And what does that message imply that students should be willing to give up in return?
The pathway today that’s promoted as the most “grounded” for success is specialising in a STEM-related field. What students should be willing to sacrifice for this end is an education in the humanities.
In the past, cultural voices would’ve said to a university-bound student, “Pursue a broad range of knowledge; learn how to think and learn how to learn; ask the big questions about what cultures should hand on to the next generation.” But today’s voices seem to discount that pathway as a la la land that’s out of touch with reality—especially the reality of the job market.
But there are some hidden assumptions in this message. One is that the jobs students train for in university today are the jobs that will be in high demand in the future. This assumption was recently challenged by billionaire businessman Mark Cuban.
You may know him as one of the main “shark” investors on the reality television series Shark Tank. In a recent interview, Bloomberg’s Cory Johnson asked Cuban about how to prepare for success in the future job market.
Johnson: So essentially what you’re making the case for is education and job training for grown ups.
Cuban: No, no. I think that won’t matter. What are you going to go back and learn to do?
Johnson: What it takes, right? Whether it’s finance, whether it’s software programming.
Cuban: No finance. That’s the easiest thing — you just take the data [and] have it spit out whatever you need. I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker.
Cuban doesn’t mean that it’s not important to focus on specialised fields of knowledge when pursuing a particular career. Rather, he’s identifying the sort of foundational education that comes first—the kind that helps students to think and develop “a different perspective.” In other words, it’s not an either-or (either become a starving philosopher or a high-tech businessman). With the right grounding, students can develop the skills required for success in any field, including STEM-related jobs.
Whether it’s in relation to a very particular dream or a general desire for a reliable job, both Maggie Gallagher and Mark Cuban offer important counter-cultural messages. They’re messages about considering a more human-oriented pathway when it comes to pursuing a career ... and human flourishing.
Millis Institute Welcomes 2nd Class
Two weeks ago the Millis Institute celebrated its second Matriculation Ceremony. CHC President Professor Darren Iselin presented members of the incoming class with an academic gown, representing their membership in this academic community. As part of the ceremony, new students also signed their name in the Millis Institute Matriculation Book and were officially welcomed by members of the faculty. Please keep each of these students in your prayers as they begin the formative adventure of a liberal arts education.