And When the Last Scholar Has Died...

The cultural industry is on life support. Without money from Big Business, journalism, the arts, and academia are not sustainable. We are witnessing the triumph of economic logic over the world of insight and contemplation.

We’re great. No, we’re fantastic! Journalism has an important social and political purpose, our magazines and newspapers are necessary household accessories. Yes, we are truly great.

We are smart, too. Our universities are among the world’s best. For centuries, German was a prerequisite for scholarly inquiry. One had to speak the language to be able to penetrate the depths of philosophy, theology, or literature. Yes, we are truly smart.

Wrong! We used to be great, maybe. But any private or public body that is connected to the humanities now finds itself on the brink of collapse. Newspapers, magazines, universities, theaters, and even cities and communities require big corporate money to evade bankruptcy: Ad money, sponsorship deals, partnerships with global enterprises. That’s not intrinsically bad, but the (fortunate) fact that we can still finance the fruits of our labor through ad sales must not blind us to dire future prospects: We are not able to raise enough money from readers (or theater patrons) to satisfy one of the fundamental rules of sustainable business models: The ability to grow from within. Journalists or artists or scientists rarely generate enough revenue from the sale of their products to finance the growth of their operations. We lack a proper foundation for our business model.

You might respond that culture has always been dependent on subsidies and charitable inclinations. Universities are public bodies because education is considered a societal good and the responsibility of the state. By contrast, newspapers and magazines are private enterprises, and you might say that it is their private nature that somehow sets them apart. But universities, theaters and publishing houses are linked together as one oikos, one habitat. The ideas of the humanities have brought it into existence while media, culture, and science are the vehicles through which we search for answers, provide analyses, offer interpretational models and yield concrete applications for politics or in the economy. The different cogs of the cultural eco-system are inextricably linked, and all of them face the problem of insufficient financial resources.

This is not only the case for media companies like “The European” or big newspapers, but also for global brands and cultural institutions. In Berlin, the lack of financial sustainability of the cultural industry has now led to the “BMW Guggenheim Lab”: a partnership between a car manufacturer and a cultural think-tank. At a university, such external funding is highly sought after, and professors regularly whisper about those colleagues who are able to attract outside money for their departments.

So let’s talk a bit about outside funding. The money comes from a different habitat that is populated by large industrial companies. Our cultural industry would become unsustainable without their sponsorship money – money that might come from a car manufacturer, or from a big technology company. All the talk about a “service economy” ignores the fact that our economy continues to be driven by those who build cars or washing machines. In contrast to us, they have succeeded in conveying to their customers why their products matter, and why they should pay for them. They are able to generate money from within their own product portfolio and they don’t rely on outside funding to prosper and grow. They, in other words, have a real business model.

It’s relatively easy to say how much work went into producing a hair dryer. It’s much harder to say what it takes to write a good article. How do we measure the costs and value of thirteen years of school, a university degree, study abroad programs, or even a PhD? The difference in measurement parameters is one of the reasons why the typical CV of an engineer looks different from the CV of a journalist.

If you study economics and choose to accept a job offer from a consulting firm upon graduation, you might make 60k or 80k at age 25. Take a job in journalism, and you’ll have to settle for 35k – at most. As a consultant, you can expect regular pay raises as well. In journalism, things look different: You start with moderate pay, but at least your boss tells you that it’s possible to freelance on the side, or maybe you can make a bit of money off a speaking engagement. She might even refer you to someone. Talk to them, and you will probably hear that speaking fees have been canceled, but at least a public lecture will look good on your resumé. After a number of lectures and panel discussions (all dutifully entered into the CV), a university might offer a position as a guest lecturer. The dean will tell you: Budgets have been cut, but the institution’s name will look good on your resumé, especially if you plan to give public lectures or write books. Yes, a book! That might solve the financial dilemma. You imagine heaps of money – until the publishing house calls to say that the book proposal sounds terrific, but fees are way down. Fortunately, they say, a book credit helps with the resumé and should eventually lead to a position as a guest lecturer.

See, it’s all connected: Public bodies like universities cannot be fully separated from private companies like publishing houses. Both are linked through the nexus and the logic of the cultural industry. A newly graduated economics student can expect a 100k salary while the humanities major will take home less than half as much.

As a result, we are witnessing a large-scale exodus from one oikos into the other. We are living in a time when the proverbial best and brightest no longer opt to pursue careers in journalism or academia or politics. And we can already foresee a future when the exodus into economics will cease simply because the sphere of culture will have been reduced to insignificance. Apocalyptic rhetoric is fitting here: A cosmic battle is raging between the world of letters and the world of numbers.

In modern Western societies, we have long observed a tendency away from the pursuit of wisdom and contemplation towards those forms of knowledge that can be tackled by natural science. The fight against religious dogma has paradoxically led to the belief that those things that can be described in numerical terms are somehow closer to the ultimate truth than words.

What stupidity! Of course, words can express truth. Those who argue that only the universalistic appeal of numbers can convey truths fail to see that it has been precisely the cultural context and uniqueness of words – their embeddedness in the history and fabric of a particular civilization – which has enabled us to seek answers and raise issues that demand to be named and discussed through speech. As it says in the bible, “in the beginning there was the word.” Speech is closer to our humanness than mathematics.

But during the heyday of modernity, atheism and rationality entered into an unfortunate alliance – hence the complete absence of any idea of “atheist spiritualism.” To modern science, a whole range of aspects of human existence, from man’s inclination towards spiritual beliefs to his temporary indulgence in irrational behavior, appeared as marginal and unimportant. St. Thomas Aquinas still devoted himself to the study of man and metaethics. Today, our existence is forced through the grid of Excel spreadsheets and expressed as a series of numbers, cleansed of all individuality. I am not surprised that ethical questions usually elicit tired shrugs from computer programmers or consultants or even doctors: Many of us have lost the ability to put our thoughts into words and have responded with apathy.

Above the central entrance to Berlin’s Humboldt University, we can find a Latin motto: Nutrimentum Spiritus, “nourishment for the mind”. A few kilometers away, the newspaper “Der Tagesspiegel” has given itself the credo Rerum Cognoscere Causas, “to know the causes of things”. And when the last humanities scholar has died, only then will we realize that you cannot eat spreadsheets.

Read more in this column Alexander Görlach: Islam taken hostage

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