Cigars and the Humanities

We have all heard the famous quote “What this country needs is a good 10 cent cigar,” said by Thomas Riley Marshall, Vice President under Woodrow Wilson. Now I know that because I just googled it and not because every day of my life I remember that Thomas Riley Marshall was V.P.

I want to post some of these pedestrian thoughts because it may have some bearing upon the issue of the place of Humanities in Colleges and Universities today, and the place of higher education in the minds of the public consumer.

By the way, I gave up all tobacco and alcohol 2 years ago. But in the 1980s I liked to smoke cigars, expensive cigars. Now it is a smelly, expensive, filthy habit. I went into New Haven’s main tobacco shop one day, around 1985, and one old man, a customer, said to me that cigar consumption was at an all time low. It was unpopular. Apparently during the late 1980s certain advertising and marketing firms began to promote cigar smoking as a cool thing that cool, successful people do. I started working in NYC in the early 90s. I worked right next to a law school on 5th avenue. One day I saw all the young men, law students, out on the sidewalk smoking very expensive cigars. I remembered what the old man said around 1985 and I marveled at the fact that marketing and advertising promotion can re-invent and revitalize and make fashionable something that is basically a very bad idea (smelly, unhealthy, inconvenient, expensive, unproductive.)

[I had to google just now to remind myself the name of that law school: ]

So lately I think to myself “Self, how are the Humanities or Liberal Arts like cigars.” Obviously the average “man in the street” is practical and wants to get value for his money especially when money is tight and one must make sacrifices. At this point I could suggest that some advertising agency should try to do for the Humanities what they did for cigars. I am reminded of one of the charges against Socrates, that he taught people how to “make the weaker argument defeat the stronger.” Now if you look at politics and media and advertising and our judicial system we are all engaged in one way or another in trying to promote some idea or practice in the minds of the public and demote some other idea or practice.

I realize now at age 62 that had I wanted to be wealthy and successful and secure I should have stayed a million miles away from philosophy and poetry and SJC. I should have taken all business courses in high school, gone to New Haven College (now University of New Haven) and majored in accounting. I might have gone into a company like Armstrong who FOR YEARS had a billboard right next to New Haven college advertising how many graduates had been hired over the years. In essence, for me to be successful in a material sense in the eyes of the world I should have had the foresight NOT TO BE ME. I should have become someone entirely different. Now perhaps I would have taken 8 years of business between high school and college and still failed to prosper for one reason or another. Perhaps I would have put all my eggs into the Armstrong basket only to suffer years later from marketplace reversals and recession and outsourcing or EPA, or Lord knows what (since nothing in life is guaranteed.)

I guess the point I am trying to make is that the consumer public is swayed by many things. They can decide that smoking cigars is a great idea. They can decide that Sarah Palin will be the best person to lead the nation.

Whether we like it or not, higher education is viewed as a commodity in the market place, an investment. We could try to sell the world on Plato and Shakespeare and Mozart and Italian courses through advertising. One bottom line reality is that when disposable income disappears then people stop smoking cigars. They stop buying second homes and second cars. And perhaps they stop sending their children to a traditional college education. Some articles suggest that the money be invested in some small business or store. I remember how years before my birth in 1949 someone called England a “nation of shopkeepers.” One fellow in London walked for blocks looking for a tobacco store and could not find one so he OPENED HIS OWN tobacco store and it was very successful. In the 1950s most of the drugstores were family owned and run. A son would become a registered pharmacist and take over the business. And many drugstores had soda fountains with counters where one could sit and drink milkshakes. With the advent of huge pharmacy chain stores the small family pharmacies disappeared. I taught English to many Greeks in New Haven in the 1970s. A majority of them opened pizza shops and diners and delis. The Koreans open convenience stores. In the Diamond District of NYC all the Israelis own the companies, the South Americans are the craftspeople and the Indians and Sri Lankans sell the raw stones. I know because I worked there for a year.

So to summarize:

1.) Cigar smoking is bad and expensive
2.) Advertising and peer pressure can induce many people to spend time and money on a bad idea
3.) The Humanities could be promoted more in the media
4.) Obviously most of us think that our Liberal Arts studies enriched our lives even if we spend our lives as cab drivers or plumbers (and one of my classmates is a cab driver in Maine and another has “The Lusty Wrench” which is presumably a plumbing service.)
5.) We live in a society which looks at short term benefits and positions itself for the next quarterly report rather than position themselves for something 30 years down the road.

I am not sorry that I lived my life pursuing what interested me at the expense of material success. I have seen people who slaved a lifetime to acquire wealth and then lost it.
I did not slave to earn a PhD in something where I shall never gain a teaching possession. I did not acquire any fortune so I have no investments or funds at risk. I am 62 so if the doctor tells me that I have 6 months to live I am not going to feel so badly because I did with my life what I wanted to.

I sincerely believe that IF young people have a hunger for learning then they have the perfect tool in the form of their computer and the Internet. Traditional campuses are obsolete. I can sit in my living room and publish or converse with people around the world. There is no reason why people cannot pursue the humanities on line. All that is necessary is the desire and the time. If the economy gets so bad that people have to work 80 hours a week just to get a meal a day and pay their rent or mortgage well then they are not going to be worried about a “life of the mind.”

I am the voice of a Johnnie who had no other desire but to finish the program and who never became a success in business or academia but I got what I wanted out of life.

My 6th grade teacher, Carlyle Percival Aveni, used to write a proverb on the blackboard EVERY day. Each of us had a notebook and we had to COPY those proverbs and he would check the notebooks every day. I actually wrote two proverbs and he posted them on the board. I think some classmates were irritated because they had to copy down one of my proverbs and who the hell am I? Anyway, that stuff got into my blood and became part of my life. One of the proverbs that stays with me: “Two men look out through the same bars. One sees mud and the other sees stars.” I look at the world and my life through the lens of SJC. Perhaps they are rose-colored glasses and I am a fool. But I have enjoyed the view. By the way, Mr. Aveni spent his life becoming a grade school teacher and one of the best. Teaching became a crummy way to make a living. Some of his wealthy friends encouraged him to leave teaching and run a nursing home and make a lot more money. It was a hard decision for him to make to leave teaching in order to make a lot more money but he made the change.

The years I lived in Boston there was one CHESS center where all the Chess addicts would gather. I was there the week it closed and was talking to the owner. Economic times had changed and they could no longer remain open. He told me that there are people who get so into chess that they travel around the world to tournaments and subordinate their lives to it and do without. We know that there have been artists and authors who have done the same. Some of them become recognized and wealthy and others die in obscurity and only decades later is a chest full of writings discovered in some attic and celebrated.

Viktor Frankl talks about “saving things to the past” meaning that no one and nothing can rob me of my 4 years at SJC in the late 1960s (except perhaps Alzheimer’s.)

Jallaludin Rumi said “Do not seek water. Seek THIRST! For without thirst the water has no value.” A liberal/arts/humanities curriculum is no more than water or cigars. It is a question of THIRST. There will always be a few each century who are BORN with a thirst, a compulsion like Ramanujan or Euler or Thoreau or any number of others. Anyway, these are some of my thoughts.

P.S. I saved the DOC and forgot to ask “What happens should people in general lose their thirst for art or their taste for cigars.”

I have blogged a lot over the years about my SJC experience. Here is an actual conversation that took place with my step-son when he was in 8th grade. And the end is a poem I wrote based on an conversation I had with him after he watched a television news item –
The blog date is the date I reposted in WordPress and not the date when all this happened.


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