I was walking in our nation’s capital during the recent Great Recession when I saw a great banned hung on a pretentious building. It said JOBS, JOBS, JOBS. I thought that this must be the slogan of some left-leaning think tank, or maybe of the Democratic party trying to drum up support for new federal efforts at stimulating job creation.
Wrong! When I crossed the street to see whose building it was, I found the national headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce. The slogan was not advocating Obama’s stimulus program – far from it! The Chamber was using it as a weapon against what they regarded as stifling restrictions on free enterprise. It was a clever move as can be seen in the recent history of, for example, action to combat climate change.
The presidential campaign of 2008 seemed to evolve around the slogan. On October 15 2008, Joe Biden made his famous gaffe, “ the number-one job facing the middle class [is], as Barack says, a three-letter word: jobs. J-O-B-S, jobs." Four years later Romney was campaigning under the same slogan.
But when I first saw it I misunderstood that slogan in another respect. It was not only effective in economic and political matters; it also helped shift thinking about higher education. Soon in North Carolina the newly elected governor, Pat McCrory, announced he wanted a funding formula for public higher education that was “not based on how many butts [were] in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.“ The shift to job preparation may also explains why the administration of Governor Scot Walker of Wisconsin deleted the sentence “Basic to every purpose of the [University] system is the search for truth,” and inserting language about meeting “the state’s workforce needs.” Jobs, Jobs, Jobs again.
Both governors have backed away from their gaffes, but it’s discouraging to find such an impoverished understanding of higher education in such exalted places. Then I came across Tony Grafton’s encomium of Latin in “Latin Lives” in the February 16th 2015 issue of the Nation, That gave me an idea. The eminent historian of Renaissance Europe, says he notices a recent “explosion” of love of learning among his undergraduates: “Other factors must also play a role. But it turns out that for a surprising number of students Latin – and Latin studying of a special kind -- has been the fuse that sparks this explosion.” Grafton goes on to describe the effects of the Paideia Institute in Rome, a total immersion, living Latin program. That was what set off their intense academic engagement of these undergraduates, and the high quality senior theses that Grafton found himself reading at all hours of the day and night. Hard work – as Grafton puts it, “sleepless nights, exhausted mornings and boundless pleasure. The joy of Latin, the joy of scholarship.”
Did he say “joy”? That's a word we do not hear very often in higher education.
Of course! That’s it. The learned business leaders of the Chamber of Commerce and he distinguished governors of our beloved states never meant to promulgate such a simplistic slogan as Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. Time for a little creative vandalism an emendation obvious to the philological eye. It’s time to break into the Chamber of Commerce’s headquarters, retrieve their huge banner, unfurl it again, properly emend it to read not Jobs Jobs Jobs – but Joy Joy Joy. That’s what is in the texts we classicists teach, waiting for those who are lucky enough to be at a college that values the past and knows the life-changing potential of an education grounded in the Classics.