Part III in our series, “The Value of a Liberal Arts Degree.”
There was an evening drizzle when I was buzzed in from the reception area of the university’s Human Resources office. I wiped the city off my trench coat and lowered the collar. The tapping of a few dozen keyboards ricocheted in my ears like the footsteps of a hundred cockroaches on Manhattan linoleum floors. Before me stood a dame with an iPhone so perfect it could make a big guy like me cry like a baby. She extended her hand.
“My iPad is up here, Mr. Marlowe.”
And so it was. The straight lines of the device gave way to rounded corners that made me want to share the cyberspace and forget I was ever behind on my rent. I lit up a Camel and waited.
“I asked you here, Mr. Marlowe, because we have a missing person and I was told I can count on your discretion.”
“When did you last see this person?”
“You don’t follow me, Mr. Marlowe. I mean that there is not a human in this entire office. All we have is disemboweled numbers and merit reviews but not one of them represents a whole human being or intelligent life. We can’t find the names any more. Can you imagine the scandal when word gets out that Human Resources has no humans?”
I saw her point. I was a kid with a lollypop when the managerial revolution started but I could tell what’s what by listening to my parents argue about efficient parenting choices that would prepare me for career success. While the childhood was being knocked out of me for my own good, the universities were being rationalized. Fast Eddie Malone took over our local university and started with his presidential vision thing that nobody could understand. The profs were glad there would be no more cement shoes and special trips to Mulholland Drive with the goons and brass knuckles, but the faculty had something else coming. Suddenly they were accountable to an associate dean for this and an assistant dean for that until there are more deans than profs and more bosses than there were days in a year. Nobody really knew who these deans were and why they were deans or what exactly they did.
Everywhere new offices showed up with names like Office of Academic Enhancement, and new procedures like Annual Excellence Performance Review. Fast Eddie gave the dirty work to HR because it sounded gentle-like, but after a while the penny dropped and everyone realized it was the new term for muscle but without the brawn. They wouldn’t just tell people what to do, they would tell them who they were. Little by little the profs were forced to fill in more on-line forms to measure their excellence and productivity. They had to put numbers to their thoughts and got so good at it that now they can’t put thoughts to their numbers. They write “self-studies” and “personal narratives” and they’re never sure if they really do or really don’t want someone to read them. In the first case they attract attention to bad prose, in the second they don’t matter to anyone anywhere. There wasn’t a file with a name on it because the data was aggregated under “effectiveness,” “optimality,” “value for money,” and “positive outcomes.” Just remembering the multiple usernames and passwords for each new portal was enough to make their original thoughts disappear as fast as a chocolate cookie in a kindergarten. That’s not counting the time spent accessing the new user-friendly MySpace to track down the books that the library no longer had and the humanities students who were fewer by the year. Everyone said it made life easier, but some started asking to have their cement shoes back, and lines of tweed jackets and Birkenstocks started forming by themselves on Mulholland Drive. My measure was the run on cheap tequila at the neighborhood liquor stores.
“Let me get this straight. You mean to say that you disaggregated all persons and created data points? And then you lost all the names?”
“It’s horrible! All we have is a swamp of terabytes and charts. Will you help me, Mr. Marlowe? Will you?”
I always found it hard to say no to broads with tears and this one had matching hand-held devices. But that voice inside me got in the way of my happiness once more.
“I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I learn fast if you give me lots of time. Sister, you brought me here because you heard that my best friend is named Gimlet and I might just go along with this pantomime on account of my pounding headache. You never intended for me to find a human, you wanted me to tell the world that humans never existed in the first place so the coppers would stop looking.”
She looked me up and down with her steely iPad that nailed me to the wall like a flowchart at their Monday efficiency meeting.
“You’re not as dumb as you look, Mr. Marlowe. But can you look at it my way? We have all these brilliant minds and no way to measure them.” She sobbed: “It’s all so subjective! No one from the president to the dean could say what was ‘good.’ So they gave the job to me because no one would notice what I was doing. They thought I was a harmless MBA peddling retirement packages but I’ve been busy, oh yes, I’ve been busy. I break down the human into parts and numbers that stand for ‘outcomes,’ and they learn the game and start producing peer reviewed articles as fast as it takes you to say Microsoft Excel. I could care less if they have any originality so long as I can fix that number on them and decide on their annual merit increase, from -5% to 0.1%. And do you want to know the best part? They’re like hamsters on a wheel. They fill out the forms and try to meet our targets, they try to achieve a score rather than a thought, and they become what we told them they were – mindless producers of facts and data, peer reviewed by other saps who agree that that’s what it’s all about. It looks good and everyone’s happy, but I still don’t know what ‘good’ is and they’ve long forgotten. And did any of those geniuses ask why HR and all these new assistant deans were in the faculty meetings? Or why their intellectual achievements were being reported to accountants?”
I took a drag on my cigarette. The acrid taste was sweeter than what my ears were chewing on, but she wasn’t done yet.
“And when I slip into a memo something about declining enrollments, they still don’t ask questions, they panic. They do anything to bump their scores on the teaching evaluations, so they inflate their grades and lower the requirements and frantically try to upgrade the department websites. They do tap dances in the lecture halls and I’m the one setting the tempo on the grand piano. Yeah, sure, Fast Eddie put me up to it, but he’s not going to swing for it, mugs like him never do. And I enjoyed every minute and even he doesn’t know what I’ve achieved here. All along I was helping the profs become something better, something that could be counted. We’re not losing people, we’re making them us. You think they’re dead? Have it your way Mr. Marlowe, but dead men don’t read Tolstoy.”
My name’s not Sigmund but I know a candidate for Bellevue when I see one and this one had a special form-fitting jacket with her name on it.
“Like that Russian philosophy prof I read about? The one who made the students think and wrote about truth? Did he deserve that big zero that sent him onto the train tracks screaming «Во имя человечности, что такое multifactor verification!»? Tell me something, doll, did he jump or did you push him?”
Her laugh was like a chorus of St. Louis alley cats singing Puccini and I felt like the mouse on that night’s menu. “It took only a whisper in his ear about his performance, Mr. Marlowe, he was ready. And he deserved it. He used critical analysis in his last merit review form. I think he was being sarcastic. He didn’t know who he was tangling with.”
Hand on her hip, she took the nail from my lips and wrapped her lipstick around it. “You and I are survivors, Mr. Marlowe, not Sad Sacks who think things can be better and moan to their mamas about truth. If it’s not HR it’s the budget office or accounts payable. The Brits call it Research Assessment Framework and in Moscow it’s the annual ‘autobiography and self-criticism.’ Suckers are born everywhere. They don’t ask who wrote the music, they just dance the steps.”
Her exhaled smoke curled around my face and my heart pounded like the jackhammers at that building site on campus that says “Vision1952.” As if I know what that means, except that it’s the sound of a lot of dough falling in all the wrong places.
“When we kept down salaries and let them fall behind inflation, the savings went to create this perfect place you see around you, with rows of computer terminals and productive fingers that don’t ask questions while they convert people into graphs. There are thousands of us and no one bothered to look into the entry called ‘overhead.’ Your brilliant profs can’t read a balance sheet any better than they can read the sign that says ‘push’ while they’re pulling on the lobby door for hours on end. And what did we do with that rising tuition? We got more of me and less of Nabokov.”
She took hold of my sales-rack necktie from Gimbels and pulled me toward the halo of hand sanitizer that enveloped her. I inhaled deeply. “Look, big lug, I’m saying there’s a 401k with your name on it and plenty more mazuma where that came from. We can spend our days sipping Mojitos in Cancun and make the world a better, cleaner, more orderly place. With your brawn and my ergonomics, no one can stop us. No one!”
“And the students? Didn’t they deserve a little Nabokov?”
“I thought I was talking to an adult, sugar. They take what we give them and they think they chose it. They keep paying more because they value a liberal arts education, but the file that defined liberal arts was deleted a long time ago. Now I define it according to proven quantitative methods. Don’t you get it? I’m the new boss and I’m nothing like the old one.”
“Baby, there’s a part of me that wants to discover your data points and get lost on a spreadsheet on a deserted beach and let you rationalize me day and night, but there’s something dark in here and it’s not just the dusk. If I went with you I would drown in data and become another number. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror so I would grow a beard. And since beards don’t suit me, I’m going to take what I know to the Times and whistle-blow so loud in your ear that you’ll think there was a traffic jam on your perfect neckline. By the time I’m done you’re going to get the chair, sweetheart.”
“That’s what they promised me, a chair in the School of Management.” Her tears seemed almost real. “We could have been an effective team together!”
She got promoted.
Back in my room at the Bristol, I renewed my acquaintance with Kentucky bourbon while the adjunct instructor outside jingled the coins in his tin can for musical accompaniment. I thought about optimality and art, about countable wisdom and filling in little boxes with parts of people. I thought about the life I could have had with those perfectly proportioned tablets. I couldn’t quantify it, so I let it all drift into the smog of my last Camel.
Disclaimer: Plato is not Eliot. Seriously. Plato is Greek, You Know.
*Plato is His Impactfulness, Yanni Kotsonis