Buying your soul from the liberal arts experience

Photo by Bobby Zipp

I was assigned your account, because you’re quirky, and I’m the quirkiest they had.

I always say, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” So, instead of starting off with quirkiness at Swarthmore College, as assigned, I’m going to pitch something new: You. Or at least, who I think you should be.  I don’t know how you’ll like it.  All I ask is that you let me finish.

“The day you sign a client,” said Don Draper, “is the day you start losing him.”

Lights cigarette, inhales, looks you in the eye.

Right now I don’t have anything to lose, but you do.

Swat’s quirky. We all know that. But it used to be quirkier. There used to be this thing called Crunkfest (see Urban Dictionary); there were less rules, more humanities; there was funding for DJs; Public Safety officers used to toke on a joint before they started making it a policy of stopping and frisking the joint. There was a no-nonsense, work-hard, play-hard attitude. Paces parties were creative, not clichés. Pub Nite was an institution. It was like the 1960s had never died.

Deep sigh/exhale. People love a good story, like fish love bait.

Let’s just say that Swat, the small liberal arts college in southeastern Pennsylvania, had the potential to be the “Don Draper” of colleges: a master of its trade, but a good, quirky, mysterious guy, with access to a secret world and a secret suffering. Increasingly irrelevant, outdated, and antiquated, however, Mr. Donald Draper, of Mad Men fame, is struggling to remain relevant in the 1960s, in season 7 of the popular show (this Sunday at 10 p.m.). But at the end of the day, I think he maintains a quiet dignity.

At first sight, “he’s overburdened by history,” said Saty Rao ’15. “Like Swarthmore,” he doesn’t understand hippies at first.

His story parallels the struggle of the liberal arts for relevance in the 21st century. We can all see the numbers. There’s no need to back up my argument with bar graphs and surveys. You can almost feel it. The crisis of the liberal arts is tenable in everything right down, or up, to its price-tag. It’s become more culture-industry than organic. Even though culture is supposed to be free.

Like you and the liberal arts themselves, Draper works in advertising. And, speaking of price tags, Draper sells, but not the way you’d expect a businessman to sell something to a client, or TV audience for that matter. The liberal arts sell, but increasingly not in the way you’d expect Swarthmore graduates to sell their educations to life, or its pursuit.

Like Swat, Draper sells his services by telling a story, and his stories are his services. The myth of the American Dream, the first American ad, lies buried beneath the stories and Draper’s creative genius. But he prostitutes and pimps the American Dream. He finds a fatal connection in those stories, fictions, ads, and PR campaigns, something he shares with the consumers seduced by the stories he tells both them and himself. Draper believes in the Dream because his work is to enable others Americans that he’s never met to believe, and to believe more than ever before in the absurdity of it. Like him, we all find redemption and together can lose sight of our own flaws, institutional or otherwise, in affirmational belief.

Cigarette’s stubbed out, smoke dissipates.

But we also lose ourselves. You can’t forget though that Draper’s an alcoholic; that he’s unfaithful to his wives. You can’t forget that a journalist is unfaithful to the community he talks to and interrogates. That a student is unfaithful to his local communities when he crosses countries and states for the reputation of the liberal arts. But Draper isn’t unfaithful because he doesn’t love the people and children he grew up with. He’s unfaithful because he doesn’t believe in himself or that he ever deserved to be part of them in the first place.

“It wasn’t a lie,” said Draper. “It was ineptitude with insufficient cover.”

Draper came from nothing. Like Swarthmore financial aid, his story, despite and as a result of its fiction, is at the optimistic core of the American Dream. A product of white privilege — the straight-up lie he told to leave his broken childhood behind and become Don Draper — he’d probably pretend, however, that America had entered a “post-racial” society, before he’d ever give up his wealth for others. Draper after all, like Swarthmore, ain’t no socialist, commie, pinko. But at the same time he ain’t afraid to smoke grass, either, to immerse himself in the mind of a hippie, or the West Coast that’s inheriting their fragile pipe-dreams, just in order to obtain their stories — love — and learn more about himself as a result.

“Advertising is based on one thing,” Draper said, frowning: “Happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”

“Aggressively ambitious, tone-deaf, seeing trees all the time instead of forests, genuinely liberal, but coming off as phony,” Mad Men is stereotypically progressive, like Swat, but it has its moments.

“Don’t you sort of feel,” a senior in a state of ennui, asked another this weekend, “like you’re getting out of Swat at exactly the right time?”

Donald Draper stares off into space whenever he’s alone, like the “Millennial” generation stares off into the moralities offered by Netflix and Google. Technical innovation, progress, advancement, like 4.0 semesters, all leave something behind, like the stories we suffer in becoming something more-than Swatties before even pausing to become Swatties in the first place.

“Oh, so you’re a Swattie?” any alum may ask, not because it was ever a question, but because there’s something otherwise unnamable and inexpressibly shared between you, like a dream, a demon, or a civilization. It’s that text and story — an ad fetishized by prospective students and the employers they want to work for — written by Swatties everyday.

Like Swat in recent years, Draper’s aging in the second half of the Mad Men series, as some sort of wine, fossil — or fuel. In the latter half of the season, Draper is fired and rehired as a partner at a New York City ad-firm, rehired only because of his ability to tell a story to a powerful cigarette-industry client. Like Western civilization to fossil fuels, Draper’s love for stories is forced to sell its soul, in the end, to the devil.

Here. Lighter clicks. Flame.

“I don’t really think he’s a fossil,” said Vikram Murthi ’15. “He’s just a fossil relative to the youth movement in the ’60s, which is maybe the only time in American history the established power structures were reasonably under attack. He’s growing irrelevant.”

In Draper’s absence, the agency signs a deal with IBM to install a new 360 mainframe in the office, replacing many of its “failed artists and intellectuals,” creative-directors, and other story-tellers, like Draper, in the process, with data.

“If Swarthmore were a person,” I asked, “who would it be?”

“I mean, probably a pretty shitty person,” one person replied, smirking. “Probably Zach Braff,” replied another. “Um, David Sera?” asked another. Suddenly the profession of acting made sense to me.

“Every great ad tells a story,” said Draper, melancholic and reserved, the day after the U.S. landed a man on the moon in 1969.

Increasingly irrelevant, out-of-date, and antiquated, Swarthmore, of liberal arts fame, struggles to remain relevant in the 2010s, in the third century of American culture, half-a-century after “we” landed on the moon. We used to say “we” when stuff like that happened, not because it was us up there, but because a voice over the comm to Houston told us it was. Can you believe that? The liberal arts used to be able to do that, too: tell us who we were. But increasingly it’s an ad “telling us we’re OK.”

Can you maintain a quirky dignity when selling your soul to the devil? I think that’s the rhetorical question both Mad Men and the privilege of a Swarthmore education together ask, and one reason why they’re two of the greatest artworks of the 21st century.



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