Joe: I’m worried about bread.
Sue: That seems arbitrary. And odd. Why?
Joe: Bread is tasty.
Sue: No, why are you worried about it?
Joe: Oh, right. I think there maybe a crisis in the bread industry. Fewer people seem to be buying bread now than they did a few decades ago. This clearly suggests to me that the entire industry is going to crumble. Crumble–get it?
Sue: Yes, your wit is impeccable. But your facts are not. I just saw some data that suggest there are far more bread buyers, bread bakers, and bread corporations now than there were in 1948.(1)
Joe: Hmm. But now there are so many more options! You have pitas and wraps, for example. Surely these are drawing away some of those who might otherwise have bought bread in the past.
Sue: Although pitas and wraps are delicious alternatives, just over 10% of carbohydrate consumers are still bread purchasers, which is ever so slightly higher than the percentage in 1987. Surely you would concede that there are more potential purchasers of bread now than there were then, so the 10% in 2013 actually represents a far larger number than the 1987 figure did.(2)
Joe: I’m confused.
Sue: I thought you might be. In the intervening years, the numbers of bread purchasers actually exceeded 12% and held steady for decades–until the recent economic collapse. A dip over the last few years, though, does not quite amount to the kind of crisis narrative that we are being sold, however.
Joe: So bread is safe then?
Sue: There is no doubt that the political waters remain dicey for bread. Funding for national grant programs in bread-baking continues to be cut. But can you imagine a world without sandwiches or croutons? No! People will always want these things, and they will want folks who know about bread to be baking them.
Joe: But I’ve even heard about this crisis from the bread bakers themselves.
Sue: The bread bakers are feeding into the rhetoric by buying into it themselves. What if they stopped listening and just continued to make the best bread in the world as if there were no perceived crisis? What if, in fact, they countered this discussion by demonstrating the value of bread through their output and through teaching the public just how good bread can be?
Joe: That seems pretty radical.
Sue: Really? I’m not so sure about that.
Joe: What about the bread companies that have been shut down because of poor revenue and lack of buyers?
Sue: We certainly mourn their losses, but those decisions were more likely the result of CEOs who were concerned about the limited number of purchasers in local bread-buying markets rather than a large-scale devaluing of the nutritional benefits of bread.
Joe: Important folks are always joking about how silly it is to study the art of baking bread. Doesn’t that have a lasting impact?
Sue: Lots of people say lots of things, but it doesn’t affect the taste of the bread.
Joe: Where do gluten-free products fit into all this?
Sue: I’m not sure we can stretch this rather poor attempt at an analogy that far. It’s already gone on long enough.
Joe: You can say that again.(3)
(3) In case it is not abundantly clear, I hate this kind of corporate-speak, and I don’t think higher ed should be treated like a business, which is why this kind of example is so revealing for the national discourse about the humanities.