The automobile was the national icon: powerful, beautiful and reliable. Detroit's advertising slogans reflected America's immeasurable self-confidence. Cadillac boasted that it was "the standard of the world." Buick promised that "when better cars are built, Buick will build them." Packard, then Detroit's ultimate expression of luxury, smugly advised, "Ask the man who owns one."
The car was the example of infinite American possibility. Americans had just returned from winning two wars, one beyond the Atlantic and the other in the Pacific, and we were liberated to think we could do anything -- in business, engineering, medicine, the law or whatever else struck our fancy. We were free to explore the possibilities of the mind. There was the saying that the first-generation American had gone into business so his son could be a doctor and his grandson could be a professor.
The returning American soldier, getting a college education on the G.I. Bill as the happy alternative to the war he had just won, could look at his reality in a fresh way. Many measured themselves by their ability to make money; others exhilarated in how prosperity freed them to "rise above" money matters to study philosophy and literature. But all that was a long time ago.
The pessimism of the present day affects the way we think about the future in narrower ways. A half-century ago, 14 percent of college students studied the humanities, the reflection of the great ideas that liberated an imagination grounded in what Matthew Arnold, the 19th-century English poet and critic, described as "the best that has been thought and said in the world."
Aristotle said mastering metaphors was a sign of genius. That may have been exaggeration from the man who espoused the golden mean, but the ancient philosopher understood that poetry had its practical virtues (even if his colleague Plato didn't include the poet in his ideal society).
Humanities majors sometimes were referred to as "eggheads," disdained by their more practical brothers and sisters, but mostly they were proud to carry on a tradition requiring that they read the great works from antiquity to modernity. Humanities majors are down now to 7 percent, and they are not exactly high status on campus.