Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Stanley Fish on Preserving Humanities Departments

At the NYT.

(Sorry...in a big rush...)

I've never really been able to get fix on this guy. He was at the forefront of turning LitCrit at Duke into a far-left po-mo joke...then he kinda sorta turned into a standard-issue liberal when he started writing for the NYT.

Here, so far as I can tell, he argues that, though there is no good reason to sustain humanities departments, university professors ought to do so anyway. That's not quite it, because at the end he writes:
That’s O.K. It’s not their job to value the humanities or even to understand them. But it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.
The Humanities, he argues, can't defend themselves on economic grounds, and are suspected of being substanceless fluff by the public. I just want to note that, first, there are good reasons for being suspicious of the humanities...and, incidentally, Fish and his ilk helped to make the suspicions rational. In all honesty, much of the work in the humanities is crap, and much of the crap is crap because it's po-mo horseshit. The humanities, even at their best, risk silliness; it's the nature of the beast. Put deconstruction and cultural criticism and lefty politics and other po-mo nonsense the core of your so-called methodology, and now being full of shit is almost unavoidable.

So, anyway, the first step is for the humanities to become respectable again by ditching poststructuralism and related silliness. An intellectually respectable literature department is still going to have a hard time justifying its existence to an economically-minded public...but at least it has a fighting chance. But if you spend your time writing papers and teaching classes on nonsense, then you probably don't deserve public money. So stop being idiots and start deserving it--it's your duty to humanity and the nation, for one thing. But if you're going to put dopey far-left politics at the center of your discipline, don't whine when the public doesn't want to pay your salary anymore...

But deserving resources is, sadly, not enough to get them. Philosophy departments could easily justify themselves by pointing not to their core mission, but, rather, to the secondary fact that they happen to teach people to be good reasoners. Want to get into a good law school, but don't like math? Philosophy is the major for you (except you should learn some math...). You probably think it's poly sci, but that's not true. Look at LSAT scores, for example. But nobody really cares that philosophy is one of the best disciplines for really, actually educating you and training your mind. At my school and others, many, many more resources go to e.g. the educationally-nearly-valueless "communications" department, because, hey, if you don't know what you're talking about and think about it for less than five minutes, communicating sounds like this, like, really like important thing...like if you learn to, y'know, really communicate, you can do all sorts of things. Departments largely get funded because they market themselves well to undergraduates and their dollar-conscious parents, not because they actually teach people things. Nobody thinks that "communications" is a serious discipline for serious minds...but it sounds marketable,so it flourishes. So there's that problem, too--even deserving funding doesn't mean you'll get it. But it's a start...

Anyway, I do think that humanities are worth preserving, but...philosophy possibly excepted...more for what they were and could again be than for what they currently are.

That's not a neat ending here, but I'm starting to bore myself.


Blogger The Mystic said...

Is it just me, or was that article a total waste of time? I mean.. Fish basically just gets up there and says "Yeah, the humanities sure are hard to justify...but we should justify them! If we don't...uh...bad things!"

What? Nowhere in that article is there a single interesting idea or contribution to actually understanding the dilemma.

Hell, I take seriously the claims that the humanities aren't worthwhile. If they really are a waste of time, I'd certainly like to know about it. But this guy Fish is, from what I can tell, a complete tool. He starts off forcefully, claiming quite confidently that "if your criteria are productivity, efficiency, and consumer satisfaction, it makes perfect sense to withdraw funds and material support from the humanities."

I certainly don't believe that, and Fish gives just about zero good reason to suspect that he's right. In fact, the reasons he gives to withdraw support from the humanities are pathetic.

For instance, Fish: "What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, 'What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?' Nothing."

Seriously, Mr. Fish? That's it? That's all you got? You must be one crappy humanities professor if you can't even respond to such a flimsy, ignorant complaint. If you truly think that formal training in the humanities does nothing for your students, thereby doing nothing for the nation as a whole, then you probably shouldn't be teaching.

And then he goes on to dismiss actual, valid responses without reason. He says that we can't respond by pointing out that the humanities enhance our culture or make our society better (which I suspect they do) because "those pieties have a 19th century air about them and are not even believed in by some who rehearse them."

So wtf are we talking about, Stan? Are we talking about the truth, or are we just talking about something we can say about the value of the humanities that the standard-issue retard will believe wholeheartedly upon merely smelling the person who said it? I mean wtf? Who cares if "those who rehearse them" believe it? Is it true, or is it not? God damn, this is pathetic.

Then he dismisses the argument that the humanities contribute to the economic health of the state by producing more well-rounded workers "because nobody really buys that argument, not even the university administrators who make it."


My only guess that saves Mr. Fish's article from being a complete waste of time which he hopefully churned out recklessly and in a haste to make a deadline, is that he may be trying to find a way to preserve the humanities, even if it has nothing to do with the truth and is merely a form of social manipulation. In fact, this explanation is somewhat more likely to be true in my mind because of this strange comment:

Fish: "But keeping something you value alive by artificial, and even coercive, means (and distribution requirements are a form of coercion) is better than allowing them to die, if only because you may now die (get fired) with them, a fate that some visionary faculty members may now be suffering"

...what? On top of this apparently aimless, uninteresting wandering, he's throwing a comment that seems to imply that the humanities are worth saving so that professors won't lose their jobs? That's offensively stupid.

So maybe I'm dumb (and usually, when I find something to be offensively stupid, I later find that it's my own stupidity which is offending me), but I don't understand why you even bothered reading this thing.

5:30 PM  

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