Daily Notes on Literature, Pop Culture & Media, and Academia

Stanley Fish and the Humanities

Posted by litdaily on October 23, 2010

[This is an updated version of the blog post “It’s so Fishy…” now featured as a dialogue between the two bloggers at Litdaily. This will be a part of our new series “Conversations” that will showcase dialogues on books and topics that demand our sustained attention.]

SD: Last week, Stanley Fish wrote about the removal of French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs from SUNY Albany.  The elimination of these programs marks a defined moment of crisis in the humanities for Fish…more>>

I have been musing over this article, and not because Fish’s claims about politicizing the value of the humanities to administrators is new or even radical, but because his article carries an odd tone and combination of optimism, hope, melancholia, and nostalgia. Fish’s simple solution seems like a cop out. Of course, if the administrators value the humanities, then these programs may have a chance of survival. But the question is: how do we get the administration to value the humanities??

I think it’s a lost cause, and not one that only American universities face.  It’s a global phenomenon based on the fact that worldviews have shifted.  It didn’t happen overnight or in the course of a presidential term or even over a decade. It’s been coming – this slow and gradual erosion of knowledge that centers on humanism.

SM: I agree that we live in times of momentous shift in the economic and cultural value of a humanities-based education. But in spite of The New York Times’ relentless conversation on doomsday scenarios for humanities and contrary to my own pessimistic nature, I feel there is still hope and time for us to make a strong argument for the humanities.

The problem lies in the scope of the argument. Stanley Fish’s cynical essay has already given up on some of the most powerful arguments about the humanities. Fish is doing a great disservice to the humanities by suggesting that nobody buys the argument that humanities produce “well-rounded workers” for corporations. Of course, he forgets that humanities do not produce just some abstract “well-rounded workers” but people with tangible skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking that equips future workers to articulate strong arguments, solve problems in humane and creative ways, and function effectively in global and diverse environments.

And although Fish gives up on the argument about the value of humanities, he nevertheless wants “senior academic administrators” to keep making those same arguments: “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…”. It is in this regard that Fish’s argument is most narrow. He wants the elitist minority of “presidents and chancellors,” whose interests do not often align with those of students’ or of the public’s, to be the leaders in this advocacy.

In contrast to Fish, I think we need to widen the scope and broaden the participation in this argument for humanities. Academic administrators and humanities teachers are not the only stakeholders in this debate. The students would be getting an incomplete education if language, arts, and literature programs were cut. The medicine programs have already incorporated some humanities content in the form of ethics and cultural sensitivity trainings, and would not be happy if those resources were now taken away. The corporations would be enraged if their newly-hired employees could not write even one coherent paragraph. So we need to see their outrage about the cuts in humanities.

Do you think we will see this outrage?

SD: I absolutely agree that we need to see the outrage over the decline of the humanities.  And this outrage should not just stem from high-level administrators at elite universities but also from the broader non-academic world.  Although Fish takes pains to articulate that no one except a few hundred academics even understand the work that stems from humanities departments such as English, it is important to still value it as a discipline of study that can and should be translated into other fields. Just because I don’t necessarily understand all medical or legal terminology doesn’t mean that I don’t think there is use-value associated with those fields.

The non-academic world should fight for the humanities.  This fight, contrary to Fish’s offense-based strategy, needs to come from all social structures, from family units to transnational corporations.  Families should want to produce children who value history, literature, and the arts because these fields provide us with a critical lens that is crucial to our growth as individuals and societies.  Transnational corporations, at the other extreme, should also fight for the humanities because the discipline provides companies with workers who understand the social, political, cultural, and economic shifts in the way that our borders expand and constrict through human interaction and transaction. In other words, the humanities ultimately serve the business of global capitalism in a way that science and math simply can’t.

Fish’s solution doesn’t even really address the real problem, which is one of reorganization and restructuring society and politics to incorporate the humanities in an effective and efficient way that meets the demands of global capitalism and unprecedented innovation in technology and science. Simply putting select administrators on the spot won’t cut it.  Instead, it minimizes the issue as one that only affects a small group of individuals who supposedly occupy an obsolete space, a corner of the Ivory Tower.

Isn’t this an issue for everyone and not those who are stuck within the confines of academia?

SM: You rightly point out that the academic humanities’ investment in the use of arcane theoretical jargon does not lead to the conclusion that they are not valuable or useful for the society at large. Fish draws a rather stark and rigid, also in my view – artificial, opposition between humanities as an academic enterprise and humanities as a part of public culture. In his follow-up essay to “Crisis of the Humanities,” he writes: “The mistake is to think that the line of justification should go from the pleasure many derive from plays, poems, novels, films, etc., to a persuasive account of how academic work enhances or even produces that pleasure. It may or may not, but if it does, that’s an accidental benefit.”

But, as you say, Fish is here only deflecting the argument. He forgets that the crisis in humanities within the university is not being defined against its value or non-value to the humanities in public culture but against other “financially lucrative,” and therefore in- demand, disciplines like engineering, medicine, and business. And the argument to be made, then, is that the academic pursuit of humanities is crucial to these other disciplines.

The corporate need for a strong humanities component in the university is evident in this op-ed piece published in The New York Times on Bloomsday this summer, which tells the story of W.D. Gillen , the president of  Bell Telephone of Pennsylvania in 1954, who sent his technical and engineering employees to an intensive training in humanities, where else but in the university, to equip them for company positions that “would need broader views than their backgrounds had so far given them.” As the op-ed author Wes Davis writes of the value and need for humanities in academia: “We need fewer drifting straws on the stream of American business, and more discontented thinkers who listen thoughtfully to both sides of our national debates. Reading Ulysses this Bloomsday may be more than just a literary observance. Think of it as an act of fiscal responsibility.”

The above example demonstrates that if we want to resolve the crisis of the humanities, we need to stop making it a zero-sum system with the other disciplines. The growth in sciences and business studies does not have to automatically mean a crisis of the humanities. Contrary to Fish’s arguments that the academic study of humanities has real benefits only for the humanities departments, we need to argue that the academic pursuit of humanities makes study of medicine and engineering more effective, and vice versa. A splendid example of the need for intertwined academic study of humanities and sciences was published in The New York Times on the same day as Fish’s essay: a profile of South Asian American physician and writer Dr. Abraham Verghese. Dr. Verghese’s profile reveals the false opposition between humanities and sciences that current arguments about crisis of humanities set up:

Art and medicine may seem disparate worlds, but Dr. Verghese insists that for him they are one. Doctors and writers are both collectors of stories, and he says his two careers have the same joy and the same prerequisite: “infinite curiosity about other people.” He cannot help secretly diagnosing ailments in strangers, or wondering about the lives his patients lead outside the hospital.

“People are endlessly mysterious,” he said in an interview in his office at the medical school, where volumes of poetry share the bookshelves with medical texts, family photos and a collection of reflex hammers.

His sources of inspiration include W. Somerset Maugham and Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. In addition to his medical degree, he has one from the writing workshop at the University of Iowa.

Of course, humanities and sciences are not the same; they are different but not necessarily opposed. Dr. Verghese is a powerful reminder that there is always an art and a history of sciences and business.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: