Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Dr. Stanley Fish recently did a blog post about the decline of the humanities on the NY Times blogs. I found his post to be okay, but I really loved a comment on that blog from Peter Power, who appears to be an English and Ethnic Studies prof at Messiah College, which I adored. I even wrote him fan mail saying so. If he can teach his classes as well as he writes blog comments, his students are well served. Anyway, I am copying his comment here for preservation. It makes the most sense in the context of Fish' article, but is worthy apart from it as well.


Professor Fish maintains an admirable consistency as he always has in refusing to argue for the liberal arts broadly and the humanities more specifically on the basis of their utilitarian value to society. However, it's unclear on what basis he really does expect leaders of our academic institutions to carry the day politically in their arguments for the liberal arts. The force of their argument can't simply be that they can speak with facility and argue more vociferously for the right to keep humanists employed. In the end this is merely an argument to keep trolley car drivers employed when no one rides the trolley. Even more, facility and force in argument depend as much on having something substantive worth saying as they do on rhetorical skill. And so the question of value can't easily be sidestepped.

There are cases to be made, however, for the utility of the liberal arts for society, and they aren't just Victorian sentimentalities. The pursuit of Truth through rigorous inquiry has been thought to be the foundation of a just Republic since Plato, not since Matthew Arnold. At its root, as I'm sure Professor Fish well knows, the liberal arts are the practices and disciplines appropriate to a free person. And while in Artistotle's day this freedom was rigidly restricted to the ruling classes, there is one strong strain of the liberal arts that suggests that the pursuit of knowledge is not the privileged pastime of the tenured few but the effective means of liberating oneself and others--from ill-considered prejudice, from superstitious ignorance, or, appropriate to our own age, from the onslaught of misinformation, among many other things. When African Americans slaves sought learning, they were not merely seeking a disciplinary delight. They were seeking freedom. I doubt they had time for sentimentality.

Professor Fish is suspicious that these views of the liberal arts have about them the genteel whiff of the nineteenth century gentleman. Perhaps they do. But they speak to an idealism that is missing in our discourse and that has the force to speak to human aspirations that we do not exist solely for the pursuit of bread. We exist also for the betterment of our selves and others. Milton, for whom Professor Fish so often serves as avatar, said that the end of learning is to repair the ruin of our first parents. In short, and in more secular terms, learning ought to serve the purpose of making ourselves and our world better than it is now. A utilitarian virtue in Milton's world, even though not a commercial one. At least part of the problem is that we have ceased entirely to speak in any terms like these regarding the role of learning in our world, and humanists have been at the forefront of our somewhat suspicious sneering at the ideals of education. This is not to say that our current crisis is to be blamed on its humanist victims; but it is to say that we have been poor defenders, and it is clear that no one else can do it for us.

Our president's soaring rhetoric in so many other instances can only say about his educational programs that they will help people get jobs. Important to be sure, but not likely to do much for the humanities. Whereas if we asked what it might take to make us more informed, thoughtful and engaged citizenry, if we asked what it might take to make us a better country instead of simply a richer one, we might actually have to ask whether the humanities and the liberal arts more generally had something to contribute that was of central social value. These are values that must be argued for, to be sure, but at least they are substantial ideals to be championed no matter how imperfectly they have been realized in practice. Without such ideals and without a willingness to embrace the idea that our education can do good in the world beyond the walls of our disciplines and our universities, it's unclear what grounds an academic leader can take to defend the liberal arts with the passion and conviction that will be necessary. I doubt, sincerely, that the desire to save Professor Fish's job, or my own, will be sufficient.


Peter Dudley said...

A constant battle, I think, that champions of our better selves must fight. For some reason, this put me in mind of that famous quote, which does not quit fit but which came to mind anyway: "Have You No Decency, Sir? At Long Last, Have You No Sense of Decency?"

If we do not have people like Power to stand up for the sissy ideals of pursuit of betterment, then we end up with a world full of McCarthys. I think that's maybe why the quote popped into my head.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

ok, i'm calmer now. phew.

what i said was along these lines:

i wish everyone could spend several years on a liberal arts education, since it made such a difference to me, changed the way i looked at the world, and, i believe, made me a better contributor to society.

i also wish that we had more inspiring math (and science) teachers for early and middle elementary, so that we didn't cultivate this mass hysteria against those subjects in this country.

lastly, i wish more education initiatives pushed the two as being socially compatible. then maybe we could solve some of our practical distresses.

if wishes were wings, blah blah blah.

Sarah Laurenson said...

We need art. We need philosophy. We need culture. We need balance more than anything.

Great teachers liberally spread around the country and over the various socio-economic classes would be awesome.