My mother e-mailed this morning, pointing me to an article by Stanley Fish titled Will the Humanities Save Us?, and a follow-up piece titled The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two. Both were published on his blog at the New York Times. My mom was curious what I thought, but the articles are very interesting, and so I thought that I would share them and my reaction to them.
Before I get into the articles themselves, I should mention that I’ve never been a particular fan of Fish and his academic work — and in fact, I’ve been openly hostile to the developments that he’s lead in literary theory. (NB: This is _NOT_ the subject of the articles. I just want to give a little background instead of throwing that out there and moving on.) He’s been an influential figure in the development and popularization of Reader-Response Criticism as a school of literary interpretation and analysis, through the concept of Interpretive Communities. This particular approach to literary theory emphasizes the role of the reader in creating the meaning of a text, which makes sense to a point. Basically, the meaning of text changes depending on the cultural lens through which it is read. It’s not a bad idea when well applied and bounded, but it’s been taken (by others, for the most part) to logical extremes that limit speech and thought. In some views, the fact that some speech could be taken badly in some other frame of reference makes that speech prima facie impermissible. (You may recognize this as being, basically, what political correctness is all about — attempting to limit language on the basis of all possible cultural contexts, in the event that any one of them may possibly be interpreted in a negative way.)
But, anyway, on to the articles.
Will the Humanities Save Us? takes on the question of justification for the humanities; why should it be pursued, why it should be funded, and why its pursuit should be looked upon favorably. Fish cites Anthony Kronman arguing that the value of the humanities is that they allow one who studies them to live a richer, fuller life — a life with meaning. Fish goes on to argue that having been in academic departments in the humanities, he can say from a position of some authority that those who spend all of their time around great books and humanistic arguments do not, in fact, lead lives that are fundamentally more meaningful than others.
Fish concludes by saying, “To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.”
In the follow-up piece, The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two, Fish extends the conclusion quoted above at some length, and responds to two further proposed justifications (provided by readers in the comments on the original, which is pretty cool when you think about it). The first of these is the argument that the humanities teach critical thinking; the second, that study of the humanities makes people more complete and more interesting. The first argument Fish counters by saying that critical thinking, while plainly a good thing, can be taught in any number of arenas (he cites watching the news, or sports talk radio, as examples). As it’s not the exclusive domain of the humanities, it can’t be a justification for the existence of the humanities. To the second argument, Fish offers a rebuttal that is essentially political (and very amusingly stated): “it won’t do as a defense society will take seriously to say, Let’s support the humanities so that Stanley Fish and his friends have more people to talk to.”
So, what do I think?
Well, I basically agree with Fish that the study of the humanities doesn’t create external value in any sense conventionally measurable. Goodness knows that I think that funding folks like Jacques Derrida is a ridiculous waste of time and energy, given the crap that he produced. (I was tempted to add Gaytari Skivak as another example, since she has managed to take apparently rather excellent thought and mangle the hell out of in everything of hers that I’ve ever read. But I imagine that there’s something out there, somewhere, that’s comprehensible, since some people seem to have figured out what she’s talking about (and I love what she’s talking about, if they’ve got it right!). Unlike Derrida, from whom I am quite confident there is not anything of any value.)
But, I think that Fish too easily dismisses the arguments raised in the comments on his first piece, and addressed in the second.
On the question of critical thinking, he is correct that something similar comes of watching and thinking about the evening news, or even listening to sports talk radio. But, the type of critical thinking being discussed is different, one that involves a different level of rigor from deep involvement with a text. It’s the critical thinking of a participant, not a recipient. It’s active, not passive. And it’s different in the humanities than in other areas of inquiry.
Once that particular skill — active, deep engagement with an idea — has been learned, it can be applied in other situations, with benefits that extend to the greater world.
I’m thinking here of my own experience, being as I’m a computer guy with a degree in Philosophy. I don’t spend my days reading essays, but I do spend my days trying to dig out the obscured meaning of coded data. Phrased another way, my job is to analyze text, even if it is formatted a little bit differently from the work of Kant or Plato (or Fish, for that matter). Because I’m coming from the humanities instead of the sciences, I’m not limited in the type of text to which I can apply this experience, in the way that many of my colleagues seem to be. These things, put together, make me a more productive and more valuable employee. I don’t know how one would measure that value, but I feel pretty comfortable saying that the value exists.
(One could argue the inverse, I suppose, that studying the humanities has resulted in my writing this blog post instead of finishing the presentation I’m giving tomorrow on Python. But I think the overall sum is positive.)
Having once taught middle school, I would say that the same is true of younger students as well. The skills, though amorphous and hard (impossible?) to quantify, once learned, do transfer.
On the question of study of the humanities making people more interesting, I’d again agree that non-stultifying dinner parties are not enough. But I wonder whether there is one additional audience that needs to be considered here: the individual himself. It seems to me that the ability to engage one’s self about the subjects of humanistic inquiry might provide some kind value to the world at large. I’m not thinking here of the “professional Professor”, if you will, but of Joe Average (and his lovely wife, Jane). I think that approaching humanistic subjects might, at some level, make Joe and Jane happy, or happier, or more productive, or more relaxed, or…
In this second case, I’m not sure how to quantify the benefit. I just have a sense that it exists.
In the end, I do agree with Fish that the primary benefit of study in the humanities is internal — the process is the reward. But I don’t think that’s the only benefit.