Higher Education

Stanley Fish on the use of the humanities

Perhaps you've already read some of Fish's work in the NY Times. Here I think Fish makes an interesting comment on the (lack of) usefulness of the humanities. As you follow the article to the end, Fish makes some comment that reading literature or philosophy or historical texts might lead to "critical thinking" (though he largely dismisses this, noting that there are plenty of places to learn that). He then settles on the value of the humanities in providing people with subject matter for interesting dinner conversations.

I have to say that I think most people view the humanities that way, although they might use a different adjective than "interesting."

Actually Fish's defense of the humanities is that they have no use at all….. Hmmm. I wonder if that's some kind of insanity defense? Just kidding. I understand where Fish is coming from. I think most of us in the humanities can at least recognize this position. One studies the humanities in order to study the humanities, not in order to produce some secondary effect or use value.

And that's actually fine. I imagine most employees in most jobs have reasons for doing their work that are very different from the reasons their employers pay them to do the work. But it can be dangerous to mistake one set of motives for the other.

I think historically, one would discover that the study of the humanities (at least from the perspective of our employers) has never been simply for its own sake. As we know in the mid-19th century, students studied literature to develop their own rhetorical skills. And certainly the common argument is that the central role of English in the 20th century had to do with the perceived utility of literature in developing a national cultural identity and educating a literate workforce. I would not doubt for a moment that few English professors viewed their jobs in that way. Many might have felt like Fish.

And yet I think it would be naive on Fish's part to imagine that over the time of his career that (from his employers' perspective) his work in the humanities was not useful. In such formulations, usefulness is relative and a function of the market.

Although much has changed, I think the structure of this argument still holds. The humanities can provide an education in literacy and a now global rather than national identity.  There are many crucial ethical questions that we must consider in this generation, for which science or social science has no answer. And yes, Fish is right to suggest that there are possibly other places where these issues can and should be discussed. But as long as higher education believes there is use in having such discussions within the curriculum, there is a place for the humanities.

However, as Fish points out, the real difficulty begins when we start to discuss our esoteric research:

What benefit do literary studies hold out to those asked to support
them? Not much of anything except the (parochial) excitement
experienced by those caught up in arcane discussions of the mirror

stage, the trace, the subaltern and the performative. (Don’t ask.)

As he recognizes is the case with other disciplines, there is nothing inherently wrong with having a specialized discourse; the problem is that nothing "useful" ever comes out of our specialized discourse. Actually for Fish, this isn't a problem: the humanities are not supposed to have a use. And here I disagree. The humanities ought to be about trying to understand the human experience in ways that escape our colleagues across the quad, and we ought to be sharing that with those beyond our discipline. And I do think there is use in "theory," and I would suggest that Foucault, Deleuze, and others saw their work as having uses as well.

I realize that might seem pollyanna. But then you also have to ask: if Stanley Fish thinks the humanities has no use, then why does he write for the NYT? Is it for the money? Is he not famous enough yet? Or maybe he thinks he does have something useful to say to people.

In any case, I think this is a version of a deeper set of concerns about the humanities. With philosophy at its core, the humanities are fundamentally a contemplative tradition. And I think the question has long been where our responsibility lies to society. One sees this with religious orders as well. Personally I would tend toward the interventionist side. Not b/c I think we know best but b/c it is unethical (and probably uninteresting), in my view, to sit on the sidelines of life. I don't know if this makes humanistic contemplation directly useful. I know humanities' lessons are not determining. You can appreciate the arts and be a Nazi. However contemplation may offer tools or tactics of one kind or the other.

In the modern day formulation though, the university is now in the marketplace. This does give the notion of "use" a particular charge. Maybe as a rhetorician I'm more comfortable in the market. For me, the rules of the market seem no less arbitrary or insidious than the rules of the academy. Rhetoric, having not faired too well in the 20th century version of higher ed, maybe has less to lose as well. I don't know.

I do think humanities has had its uses and can find new uses. Maybe we will not be able to be so blithely ignorant of the uses to which our labor is being put (though to be honest, I'm quite skeptical of Fish's accounting of himself). But this will not happen automatically. And it will mean changing what we do and how we do it. But isn't this the definition of a living intellectual enterprise?