January 15, 2008

Après Fish, le déluge?

Professor Stanley Fish, at the end of a distinguished career, is trying earnestly to pull the academic edifice of the humanities down on the heads of his professional successors. He recently asked "Will the Humanities Save Us?" (NYT, 1/6/2008), and discussed the question at greater length in "The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two" (NYT, 1/13/2008). These essays, structured as conversations with commenters on his blog, are a lucid exploration of a complex and important topic. His conclusion:

To the question "of what use are the humanities?", the only honest answer is none whatsoever.

Prof. Fish doesn't bring up the logically related question "how many faculty positions should be devoted to the humanities?" But I will. And as he frames the issues, at least, the only honest answer is roughly one tenth of the current number.

Fish considers, and eloquently rejects, the standard arguments about "well rounded citizens", the enobling powers of classic texts, and so on. And he ends his second column this way:

Nguyen Chau Giao asks, "Dr. Fish, when was the last time you read a poem . . . that so moved you to take certain actions to improve your lot or others?" To tell the truth, I can't remember a single time. But I can remember countless times when I've read a poem (like Herbert's "Matins") and said "Wow!" or "Isn't that just great?" That's more than enough in my view to justify the enterprise of humanistic study, but I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment.

Given his sketch of the nature of the humanities in academia today, any honest and dispassionate observer is likely to agree with him. And some would paint a much darker picture of this part of the intellectual landscape.

Then why has the world been persuaded to subsidize Prof. Fish's wonderment? The answer, as he suggests but doesn't say, is that the deal went down a century ago, when both academia and the wider world still shared a conceptual framework that Fish explicitly and persuasively rejects:

You can talk ... about "well rounded citizens," but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people.

And in any case, as he might have added, many if not most academic humanists deny that the traditional cultural canon should be taught, or that any another body of canonized culture ought to replace it.

So why does the MLA -- to name just one of the professional associations of academic humanists -- still have 30,000 members? There are two obvious reasons: externally, many influential people still accept the "ideal [that] belongs to an earlier period"; and internally, academia is one of the most conservative cultures in the world. Adding new things is possible there, given money; but removing old things is very hard. This is partly because of the tenure system, but mostly, I think, it's just a deeply ingrained cultural conservatism, compared to which your typical Saudi salafist is homo economicus.

Prof. Fish's question "of what use are the humanities?" used to have a set of very specific answers.  The details, and certainly the emphasis, varied over time and space. But broadly speaking, academic humanists were expected to teach grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, ethics, and theology; to give their students the concepts and skills needed to  read and interpret important texts, both sacred and profane; to that end, to improve and transmit the knowledge of classical languages and literatures; to investigate the languages and literatures of other ancient civilizations; to document modern languages and cultures, especially the dominant language of each nation-state; to keep the past alive through historical narrative, and to extend those narratives into the advancing present.

There were disagreements and debates about ancient vs. modern languages, about the role of religion and of nationalism, about the place of engineering and science in the academy, about the balance between research and teaching, about access for women and for less wealthy citizens, and so on. But details aside, there was broad agreement among the elites of Western societies that the academic humanities were useful, as a critical component of the machinery of cultural transmission that made those societies what they were. Perhaps only a few percent attended the colleges and universities, but these in turn supplied tutors, teachers, priests and ministers who directly or indirectly reached the rest of the population.

This is the deal that was in place when the current structure of the college and university system was established, which (at least in the U.S.) was during the decades around the start of the 20th century. In that context, it made sense for the majority of faculty positions to be allocated to humanities departments. Over the past century, the proportion has been eroded -- though (I believe) that this is because new things have been added, mostly in science and engineering, and not because the size of humanities departments has been reduced.

My own view is that the answer to the question "of what use are colleges and universities?" is pretty much the same as it always was. We academics are part of the machinery that creates and maintains the society that we live in. These days, that machinery is much more democratic than it was in 1900, and science and engineering play a bigger role, and there have been many other changes -- but the basic structure of the situation is the same.

Most of the changes since 1900 have been positive ones, but not all of them. And in particular, most of the changes in the humanities -- and the humanistic end of the social sciences - strike me as very problematic for the academic future of the disciplines involved. As Prof. Fish eloquently explains, the social contract that established the humanities in academia is now void. At least, the most of the academic humanists think that it is. Most of them would vigorously reject the idea that they might be part of a system for creating and sustaining their society's culture. Many of them see their role as actively opposing any such system.

As a result, if someone were to take a rational, zero-based-budgeting look at the modern university, I suspect that very little of what now goes on in humanities departments would survive. My estimate of 10% is crude and subjective, but perhaps it will do to stimulate discussion.

To avoid misunderstanding:

1) I'm not really suggesting that a rationally reconstructed modern college or university should cut the humanities by a factor of 10. It might be that the humanities would be even larger than they are now, though not on Stanley Fish's definition of what humanists do. The issue is content, not size.

2) I'm not suggesting that the omitted content is without value or interest, including to me, just that a rationally-organized university would probably not decide to pay someone to work on it. I include some of my own active interests in this category.

4) I'm not proposing that higher education should be organized on narrowly utilitarian or trade-school lines. On the contrary.

5) Most academics that I know, including the physicists and computer scientists and biologists, do what they do because they love it, and are as grateful -- and sometimes as perplexed -- as Stanley Fish is that someone is willing to pay them to do it. This is a good thing all around, for obvious reasons. So I'm certainly not suggesting that anyone start assigning socially-useful topics in order to reform unwilling humanists.

5)  I recognize that attempts at wholesale rational reorganizations of complex institutions are usually anything but rational and anything but successful. I participated in a series of more or less catastrophic events of that sort at AT&T, between the 1984 consent decree and 1990, when I gratefully moved to academia. So I understand that the cultural conservatism of the academy has many positive aspects -- it prevents shallow and arrogant spreadsheet-mongers from rapidly destroying institutions that, all in all, still work very well.

But slower and more diffuse forces of the same sort will still have their way, eventually, if Fish's perspective continues to dominate. Sooner or later, the Antarctic icecap of academic humanities departments will melt -- perhaps rather abruptly, by the geological standards of academic politics.

6) Finally, my own discipline of linguistics is sometimes counted among the humanities, sometimes among the social sciences, and sometimes among the natural sciences. Often it's not counted at all -- most American colleges and universities don't have linguistics departments. The humanistic side of linguistics tends to be much more like the old-fashioned humanities of the 18th and 19th centuries: philology and lexicography and dialectology and so on. This may explain my own nostalgia for the days before the advent of what my colleagues in literary studies call "theory".

[If you have a short observation, or a link to your own or someone else's longer discussion of related issues, let me know and I'll post it. I may not have time to answer all email, so let me apologize in advance to those I don't get back to.]

[William Benzon writes:

Over at The Valve we have several discussions of Fish's blogs. I've set up basic links to his posts without really commenting on them myself, though others have in comments to my links: Fish 1, Fish 2.

My colleague Joseph Kugelmass has written a considered reply to the first piece, and that has generated quite a bit of commentary. He has also commented on Fish's second piece.

Bill also noted that Stanley Fish

...wrote a few very influential essays in the early 70s that dampened lit crit interest in linguistics. While I think his essays were valid - he was criticizing stylistics experts & linguists who oversold their wares -- the dampening effects were unfortunate. Literary study would be in much better shape if more people had been imaginative enough to pay attention to the so-called cognitive revolution.

Well, in 2005 Fish published a NYT Op-Ed arguing that the best way to teach freshman writing -- or at least the way that he choses to do it -- is to divide students into groups and make each group "[create] its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students". (See "Stanley Fish moves into linguistics", 5/31/2005, for discussion.)  I guess that this illustrates Fish's reputation for unweaving by night what he weaves by day.

And Bill also sent a link to "Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker", The Valve, 9/19/2007 (which includes a response from Pinker).]

[Commenting on Bill Benzon's post at The Valve, John Emerson got in a zinger:

Fish certainly does well represent the corruption of those who hold long-established but now functionless sinecures.

I like to think that my own position is functional, in the sense that I give good value to the students, contributors and grant funders who pay my salary. I bet that Stanley Fish feels the same way about his own contributions, when he isn't trying to make a point pour épater les bourgeois. If not, wouldn't he quit and earn his way as a freelance writer and lecturer?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 15, 2008 01:51 PM