Things Need to Be What They Are

Please go read Adam Daniel and Chad Wellmon’s piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The University Run Amok!

Daniel and Wellmon get it.  In spades and stinging sunshine.  As Stanley Fish and others (including your humble blogger) have argued, the humanities need to stop “marketing” themselves as something they aren’t and can’t deliver, and start focusing on simply being what they are.  Without apology.  Daniel and Wellmon make a compelling argument that universities should do the same:

The conflicting interests of the public, the systemic and long-term disinvestment in public institutions more broadly, the amalgamation of public and private interests — all of these make any return to an unalloyed commitment to an idealized “public” difficult and ill-advised.  The university’s democratic commitments have become too centrifugal, pulling apart its interests, energies, and purposes.  To save itself and to better serve its democratic purpose, the university needs to be not more but less reactive to public demands.

Yes!  Yes! And yes!  Universities need to stop trying to be all things to all people and start privileging their traditional function as centers of learning and research again.  Drop the lounging pools
(University of Texas at Austin) and the climbing walls (University of Houston) and having the largest Jacuzzi on the West Coast (Washington State University).

Stop trying to attract more “customers” with expensive toys that have nothing to do with education.  If the only way you can stay in “business” as an educational institution is by waving around expensive, budget-eating gewgaws then you’ve already lost the game.

If such tricks actually worked to generate enough money to save humanities departments, then Washington State University wouldn’t have killed its theater department and then entirely eliminated its performing arts program as it “spent its way to football relevancy” to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.  The quote headlines Brent Schrotenboer’s article in USA Today.

Schrotenboer begins by describing WSU’s newly ramped-up investment in football:

This is what a serious investment project looks like in major college football – a five-story, $61 million building that has a cafeteria staffed with two full-time chefs, a mini-barbershop in the locker room and a top level full of coaches’ offices overlooking the stadium below.

There’s more.  “In fiscal year 2016, WSU athletics got about $800,000 in help from student fees and $3.7 million direct support from the school’s general fund, according to NCAA financial forms.”   But now . . . after all this investment, the athletic department, which has posted operating deficits for six years, owes $51.5 million in debt to the university.  Schrotenboer reports that:

The debt has stretched the Cougars to capacity, meaning they can’t borrow more without coming up with new revenue sources. . . . And they are already looking for ways to pay for more facility upgrades to keep up with the competition and attract top talent, including an indoor practice facility for the football team and other sports projected to cost $28 million.

By the way, Coach Mike Leach’s salary was about $3 million in 2016, almost as much the $3.7 million support from the general fund.

But, hey, a truly expensive budget-busting program, like Performing Arts, which chewed up “more than $1.6 million in funding from University reserves” over 7 years (!) “is simply not sustainable given other pressing budget challenges.”  At least, this is what President Kirk Schulz wrote in a letter addressed to the campus community last fall, a letter that sententiously proclaims across the top:   “Balancing the budget requires compromise, sacrifice”.

Of course it does.  Unless it’s the sports budget, in which case running operating deficits for six years, going into $51.5 million debt with no way to borrow more, and asking for an additional $28 million “to keep up with the competition” requires  . . . what?   Balls?  But this additional investment will trickle through to other programs because Leach says “It doesn’t just help us.  It helps other sports.”

There’s a handy summary of this situation here.

Note, this decision has nothing to do with whether performing arts majors are on track for good paying jobs, unless you somehow believe that student athletes are on track for good paying jobs.  They’re not.  They’re not even on track to getting an education, because excelling at football to generate money so more athletes can get exploited to generate more money consumes all their time.

Daniel and Wellmon sketch three major traditions that inform the American university. There’s the 19th century ideal of the “pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.”  There’s the ideal that originated in Germany of  “the university as an institution devoted to specialized research.”

These visions obviously augment each other.

And then there’s William Rainey Harper, the founding president of the University of Chicago, who proclaimed that the university was “of the people, and for the people, whether considered individually or collectively.”  The university was “the agency established by heaven itself to proclaim the principles of democracy.”  More to the point, Woodrow Wilson, whom Daniel and Wellmon also quote, said a few years earlier, “it is not learning but the spirit of service that will give a college place in the public annals of the nation.” (emphasis mine)

Huh?  One of these things is not like the other.  Harper was a fool.  So was Wilson, on this issue.  The university is not a democratically elected government.  It stands for itself and its own business.  Learning is the university’s spirit of service, performed through research and education.  When learning is considered separate and secondary to public service, the university qua university ceases to exist.

But Wilson’s “spirit of service” nonsense has now turned elitist.  Public universities and smaller colleges are choosing to demonstrate that “spirit of service” by tossing out humanities programs in favor of majors with “clear career pathways” to corporate jobs, while private universities that cater to wealthy elites manage to keep their humanities programs.  Which of those groups of colleges are more likely candidates for the “public annals of the nation”?   Or does the “spirit of service” and Harper’s “principles of democracy” now mean preparing the 99% to serve the 1%?  When universities participate in offloading the 1%’s job-training costs onto the 99%’s student loans, it’s certainly a service to somebody.

Serve the public.  Serve humanity.  Stop destroying opportunities to learn about ourselves.

Universities serve the public by offering education and research.  If that means attracting fewer “customers” it also means not spending money to entice people who are more interested in jumbo Jacuzzis and football rankings than education.

I know how Quixotic this all sounds – how annoyingly Romantic and impractical and unfit for the “real world” and everything else.   But in the real world, things need to be what they are.  That would solve a lot of problems.  Universities are not businesses, they are temples of higher learning and research.

Art, music, history, language – all of these things should matter primarily for their own sake, for what insights they give us into the human condition.  That, and that alone, is how they serve the world.

But everybody wants to be Amazon, so here we are.  And Amazon, apparently, would like to be its own university.

Daniel and Wellmon write that “American universities understand themselves as institutions in service to the public.”

Universities really need to stop understanding themselves.  First of all, nobody understands themselves.   People just grab onto useful or flattering models to get themselves through the day, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who can say with a straight face that they “understand” themselves.  Institutions even more so.  Institutions set goals, adopt marketing plans, try to attract customers.  And whatever form suits those goals that week is what they play at being.  “Understanding” themselves is always a species of marketing.   Set yourself up as multi-billion dollar business and I guarantee you will suddenly “understand” yourself as a multi-billion dollar business.  Set yourself up as an institution with a sacred mandate to pass down knowledge to the next generation and you will return to “understanding yourself” as something much better.

In a brave new world where everybody has to be everything, nobody gets to be anything.

The War on the Humanities: Humanists are the Weak Flank

I’ve blogged about three fronts in the War on the Humanities: the right wing, the corporate takeover of higher education, and artists themselves.

In a brave opinion piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “When Humanists Undermine the Humanities”, Professor Eric Adler describes another problem: Humanists who can’t get out of their own way.

Or, as Adler puts it, “many humanities scholars are themselves responsible for the lowly place of the humanities in higher education.”

Unfortunately, he’s right.

Adler anticipates Stanley Fish’s argument in “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities”—which I take up here—when he writes that “the study of literature and the arts will never survive without the means to defend its value on its own terms.” He questions the “humanities will save democracy” defense by pointing out that humanities study isn’t the only gateway to critical thinking; sociology, mathematics, and other disciplines are also a way in. Adler calls the democracy defense, “well intentioned” but argues that it “exemplifies the humanities’ demise.”

He’s right again. But not solely because other disciplines offer gateways to critical thought. The problem here is using an argument model that came from the business world and force-fitting the humanities into the model. The humanities are not a business and critical thinking is not a widget. But even if they were, you don’t save an endangered business by claiming it has a monopoly on a certain good when it’s obvious that anyone who cares to can buy that same good up and down the street. It’s even less effective if the so-called good is in low demand, like critical thought. But it’s dangerously fatuous if your patter reveals that you are in short supply of the very item on which you claim to have a run.  If you defend the humanities by asserting that they are the only source of critical thinking, then you don’t understand critical thinking.

Can we please stop buying into corporate free market paradigms to defend the humanities as if the humanities have some quantifiable numbers driven value? Like shoes and tires? Step right up, we’re your only source of democracy-saving critical thought! It isn’t helpful, it’s often embarrassing, and it sets the whole game up for failure. The same humanists who are experts in pointing out the colonization of wide swaths of human experiences by one dominant culture, whether that be patriarchy, Eurocentrism, or anything else, insist on letting corporate free market structures colonize the way we defend the value of humanities studies. Why is that?

By the way, I’m not against actual free markets as applied to goods that have a true measurable value. Markets work as well as anything when they really are free instead of hi-jacked into serving the pretense that the system isn’t rigged. The corporatocracy couldn’t survive in a truly free market; that’s why we don’t have one. Rent-seekers understand that competition and risk-taking don’t guarantee profit; so they colonize the market into something more congenial to their interests, just as they’re colonizing the universities into toothless trade schools. But that’s a different issue.

Humanists need to keep the language of the corporatocracy out of the deeper issues of human experience that the humanities address. And humanists need to embrace these deeper issues for their own sake and stop garbling the field into something it isn’t to placate disheveled market forces. It’s beyond awkward. The humanities are not, and never were, a data-driven enterprise.

The problem is that these corporate structures have divided humanists against each other as effectively as they have divided the rest of American society. And the penchant for what I call “American extremism”—the black & white thinking that shackles every aspect of our culture—does the rest. Adler observes that leftists have attempted “to subordinate concern for aesthetics and intellectual merit to the inculcation of political values.” Traditionalists have made “aesthetic quality and intellectual import” key. Often, as many have argued, while ignoring the political and social implications of teaching a canon of great works by authors who do not represent the majority of humanity. The traditional western canon is a political construct, too.

As Adler recognizes, those positions needn’t be in opposition:

This is not to say that we should turn a blind eye to diversity and inclusiveness. After all, the culture wars were fruitful in helping demonstrate that a variety of cultural traditions are home to works of great beauty and profundity.

The problem is, without aesthetic quality and intellectual import, we’re “left with impoverished justifications for undergraduate courses in literature and the arts.”

He’s still right.

Note to the left: when “aesthetic quality and intellectual import” become secondary concerns to politicizing the humanities, you are teaching propaganda, not poetry. Teach poetry—teach beauty and joy and despair and hope—and you will open your students’ hearts and minds to the only politics that matters, that of being human.

Note to the right: when you privilege “aesthetic quality and intellectual import” but fail to acknowledge the politics of canon-making and the social structures that have facilitated those politics, you aren’t teaching the humanities in the purest sense, because you’re eliminating 99% of the varieties of experience of what it means to be human.

You guys need each other. But what also needs to happen is for all humanists, whatever part of the political spectrum they occupy, to close ranks and focus on the study of the human condition as its own justification. The true enemy isn’t and shouldn’t be your colleague down the hall with a different approach to the canon, that’s an in-house argument. There are as many ways to teach the subject of being human as there are to be human.

The enemy is corporate forces who want to limit access to critical thinking and are very successful at manipulating the general public into believing that humanities studies will impoverish their kids.

So please, for the love of all things holy, stop defending the humanities with corporate-colored arguments.

The Traditional Defenses of The Humanities are Dead, and Everybody Knows it. A Humble Suggestion in Support of Humanities Education (Part 2)

So how do we save the liberal arts? I have a humble suggestion. It isn’t the entire answer; it’s more journey than destination. And it isn’t ideal. Ideal is the traditional disciplined focused study of an area of learning under experienced scholars at a university. The major. But as more universities abandon the humanities, it may be an ark.

I ended Part 1 with this qualifier.  My humble suggestion is not a solution to the current crisis.  It’s not a way to create more faculty positions. That candle went dark decades ago, as any recent humanities PhD can tell you.  It’s also not a way to save current faculty jobs or humanities departments.  As Fish writes, only “administrators with a firm and unshakable understanding . . . of the academic enterprise and a resolve to protect it no matter what forces . . . are arrayed against it” can do that.  Feeling confident?

A bloodbath is coming and traditional arguments won’t stop it.  See Part 1.  My suggestion does have some obvious drawbacks.  But as more and more universities destroy their liberal arts programs in order to “save education,” it’s possibly a beggar’s rope.

But before I tell you what my suggestion is, here’s a brief report from the battlefield.  According to the New York Post, North Carolina high schools have proposed to only teach American history from 1877 forward.  No doubt to avoid the inconvenience of discussing that nasty business of the 1860s.

And according to The Guardian, SUNY Stony Brook plans to eliminate majors in comparative literature, cinema & cultural studies, and theater arts.  It also planned to cut doctoral programs in Hispanic languages, cultural studies, and comparative literature.  It appears Hispanic languages is safe for now, but comparative literature has been shown the door.

The Guardian reports that “doctoral candidates [from cut programs] would have to finish their studies elsewhere.”  I hope this isn’t true.  Because “elsewhere” means that those candidates would likely have to start their programs over.  Most institutions do not accept transfer credits from doctoral programs.  Many doctoral candidates are in their late twenties and early thirties, and all have invested years into earning their PhD.  And now the institution they trusted with their intellectual development is slamming them with the specter of a years long do-over?

In fairness, Michael Bernstein, the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, told Inside Higher Ed that “should changes be made to programmatic offerings, the university ensures that all current students will be able to complete the course of study in which they are enrolled.”

Which is decent of him, but Bernstein also blamed “an extremely challenging budget environment” for these cuts.  And here’s where things get weird.  The Guardian reports that SUNY Stony Brook is currently bestowing high salaries on administrators and “spending millions on a multiyear program entitled ‘Far Beyond’ that is intended to ‘rebrand’ the college’s image: a redesigned logo and website, new signs, banners and flags throughout the campus.”

I suppose it’s good to know that SUNY Stony Brook’s “extremely challenging budget environment” is not affecting anything important.

Perhaps SUNY Stony Brook could meet its budget challenges by researching the University of Pittsburgh, which has managed to kill its German and classics programs without the help of banners and flags.

And now NPR reports that more states are robo-grading student exams.  And yes, it’s as awful as it sounds, but it saves money today while piling up ignorance costs for tomorrow.  Les Perelman of MIT demonstrated exactly how awful robo-grading is by creating a program called the Babel Generator.  Give it three words from an essay prompt, and the Babel Generator writes 500 words of nonsense.  A sample from the linked article:

History by mimic has not, and presumably never will be precipitously but blithely ensconced.  Society will always encompass imaginativeness; many of scrutinizations but a few for an amanuensis.

And so on along this vein for 500 words.  The robo-grader awarded this sample the highest possible score: 6 out of 6.

NPR reports that “according to the GRE, [this] means it ‘presents a cogent, well-articulated analysis of the issue and conveys meaning skillfully.’ ”

Hey GRE, shouldn’t that be “skillfully conveys meaning” ?   (Well, maybe only if it does.)

Nitin Madnani, a senior research scientist at Educational Testing Service (ETS), called this sample “good writing.”  He seriously did.  You see, ETS makes the robo-grader for the GREs.  Madnani’s complete response to the Babel Generator’s demonstration that ETS’s robo-grader has problems understanding how English works, was, and I quote:

If someone is smart enough to pay attention to all the things that an automated system pays attention to, and to incorporate them in their writing, that’s no longer gaming, that’s good writing.  So you kind of do want to give them a good grade.

What the actual fuck?

I’m sorry this isn’t the most eloquent response, but maybe robo-grader will throw me a point for economy of expression.

As the humanities become less accessible to more people, and therefore less comprehensible, and therefore less valued by the general public, they are going underground.  Like critical thought.

So here’s my humble suggestion.  Go underground.

Story.  A few months ago I decided to learn Italian.  I live in an area of the country that’s thick with colleges and universities, so I thought it would be relatively easy to find a college class to enroll in, or a tutor from a local university to work with.  I was wrong.  It wasn’t even possible.  I couldn’t find a college in my vicinity that even taught Italian.  One of those colleges, Assumption, recently terminated their Italian program in favor of career-oriented options.  See Part 1.

I did find a language school, but its only Italian class was a few weeks of useful tourist phrases.  Which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but I wanted an education in the language, not a few weeks of light exposure.

I can teach myself to read and write in a foreign language, but that isn’t the same as hearing and speaking and getting inside it with somebody who has deep experience of the subject.  I did some self-study because I thought that was my only option.  Duolingo, Fluenz, various verb drill and grammar books.  Which is helpful but limited.

And then I found Thumbtack – which matched me with a wonderful Italian teacher from the other side of the country.  We have classes on Skype, and she provides the in-depth grammar work and written feedback that I wanted from a college class, personal observations on Italian culture, and conversation practice.

Would I have preferred a university setting and a highly focused Italian major type program?  Yes, but that wasn’t an option. Thanks to Thumbtack and Skype, c’è un’altra studentessa di italiano nel mondo.

My teacher, an Italian who studied and taught English in Italy, now runs a successful cottage industry teaching Italian to native English speakers like me.  And I’m getting an education that wasn’t available from my local universities in a foreign language I wanted to learn.

What’s cool about these foreign language cottage industries is the ability to learn and interact one on one with an experienced teacher.  In this sense they can come very close to approaching the live classroom experience.

So, what would happen if humanities scholars offered structured private classes in Renaissance art, Victorian literature, ancient Greek philosophy, the Age of Reason?   I’m not talking about a Great Courses recording or a MOOC, neither of which provide the opportunity for interaction with the instructor.  I mean actual individualized instruction that approximates the content of a college class.  Content that goes beyond mere exposure.  Perhaps through Skype.  Perhaps on street corners.  (OK, maybe not street corners.)  But there are stoai everywhere.  Let’s claim them.

There are drawbacks.  If this idea took off, it might encourage universities to further cut humanities education, arguing that students can get that elsewhere.  But they’re cutting it now, and students can’t get that elsewhere.  I tried.  None of the many universities near me even offered Italian.  We’re already losing the war.  Now we need to save what we can.

There’s enough unemployed and tragically underemployed PhDs to set an extremely high level of instruction in such cottage industries. However, it’s probably not going to be lucrative enough in most cases for indie humanities teachers to earn a living.  But that just makes humanities teaching no different than any other creative art.  And the best humanities teachers are artists—shamans who accompany their students on rugged intellectual journeys.  The best literature class I ever took was an independent study on reading William Blake.  It was like learning to read texts all over again.  And then it was like learning to read everything else.  That is the sort of thing art produces, and when teaching does the same, it gets to claim that status.  Other artists go indie, why not humanities teachers?

This suggestion isn’t about saving jobs.  It’s about keeping knowledge alive in the face of a looming dark age.  It’s about making history and art and literature and critical thinking accessible and available to whoever wants to study it, no matter how few in number those people are.

And who knows?  Maybe humanities studies will become cool and edgy and socially rebellious again, and everybody will want in on it.  Something like that has happened with the hard sciences, in part because the atheist community made reason fashionable.  And maybe, if more displaced scholars choose to go indie, they and their students can keep our beautiful cultural heritage alive, like monks copying classical writings after the fall of Rome.

After all, as the universities abandon their sacred duty, who better to take it up?

The Traditional Defenses of The Humanities are Dead, and Everybody Knows it (Part 1)

I haven’t blogged in a while because, well, I haven’t. Which is the perfect introduction to pretty much anything by Stanley Fish, including Fish’s recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities”.

Fish once said that “The purpose of a good education is to show you that there are three sides to a two-sided story.” He’s only sort of wrong. There are any number of sides, depending on the story. And the reader. Sometimes that number really does work out to two. Or one. Or none. Or thirteen, like the ways Wallace Stevens describes looking at a blackbird. Another purpose of a good education is to be able to determine and argue for as many sides as a given story can hold, evaluate the arguments and the strength of the sides, and maybe come out of the experience with a deeper appreciation of the world. In the presence of a gifted literature teacher, this experience is almost spiritual.

Hence my mixed reaction to much of Fish’s writing on humanities and higher education. Fish has been banging the drum since at least 2008 in support of disallowing anything outside of the humanities to define the humanities. That’s his side of the story, and in some Platonic idealist realm where few of us can afford the rent, I absolutely agree. But here’s the second side. In the world most of us have to live in, I still agree, but only in the way I sometimes do with Epictetus and the rest of the Stoics. Focus on your own virtue. Concern yourself with what you can control and damn the rest. Sure, but it works best if you stay out of the weeds.

Anybody familiar with this blog knows that I have written extensively about the corrupting effect corporate outsiders have had on writing, politics, education, human relationships and everything else. When writing isn’t about writing, and politics isn’t about the general good, and science isn’t about science, and everything must be uglified into a profit generator or thrown on the trash heap, well look around. The damage is incalculable. But we do get a lot of lovely trash heaps.

It would be swell if everyone could stop trying to sell the humanities, or the hard sciences, or even the damn need us introverts have to withdraw and contemplate stuff. But in a get monetized or die culture, I can’t blame university administrators or humanities scholars for doing what they can. I don’t like the need to sell Aristotle and Keats to placate business interests and helicopter parents, but I understand it.

So here’s the third side. Like Fish, I also find the attempt to sell the humanities useless and self-defeating. But for different reasons.

But I get ahead of myself.

Here’s the story. The University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point is looking to eliminate over a dozen liberal arts programs, including English, French, Spanish, philosophy, political science, art, and American studies. Out with the humanities and in with majors “with clear career pathways.” You can read about it here.  And here.

But UW – Stevens Point isn’t alone. The University of Wisconsin – Superior is suspending twenty-five programs, including theater, journalism and political science.  Assumption College has kicked art history, classics, geography, French, and Italian out of the party while inviting in a slew of new career-oriented programs, such as cybersecurity and data analytics.  The University of Central Missouri is proposing to eliminate its College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and to merge English and history with programs in the College of Education.

And so it goes. Fish responds to this dreary state of affairs by arguing one side of this story, namely that all the arguments that are usually trotted out in defense of humanities education are unpersuasive and self-defeating. They cede ground to outsiders who judge educational institutions from a position that “is in no way central to what those who labor in the institution think themselves to be doing.”

He begins by drawing a distinction between “public locations of humanistic performance” and academic study. People who value Shakespeare’s plays willingly pay to see them performed. The greater public, who doesn’t value Shakespeare, is unwillingly taxed to support literature departments. How do we convince the public to convince their representatives to fund humanities departments?

We don’t. The general public doesn’t value humanities studies, and I agree with Fish that none of the usual arguments are likely to do the job. Of course, my tax dollars subsidize career-oriented majors that often lead to pointless jobs. (Also here.)  That is, to endless administrative make-work positions that provide no discernible benefit to society. Convince me it’s worth paying for universities to manufacture corporate slaves whose jobs provide no obvious social benefit and maybe we’ll find a way to convince other tax payers it’s worth supporting philosophy. Or better, convince me that my taxes should subsidize programs that lead to jobs that involve defending corporate wealth through income inequality, environmental destruction, and democracy gutting. And then maybe we can convince others to fund programs for which they have no use.

I don’t see it happening. In America, if you anoint the most nefarious criminal enterprise with the oil of a steady paycheck, the general public will brag about their children working for it. What it won’t do is lobby for more humanities funding.

But it’s worth looking at Fish’s take-down of the usual attempts to convince the general public that they should push their representatives to invest tax money in humanities education.

The first chestnut is that humanities studies enhance language skills, and language skills underly every aspect of life and culture. Fish dismisses this as an “in-house argument” and as such, an argument that won’t sell to anyone outside the house. He stops there, but I’ll go further. It won’t sell because it’s fundamentally elitist. Most people are generally satisfied with their own language skills, which they manage to acquire without the aid of humanities departments. People believe their language works just fine for them. And in reality, it does. Then here comes Joe Humanist claiming they’ve got it all wrong, and a few classes in rhetoric or English will show them how to really speak and organize their thoughts and how to analyze their neighbor’s speech, too. Speech being such an intimate part of people’s lives, how can this argument not sound condescending? It’s certainly possible to sell elitism in a late-stage democracy; it may even be relatively easy. But you don’t sell it as an implied criticism.

The second argument is supposed to undercut the elitism of the first. It’s the old saw that the humanities have utility, really they do. This is probably my least favorite argument, but not for the reasons Fish points out. His problem is that the argument only applies to areas like writing— to the extent that the ability to write well is valued by employers—and not to the greater portion of humanities studies. He argues that it is impossible “to justify in terms of the public good the study of Byzantine art . . . .”

Sure. Although there is a public good in having people with critical thinking skills that have been honed by analyzing any kind of art, it’s a good you can’t measure and therefore it is nearly impossible to justify. Also, nobody studies Shakespeare merely to improve their writing skills for the job market. I’ve been guilty of making the utility argument. And I’ve always felt uncomfortably like I was ceding ground, like I was dishonestly reducing the purpose of humanistic study to a damn job skill to placate some random harpy.

Sigh. I would that the utility argument was true. But the problem is twofold. The vast majority of jobs, particularly right out of college, do not value critical thinking. They value being a “good fit” and having the pliability to follow the rules and get with the corporate program. So your critical thinking skills become an instant liability if you ever let them show up at work. The second problem is that we need to stop pretending that everyone (or even most) students who take a writing or philosophy class emerge as better writers and thinkers. Most are there because they have to fulfill some general education requirement. You can force students to “get exposed” to literary criticism; you can’t force them to value or even like it. But you can get them to resent it if you aren’t careful. And claiming utility, when everyone knows employers want exploitable workers, not independent thinkers, always has the ring of a con. Corporate interests don’t want you to think. Why do you think there’s a war on the humanities?

The third argument is that the humanities contribute to happiness, that they make a better, well-rounded person. I agree with Fish’s response to this, which is worth quoting. “Anyone who believes that hasn’t spent much time in English and philosophy departments.” Or around a large number of “creatives” trampling each other for a bit of recognition. Of course, ego and reward scarcity are a gilt frame for showing people at their worst, so I can’t blame the humanities for bad behavior. People, even humanists, behave better when there’s enough of a coveted resource to go around. The humanities show us humanity in all its shame and splendor. It’s practitioners, like all humans, show us the same.

And finally, the fourth argument, what Fish labels “academic exceptionalism.” This is the elitist argument that says that people with long exposure to the humanities make better citizens than everyone else and can guide the benighted masses into better decision making. Gee, why wouldn’t the general public be eager to get on board with an argument that says that an art historian in her university office has more insight into their problems than they do? And demand that their taxes pay for it. This argument creates yet another status hierarchy in a culture where we already have too many. Furthermore, while the humanities offer insights into all kinds of human problems, they offer no answers. That’s sort of the point. It’s a journey. Shakespeare shows us exactly what suffering looks like, but not how to end it. That’s still on us.

And yet. This unique ability to hold up a mirror in which we can study ourselves might be one argument for humanities studies. Their value is in the insights they offer into the human condition, or conditions. This is not elitist, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s merely honest. You study literature and philosophy and the classics because they present what people have thought and observed and said about issues that people in every culture at every time have grappled with. Death, envy, love, maintaining personal integrity in a crazy world, crime, justice, poverty, wealth, human relations, definitions of success. It’s humans observing themselves at their best and at their worst, and a sorely needed anchor into the human tradition, which encompasses all world traditions, including the much-maligned western canon.

Present humanities classes as a way in to those universal questions, which is how they were taught before politics and theory and social agendas obscured the point, and you might make inroads into explaining to the public why they have value.

But I don’t have confidence those inroads will ever become thoroughfares. The argument might help, but it won’t get us there. Maybe more people will understand why some of us value analyzing Byzantine art, but only as one alternative among many others. That is, as a nice option for those who like that sort of thing, but not essential to one’s education. “What about a job?” Or just as likely, “I learn all I need to know about people just by living. What can art teach me that I don’t already know and why should I pay for somebody else to study it?”

Oscar Wilde said that “all art is quite useless.” The humanities are, too. You are drawn to them or you’re not. If you are, no justification is needed. If you’re not, no justification will work.

Fish says “our only hope resides in the efforts of senior administrators, administrators with a firm and unshakable understanding . . . of the academic enterprise and a resolve to protect it no matter what forces . . . are arrayed against it. . . . Only administrators who assume an almost military stance and promise to lead us into sustained battle can be agents of revival.”

He then asks, “Do you know any?”

And that’s the problem. University administrators are far more interested in running a business than providing a liberal arts education. Without the level of government funding that they enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s, universities have had to reinvent themselves as businesses seeking to attract customers, a model at odds with offering anything that doesn’t meet the current job market’s needs.

And so, understandably, some universities are no longer in the business of providing a humanities education. More will follow.

So how do we save the liberal arts? I have a humble suggestion. It isn’t the entire answer; it’s more journey than destination. And it isn’t ideal. Ideal is the traditional disciplined focused study of an area of learning under experienced scholars at a university. The major. But as more universities abandon the humanities, it may be an ark.

See Part 2.

There’s a War on Science, Too

I get it. I really do. Science is self-correcting. It’s based on rigorous methodology, and hard observable measurable data. Hypotheses are testable or not at all. Tests yield repeatable, verifiable results or the hypothesis gets junked. Therefore Science trumps all those fluff bunny humanities subjects that “anyone can study” because “they’re all opinion anyway” and don’t require the intellectual rigor of a physics degree. Also, fuck religion.

Guys. In a pure Platonic ideal realm of theory, perhaps that same realm where sky fairies dance, and unproved teapots circle the sun, and no true Scotsman evades fallacies, and everyone has unquestioning faith that all gaps will get bridged without moving the goalposts – Science (note the capital S) is rumored to work that way. As it is practiced in the real world, Science is as riddled with confirmation bias as any crazy religious belief.

Yes, I know Science isn’t supposed to dirty itself with the real world, but as something of a quasi-rationalist (meaning a humanities “fluff bunny” with formal training in legal reasoning) I know how to go where the facts lead. And the facts are that a significant number of scientific results are not reproducible, scientists do change facts to fit theories, peer review is often more riddled with politics than the proverbial French court, and that money can and does buy results. When evaluating the results of any scientific study, the first question should be, “Who funded this?” And the last question should also be, “Who funded this?” It’s also useful to ask whether the scientist has tenure and, if not, who’s on the tenure committee.

This is not news to actual scientists. Start here.  Jonathan Eisen provides several links to serious discussions of irreproducible results and confirmation bias in Science in his blog, The Tree of Life. Professor Eisen’s piece is a response to Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s opinion piece in the New York Times, Scientific Pride and Prejudice.”

Suk-Young Chwe calls attention to a 2012 Nature article by C. Glenn Begley and Lee M. Ellis that reports that they (Begley and Ellis) “were able to replicate only 6 out of 53 ‘landmark’ cancer studies.” Eisen objects to Suk-Young Chwe implying that this is somehow news, and that scientists never previously confronted these issues.

Which is why it would be helpful if certain Internet atheists would sometimes bother to distinguish between Science as it is supposed to work and Science as it actually works under the constraints of politics, funding, and the pressure of getting tenure. Those who hold to Science as the highest and best way of understanding reality might want to focus on the social and political reasons that Science – and our understanding of reality – is compromised and degraded every day. Science, and what it offers humanity when allowed to do its work unfettered, is too valuable to get handicapped by politics.

That ought to command more attention than shaming some hapless Internet commenter for holding a cherished belief they can’t “prove” to somebody else’s satisfaction. If you really want to promote scientific thinking, donate a buck to some poor schlep with a brilliant idea that could expand humanity’s knowledge base but that has no commercial application. In our corporatized, nothing matters unless you can monetize it culture, that would be a truly radical, edgy thing to do.

But I digress.

Anyway, Suk-Young Chwe, a professor of political science at UCLA, stepped in it with Eisen when he pointed out what should be obvious. That when it comes to critical thinking and recognition of one’s own tendency to confirmation bias, the humanities, and literary criticism in particular, have much to offer. Literary critics are trained to be aware of their own biases. So are lawyers, by the way. (Argue this side. Now argue the other side.)

Although Suk-Young Chwe does sound somewhat naïve to suggest that scientists aren’t also trained to be aware of their biases, by highlighting the thought process that supports literary criticism, he (perhaps unwittingly) points out that humanists and scientists should be natural allies, because we’re all harmed by a public that doesn’t get what we do.

What jumped out at me in Suk-Young Chwe’s article and Eisen’s response was a naivety on both sides regarding public perception. Here’s what I mean. Suk-Young Chwe writes that, “Despite the popular belief that anything goes in literary criticism, the field has real standards of scholarly validity.”

Eisen responds:

This is a red herring to me. I can find no evidence that their there is a popular belief that “anything goes” in literary criticism. So the author here sets a very low bar and then basically any presentation of standards is supposed to impress us.

Actually, the public, to the extent it has any idea of what literary criticism actually is, really does believe that “anything goes in literary criticism.” Eisen disagrees with this, but Eisen runs with a highly educated crowd that constitutes a poor sample group of the general population. I’ve encountered this belief my entire life, this denigrating of humanities studies as somehow fluffy at best and a kind of con game at worse. “It’s just opinion, and my opinion is as good as yours, and you can’t ‘prove’ Shakespeare was really writing about mortality in his sonnets [there’s that teapot again, thanks Russell], so everyone gets an A.” It really does exist. And it manifests itself in the current devaluing of humanities education and the people who seriously pursue it, which I’ve written about in this blog.

An idealized view of Science as somehow free of error really exists among the public, too. Again, mostly among non-Scientists who never had to compete against colleagues for grant funding or go through the tenure process.

Of course it isn’t news that the public doesn’t get what scientists and humanities scholars do. But it is news or should I say – newish, that as a culture the rift between the educated and uneducated is getting so large it resembles something out of pre-Enlightenment Europe. The public doesn’t get any of us.   Between the naïve Science groupies who deify Science (string theory’s sooo kewl, in an alternate universe I could be Bill Gates!) and who form a market group for the flashy woo-ridden stuff (time doesn’t really exist!) and the red state yahoos who don’t “believe” in evolution but haven’t presented any evidence supporting a better model, Science has its own PR problems. For a reading list of popular woo-ridden physics, go here.

To stave off the hate mail (or possibly to attract more of it, never can tell), my point is not to criticize pop physics, which would be arrogant of a non-physicist like myself to do. My point is that when there’s an obvious appetite among Science groupies for ideas that could have been copped from the Vedas, Sufism, William Blake, or any mystic strain of pretty much any religion, maybe Science and humanities ought to be shaking hands. Not because of common intellectual ground (although that certainly exists), but because both fields are only valued by the public to the extent that they pander to sensationalist tastes, and this situation isn’t healthy for the culture. (Maybe the humanities equivalent is the history groupies who think they understand the ancient world because they’ve seen some cool cgi movies with awesome fight scenes.) Some movies have a nexus of historical accuracy, just as some popular physics (I assume) has some connection with actual Science, but when the point is to attract a mass audience, it also devalues actual scholarship for that audience. Humanities has suffered from this for a long time. “Anyone can learn history from watching the Discovery Channel.” Seems Science does too.

The war on the humanities is essentially a war on critical thinking – and so of course the pure sciences are equally a target. Scientists and humanities scholars should be natural allies. What happens, though, is the kind of snarking that STEM people reserve for humanities majors, as if we’re not both targets of the toxic ignorance running through the culture like a black river of doom.

It’s difficult to fight for more funding when the red states don’t “believe” in Science. It’s impossible when scientists will backstab each other for grant money and offer dubious, irreproducible results under pressure of getting tenure, keeping their university jobs, and not having to drive a courtesy shuttle for a car dealership for a living.  Here’s what happens to scientists whose work is Nobel quality and whose funding isn’t.  In case you didn’t click, the link is to a news story about Douglas Prasher, the brilliant chemist who generously shared his work with colleagues when his research funding ran out, forcing him out of Science and eventually into driving a shuttle.   Those colleagues won the Nobel prize for chemistry a few years ago, for work that used Prasher’s research.

Science is a blood sport. So is literary criticism, by the way. Scarce resources will do that.

That is why the reproducibility movement, which is written about in a Washington Post article by Joel Achenbach called “The New Scientific Revolution” is being greeted with mixed reviews. The scientific community recognizes that the pressure to publish and the limited funding available to researchers is a huge temptation to fudge data, and that, often, experimental results cannot be reproduced. So the scientific community is getting tough. Reproducibility, which should have been a dogma of the scientific community for the last four centuries, is now a “movement.” According to Achenbach, “the leaders of the scientific community are recalibrating their requirements, pushing for the sharing of data and greater experimental transparency.” This push is taking the form of top-tier journals announcing new publication guidelines, pharmaceutical companies with large financial interests demanding more rigorous pre-clinical results, and the Center for Open Science (COS) at the University of Virginia. COS, founded by Brian Nosek, facilitates data sharing.

All good, although all stuff that Science is supposed to be doing anyway. The fact that there needs to be a self-conscious “movement” to make sure everybody in the pool really is complying with the scientific method says a lot about the sorry state of Science today. This says more:

Betsy Levy-Paluck, an associate professor of psychology and public policy at Princeton, said of the reproducibility movement, “I think it’s the future.” But there has been controversy at the laboratory level: Some researchers have complained that the reformers are going overboard.

“There are worries about there being witch hunts,” Levy-Paluck said.

And that’s the problem. In the cutthroat world of limited research grants, where Nobel-quality scientists are driven from the field for lack of funding, the reproducibility movement can easily become a witchhunt, a means to eliminate rivals by finding something, anything in their results that in some fashion can be questioned. Reproducibility is necessary, but reifying it into a “movement” is likely to have a chilling effect on innovation, and close the comfort zone of play that all thinkers need to spend time in without apology.

We humanists got ass-kicked out of that zone decades ago. As I’ve blogged elsewhere, that was partly our fault and partly the culture’s. Seems you Science guys are here now, too, for similar reasons. The culture doesn’t value the hard sciences or the humanities. Both fields are destroying themselves. I don’t know how to change these things. I’m just reading the narrative.