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.