Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Life-changing experiences as a result of their studies in humanities

The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two Stanley Fish NYT January 13, 2008 Tags: , ,
Note that what we’re talking about here is the study, not the production, of humanistic texts. The question I posed in the column was not do works of literature, philosophy and history have instrumental value, but does the academic analysis of works of literature, philosophy and history have instrumental value. When Jeffrey Sachs says that “in the real world” the distinction between the humanities and the sciences on the basis of utility does not hold because “philosophers have made important contributions to the sciences” and “the hard sciences have had a profound impact on the humanities,” he doesn’t come within 100 miles of refuting anything I say. Whatever does or does not happen in the “real world” is not the issue; the issue is what happens in the academic world, where the distinctions Sachs dismisses do hold. It may be, as George Mobus maintains, that “only in academia where you are supposed to be a specialist . . . do we parse the world into silos,” but the academic world is by definition parsed into silos and when the utility of one of them is questioned, it is not to any point to say that in some other world everything exists in some great big mix.
In general those who disagree with my assertions do what Sachs and Mobus do — slide (without acknowledgment or awareness) back and forth between the precincts of academia (which, to make the point again, are the precincts where the dispute is located) to the precincts, often larger, of some other enterprise. When I declare that the humanities are of no use whatsoever, I am talking about humanities departments (“the humanities” is an academic, not a cultural category), not about poets and philosophers and the effects they do or do not have in the world and on those who read them.
The funding of the humanities in colleges and universities cannot be justified by pointing to the fact that poems and philosophical arguments have changed lives and started movements. (I was surprised that no one mentioned “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book Lincoln is said to have credited with the starting of the Civil War.) The pertinent question is, Do humanities courses change lives and start movements? Does one teach with that purpose, and if one did could it be realized?
If the answers to these questions are (as I contend) “no” – one teaches the subject matter and any delayed effect of what happens in a classroom is contingent and cannot be aimed at – then the route of external justification of the humanities, of a justification that depends on the calculation of measurable results, is closed down. The fact that some commentators, including a few of my former students, report life-changing experiences as a result of their studies is heartening (although I am sure that the vast majority would report something quite different), but it hardly amounts to a reason for supporting the entire apparatus of departments, degrees, colloquia etc. that has grown up around the academic study of humanistic texts...
All of this should not be taken to mean, as it was by some, that I am attacking the humanities or denigrating them or declaring them worthless. I am saying that the value of the humanities cannot be validated by some measure external to the obsessions that lead some (like me) to devote their working lives to them – measures like increased economic productivity, or the fashioning of an informed citizenry, or the sharpening of moral perceptions, or the lessening of prejudice and discrimination. If these or some other instrumental benchmarks – instrumental in the sense that they are tied to a secondary effect rather than to an internal economy – are what the humanities must meet, they will always fall short. But the refusal of the humanities to acknowledge or bow to an end they do not contemplate is, I argue, their salvation and their value. As Stacia says in words more precise than mine, “The subject of these studies are not to be used as tools to achieve something else . . . they are the achievement.”
Of course, this does not mean that anyone will pay for them. In fact, as several posters observed, my argument (and it isn’t only mine) that the humanities are their own good and aren’t much good for anything else can be used to justify turning humanities departments into service departments and cutting funding for humanities research.
About Stanley Fish - Think Again
Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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