How to Champion the Cause of the Beleaguered Humanities?
Stanley Fish is adamant that a liberal arts curriculum should not—and anyway cannot—be justified as economically desirable or as a boon to society in some less quantifiable but otherwise more important way. On the first point I am convinced, though it bears noting that of the two, the economic argument seems likely to provide the greatest challenge to the liberal arts in our current national climate.
The less quantifiable but important payoffs from a liberal education are variously articulated as civility, rationality, critical thinking, multiculturalism, and so on, and Fish has made a career of rejecting these outcomes as the goals of liberal education. His argument here is a general version of a more specific argument that he’s made before, and it’s an elegant argument. Fish famously rejected the consequences of literary theory, in particular a methodological payoff for self-consciously adopting an antifoundationalist epistemology in literary and composition studies. That argument goes something like this: we fall into the trap of antifoundationalist “theory hope” when we expect that recognizing the contingency of our knowledge allows us a privileged perspective, a critical consciousness brought about by joining the discourse community of the academy, that we hope will lead ineluctably to the reproduction of the values of liberal educators among our students.
According to Fish, liberal education must (and can only) be defended as integral to the mission of the university; the study of the humanities is an “activity whose value is internal to its performance” (Save 57). The study of the humanities is important not to us as a society but within the university; it advances knowledge in interesting ways, and after all, universities are in the business of creating knowledge.
The chief weakness in Fish’s argument is that he fails to announce—though I can hardly imagine he fails to recognize—that it is necessary and important to proselytize on behalf of the very practice of “academicizing” (as he calls the work of academics) if the liberal tradition is to survive. This is the classic quandary into which liberal educators fall, in my opinion—the problem of maintaining the open-mindedness essential to the liberal position while arguing strongly for that position. This is the problem that “critical consciousness” hoped to solve, and I think Fish correctly chastens us there. However, for liberal education to thrive, perhaps even for it to survive, will mean that we must make an argument for its value not only within the academy but beyond it. Fish veers in this direction when he exhorts college presidents and university chancellors to “proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene” (Crisis 10/11/10). One wonders to whom Fish intends these proclamations should be made and to what anticipated effect when, in the same essay, he avers that “no one in public life cares for the humanities as an academic enterprise…[and i]t’s not their job to value the humanities or even understand them.” Is Fish asking these hapless presidents and chancellors simply to rage against the dying of the light?
To be fair, Fish makes a distinction between the disciplinary work of academics in the humanities and the engagement in the humanities by the general public (reading a novel, going to a play, attending a concert). As a practical matter, though, it is hard to imagine the survival of the academic enterprise without at least a modicum of wider societal commitment to its success—or even a glimpse of its wonders.
I, as much as anyone and probably more than most, am in love with the idea of “do[ing] something [and liberal education, for that matter] for its own reward” as Fish admonishes us to do in the closing paragraph of Save the World on Your Own Time. I just wonder how much longer that value is likely to survive if we make defending it impossible in some ways and uncouth in others.
Fish, Stanley Eugene. Save the World on Your Own Time. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.