Friday, January 18, 2008

On the Value of the Humanities (A Response to Stanley Fish)

A few weeks back, the literary theorist Stanley Fish wrote an article titled Will the Humanities Save Us?. His conclusion was that they would not. Why? After first pointing out that, as regards the humanities making us good people,
It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. (Fish)
he then trots out the old Kantian "art for art's sake" argument for the humanities as a whole:
To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said . . . diminishes the object of its supposed praise. (Fish)
As to the last statement, all I have to say is: what a load of crap!

Well, that's not all I have to say. I've seen a bumper sticker that could be applied to Fish and the humanities: "Lord, save us from your followers." Only a postmodernist like Fish would or could think that claiming something ennobles people diminishes it. How is something made less valuable because it can be a means to an end, and is not an end in itself? Fish betrays his teleology here (something postmodernists like to pretend they're against). When Fish declares he doesn't have to justify what he does, that arrogant, dismissive, elitist attitude helps no one, especially the case for the humanities. If you say over and over, as so many postmodernists do, that something has no value, don't be surprised when people believe you after a while.

In Ion, Plato has Socrates ask Ion, a professional reciter of Homer's poetry, what value there is in the way he "knows" Homer's poetry. Socrates proceeds to prove that a doctor would know more than Ion about the medical practices in Homer's works than would Ion, a horseman would know more about what Homer said about riding horses, etc. Socrates keeps asking Ion what, exactly, he was an expert at when it came to Homer, and in the end Ion is shown up for being a fool, knowing nothing. Fish is the same kind of fool, as are too many postmodern literary theorists, who are concerned only with their so-called "disciplinary knowledge." But what is it knowledge of? Fish says that they "analyze literary effects," but wouldn't a cognitive psychologist do that better? Indeed, if you took all of the humanities, what could you possibly say that Fish is an expert at? What person from another discipline couldn't do a better job of explaining any one of the humanities than Fish? or any other literary theorist who is only a literary theorist? So what does a theorist really do? Wouldn't it be better to have experts in other fields analyze poets, philosophers, etc.? Perhaps only interdisciplinarians should be hired to teach literature, as there is in fact a better chance that someone will learn something form the various works in the humanities.

In the first section quotes, Fish does make the valid observation that we do not find a lot of good people in the humanities. He uses this as proof that the humanities cannot be used for such purposes as to teach people to be wise and good. What he doesn't consider is that this is perhaps because the humanities have been taken over by people like Stanley Fish. The postmodern left has taken over the humanities, and one thing that unifies them is their rejection of value. Thus, Fish ignores the fact that postmodern liberals like the ones he hangs around with close themselves off with their anti-value, anti-meaning, anti-responsibility, anti-truth, deconstructed world view from such benefits as the humanities could bring them. We should not be surprised that such people are not exemplars of virtue, let alone wise. The Left, being generous with other people's money, but not their own, see theft as a virtue. These are, fundamentally, not good people. But that is not necessarily the fault of the humanities -- at least, not all of them, anyway.

At the same time, one could counter Fish by simply asking him whether or not his colleagues were racists, sexist, homophobes, or any of a number of things we would consider immoral. If humans are naturally these things (with culture reinforcing them), it seems odd that so many in the humanities would reject racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Yet what else does literature do but put us in the shoes of the Other? How many of his colleagues have read stories of people of different races, ethnicities, religions, beliefs, sexual orientations, genders, etc.? Through this empathetic entering-in of the Other through literature we are made more moral. Does Fish reject this fact?

Plato recommends that the poets (or at least, certain poets) be banned from the city -- his metaphor for the soul. Actually, he's recommending we be selective. If the readers of Marx, Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty are rotten people, that suggests we might want to be careful about reading such authors. If we were to find that those who read, say, the Bible, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, and Adam Smith tend to be good people, that would suggest we might want to know such authors quite well (and if the reverse is true, reverse it). While the humanities may not have had the kinds of effects the postmodern left would have liked for it to have had, that does not mean they have not had significant effects on the world. The structure of the U.S. Constitution is something which can be traced to the ideas of people like Locke and Aristotle. The humanities were one of the main driving forces in the changes that took place in the Renaissance. Of course, in the right hands, even those found in the first list can bear good fruit, while those in my second list, in the wrong hands, can lead to little or nothing. However, if we see a trend among those who read certain writers, we should perhaps pay attention.

Fish goes on to suggest that all works of the humanities are good for are textual analysis. This is an elitist, snobbish attitude I reject. It is designed to exclude people from the field. Certainly I have been trained in textual analysis -- and there is an appropriate audience for it. But is that what literature, for example, is for? You would have to be as ahistorical as Fish to think that, because the history of the humanities shows that every one of the things we call the humanities once had a great deal of use. Indeed, the fact that they exist is itself suggestive that they have some sort of use, as they take up a lot of time and energy, and evolution isn't that wasteful.

One could, and should, set up humanities courses that are more than "let's find the word repetitions to see how meaning is made" and deconstruction of texts to "prove" they are about nothing more than power structures. When we set them up this way, as they have been in our universities, we get what Fish says the humanities give us: nothing. Sure, we learn how the text means, but we have given up on learning what it means, and how we can use them to transform our lives. To pick a minor example, if literature were not educative, I would not have been told by a German that I was the most European American she had ever met -- and I would not have been meet with such surprise in Greece when people learned I was an American. Philosophy made me a libertarian. My ethics have changed with exposure to the humanities. Perhaps this happened precisely because I came to the humanities as educative rather than as something merely to be broken apart. Give me a class (and nobody seems willing to do so precisely because this is what I would do), and I will have a class of people learning something from humanities texts that will in fact transform our lives. If we see stories as "what if" scenarios, we can learn something from them that will help us to live our lives better. Teach people logic, and they will become more logical. Teach people ethics, and they will become more ethical. But we have to teach ethics believing in ethics. Let me conduct an ethics class the way I think it should be conducted, and it will come alive, and people will leave there changed by the experience. Instead, philosophy classes teach ethics as a dead subject, a historical curiosity. Ethics surveys do little but muddy the waters and make students wonder if there is any such thing as morality at all.

It's a shame Stanley Fish has the influence he has. He's ruining my field. Worse, his and the influence of other postmoderns is what is keeping me from teaching in my field. No department will hire me because of my views, because I disagree with their contentless educational system and theories, and because of the fact that their departments are shrinking precisely because the universities are taking them seriously when they say there's no value to what humanities professors do. If that's true, why waste money on them?

Well, on that latter part I do have to agree. The universities should fire everyone who thinks that what they do doesn't have any value and has nothing to teach anyone. If you don't do anything of value to anyone, why should anyone give you anything of value, like a paycheck, in exchange?
Post a Comment