Monday, July 16, 2018

The Future of the Humanities, or why there is none is not really a good answer Stanley Fish

I just finished reading Stanley Fish's latest admonition in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities, Arguments that they're useful are wrong, anti-humanistic, and sure to backfire." A friend sent it to me, not because he liked it but because we were exchanging links about the humanities and post-secondary education. Fish has always been a bit of an odd analytic bird but this piece is so far over the top that it goes no where. In it, Fish attempts to refute all current arguments about the practical utility of the humanities, singling out the digital humanities for special condemnation. He recognizes that the humanities are in the midst of something some people are calling a crisis and also that his own arguments against the humanities' usefulness leave it no place to stand. In fact, if the humanities were on trial, Fish, one of its better-known authorities, recognizes that he has just written a brief for the prosecution. Other than forcing students to take humanities courses, he writes, something that he implies will not go over well, he "can't think of a plan that would return the humanities to the prominence they once enjoyed. If my fellow humanists can come up with something, they should speak now, or they may be forever holding their peace whether they want to or not. If things proceed as they have been, in the end we'll all go the way of Stevens Point," where the humanities have been, more or less, axed.

This is an odd conclusion for someone to reach after they have concluded that they reject every argument that has been made in support of the humanities and the very oddness of it captures something of the dilemma in which the humanities now find themselves.  What is clear is that Fish thinks "selling" the humanities is just plain bad and that they need to be accepted on their own terms or, in his view, not at all. He has, in this sense, issued this statement: my way or the highway. I find it odd that he is surprised that some people have said "OK,  the highway" and quietly shown him the way to the road and helped hike his thumb in the air. Fish's answer -- that any concession to practicality compromises the fundamental and foundational principles of the humanities - is, in fact, wrong. There is, to be sure, something unseemly about grubbing for money, but explaining to people who fund universities (whether the state, private donors, or students through their tuition) why the humanities are good, and good for you, and can even help you get a job, is not a bad thing. And, to think that it is, is the worst type of ivory tower isolationism. It is, in fact, the definition of ivory tower, in its negative sense. It artificially limits a discussion of the humanities and post-secondary education, creating a binary opposition (this way or not at all), when it would be far more useful to wider ranging discussion.

Let me explain and offer part of a defence of the humanities, or at least part one of a defence. I'll leave the issue of the digital humanities off to another post since it seems to require a special topic.

First, Fish doesn't just set a high bar for the humanities in post-secondary education. He sets a near impossible one: "The question then is to what internal purpose should a university be true, a question that requires us to identify the university's core activity. Aristotle named it in the 10th book of his Nicomachean Ethics. It is contemplation. 'This activity would seem to be loved for its own sake; for nothing arises from it apart from the contemplating,' as opposed to 'practical activities' which are measured by their effects. Contemplation -- turning matters over and then turning them over again -- is 'superior in serious worth' because 'it aim[s] at no end beyond itself, and [has] a pleasure proper to itself.'"

You can see the problem immediately. Fish spends the rest of his editorial explaining why practical arguments in favour of the humanities don't work but he has, in fact, already cut the ground out from underneath practicality at the very beginning of his discussion. In fact, he could have ended his discussion at this point and we would have been none the worse for it because this captures the substance of his critique.

Yet, who is Fish to set this bar?  Does he actually think Aristotle was talking about the modern multiversity or even the modern liberal arts college? A reference to Aristotle is no guarantee that one is right and surely to contend that the joy of contemplation is the only acceptable argument one can make in defence of the humanities is to cut off debate precisely at the point that we should be having a debate. It is even odder noting the context in which Fish is writing. As countries build walls, engage in twitter diplomacy, treat "alternative facts" as if they were real, etc., surely arguing that anything but a self-absorbed contemplation is a not the provenance of the humanities seems a bit ... well ... not humanistic at all.  In fact, it seems a bit hedonistic.

I'm not saying that contemplation is bad or that contemplation by itself is hedonistic. What I am saying is that the idea that the humanities and the university have only one legitimate activity is (a) wrong, (b) disengaged from the problems of the world around us, and (c) anti-democratic because it limits debate shrinking the voices that can be heard as part of a conversation about post-secondary education.

In place of Fish's assertion that there is only one legitimate activity for the university and for the humanities, I would argue that there are, in fact, many. Historians, for instance, don't write about the rise of fascism purely for the joy of contemplating the rise of fascism. They write as part of an engaged effort to understand the character and dynamics of the past that led to genocide and war. OK, that is one example, someone might say, and an easy one. What others might you have? We study policy history to understand the character and operation of the state, how good ideas became bad policies, or the diverse ways in which public policy is made. We study the growth of the women's moment, as an example, to see how processes of democratization enriched society (and why some people resisted democratization). The TRC recommended the study of Indigenous history because they believed, and I think rightly, that the more Canadians know about First Peoples, the greater the chances for meaningful reconciliation are. We teach Indigenous novels, philosophers, poetry, for precisely these same reasons as well.

Ah, someone might say, those are all basically historical examples. What about other branches of the humanities? Well, yes, they are but  ... actually so were Fish's and so I chose to counter him on that ground. But, OK, let's broaden the framework of analysis. Do students study the languages just for the joy of contemplation or to communicate? Do they study musicology for themselves or is it also placed in the service of performance? Are ethics or -- in this day and age of LGBTQi+ issues -- the philosophy of the subject irrelevant? Do our courts, for example, make decisions with no regard for ethical considerations? Does the law, in other words, ignore ethics?

Here is my point, the university -- and the humanities -- have no one single core activity. I may have some I like more than others. I may have some I am more adept at than others but the fact that one brings concerns and desires other than pure contemplation to the table in one's teaching or learning or research or the diffusion of knowledge does not mean that one is abandoning the humanities. The opposite: one is illustrating their importance by saying that we believe a knowledge of history, philosophy, language, culture, etc., can help us make better decisions as a society, enhance the meaningfulness and beauty of artistic expression, reach decisions that are more fair.  The implications of Fish's argument is that we should surrender this ground because it is a subversion on our true purpose. I will confess, I am not so sure. I might feel that the exact opposite is true.

Second, Fish is quick to dismiss other practical activities that are part of a good education in the humanities: writing (or, communication) and analysis. These are part of what he says is a "skills"-oriented justification for the humanities that is connected to market value, something he rejects. He accepts the idea that students in the humanities gain important skills, but calls the entire effort to explain these a PR "gambit" that is not "a serious effort at justification." Why? because the issue for the humanities, he says, is not about writing or analysis but writing about specific things (say, restoration poetry) and the same for analysis. Hence, the argument is, in his word, "strained." Even more troubling for Fish, this argument is part of a series of arguments that rest on exterior evaluation: they defend the humanities not on their own terms but by accepting someone else's logic and terms.

Hmmm ... I don't necessarily see why good communication and analysis is not part of the humanities' own terms. I've already said that I find Fish's singular justification so narrow that it verges on anti-democratic and ignores or misplaces the idea that there can be more than one legitimate reason to engage the humanities. Likewise, I think there can be a range of different subjects that interest students. Some will study restoration poetry; others the contemporary museum; others Indigenous literature, etc. But, good analysis and communications skills are not incidental to any of these subjects. Moreover, their sheer diversity and breadth require specific skills. For instance, they require that we be attuned to someone else's voice. Think about what they are trying to express or communicate, figure out how we can convey our thoughts effectively so that someone else will understand them, make one's case in a logical way, communicate to an audience that will not necessarily share one's perspective, and ... I could go on but you see the point. Communication, analysis, understanding context, logic of argument, etc., are not incidental the humanities. They are part and parcel of it. The fact that they also have a market logic -- that people in the labour market are interested in hiring people with these skills -- should not put us off.

In fact, I would go much further than Fish seems willing to go and argue that it is these very things that make Fish's conception of contemplation for its own sake possible. Even if one were only engaged in a self-oriented contemplative activity, would that be possible without understanding context? or without logic, or without attention to the voice of the other? I'd argue that without these things contemplation would, in fact, not really be contemplation but merely hazy passing thoughts that lacked form and rigour.

My point here, I want to say, is not really to go point-for-point against Fish. I am interested in his argument against the usefulness of the humanities in order make the argument that the humanities are useful, that they have more than one purpose, that there is nothing wrong with explaining their uses to prospective students or donors or the state, and that things that he dismisses (skills) are actually, in fact, preconditions of the very justification he seeks to maintain for the humanities.

I've run long and there is more to say but, for now, we can conclude on this point: the humanities may or may not be in crisis. I'd need to think about what that actually means before quickly accepting current discourses. What I would say, however, is that Fish illustrates a process by which the humanities become, in fact, their own worst enemy. By using surprisingly narrow definitions of what the humanities are, ignoring the multiple reasons people study and learn the humanities, rejecting out of hand practical uses (which exist in policy fields, communications, performance, etc.) as somehow market tainted and hence debased, proponents of the humanities -- such as Fish -- argue themselves into a corner. They make the argument for those who would cut the humanities and end up, interestingly, begging for someone to make a better argument. In the process, they ignore the very skills on which the humanities rely -- even on their own definition of them.

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