Monday, November 12, 2018

Beyond Our Means: Student Debt as a Cultural Sign

In my last post, I tried to explain a series of things about debt and how it functions.  The key points are there and you can refer back to them rather than reading a summary. What I sought to point out is that debt is an odd thing. By going into debt, we end up paying significantly more for a product, say, that we want then the advertised price. Moreover, debt, on a certain level, becomes a serious problem. Defaults can and do occur and these become like dominoes. If I can't pay my bills, the people who are employed by my creditors might start to lose their jobs, etc.

In reality this is a lot more complicated but this basis understanding allows us to look at other, more important and, for me, historically interesting things. Let me begin by saying that debt is a serious problem for a lot of people. You have probably read the stats yourself and so you know that the poorest Canadians are actually getting poorer. What does that mean? It means that the poorest Canadians are going backwards. Far from simply making less money than other Canadians (and so the relative gap between classes widens), they appear to be actually losing money (I got my info from the Broadbent Institute). Debt, IOW, can and does occur for a range of reasons and some of those reasons are simply outside of the control of some people. Stereotypes to one side, losing one's job when the factory closes down, say, is a good way to get into debt fast.

What about saving for a rainy day? The news story I cited in my last post suggests that Canadians are not very good at that and, frankly, that is part of the story I want to tell. Why is that? It is because debt has been naturalized as a good and normal thing. Years ago, a relative who was carrying a lot of debt went to the bank. I was disturbed by their debt services payments (the minimum they had to pay and told them so. IOW, I argued that they were carrying too much debt). Their banker said the opposite: not at all; most people have this much debt. Six months later, the bank refused an application for more credit and ... my relative's business went under.

I don't think the banker was lying. I don't think the debt level was unusual. But I think it is problematic. The naturalization of debt that has occurred in Canada is the product of a series of historical developments. These include:


  • The democratization of credit (it is no longer for the upper class)
  • The development of a set of national institution that manage debt (including, as we saw in 2007-8, the stock market, insurance companies, banks, credit card companies, etc.) 
  • Encouragement by the government 
  • A shift in cultural values

It is these last two points I want to talk about. How has the state encouraged debt? Consider a common element of debt: the student loan, as an example. We all know that education is good. (That, at least is the burden of another series of blogs I am writing and a book I am considering writing.) But, how do we finance education? The range of people we need to make education work has expanded dramatically and they don't work for free. We need not only teachers but janitors, people to fix facilities when roofs leak, repair computers, process book purchases (or, more often database and aggregator purchases) for libraries, people to run experiential learning programs, councillors, heck even people to tune musical instruments. 

I don't debate the usefulness of these people. In fact, I think they are good and I see no point in looking back on the "old days" when we did not need, say, councillors. Those were not necessarily good old days and simply closing one's eyes to the mental health issues does not make them go away. Likewise, students are looking for experiential learning opportunities because they cannot get what they feel are labour market ready skills in other ways. Said differently, they want to work and want their education to help them get jobs. I think both are great. I am glad students want to work and I think that education does and should help equip people for the workforce. 

Yet, the finance issue does not go away simply by stating that this is a good idea. We finance public education through taxes but what about higher education? That is financed through a combination of taxes and direct student (or the families of students) payments. It is one way, but not the only way, to finance higher education. Other countries, in fact, finance higher education in a range of different ways that limit the degree to which students (or, their families) pay out of pocket. As tuition rates have gone up, summer jobs and the like no longer cover most tuition and students (or, their families) have turned to loans to cover the difference, which was the concern of my friend (see last blog) that got me started thinking about debt. 

There are a myriad of ways to think about student debt, all of which can have some importance. We can think of the percent of students who leave higher education with debt. We can think about the way debt accumulates the longer one is in school. We can think about the ability of people who complete higher education to pay back student loans. We can look at who holds that debt (are they government sponsored student loans, loans from banks, money owed friends or family members?). 

Current data from Stats Canada, which you can find here suggests that students leave higher education with appreciable debt. Here is a graph from Stats Canada that illustrates this. 



There are not a lot of surprises here. College students accrue less debt, BA students have less debt than those in doctors degrees. And, average debt is appreciable. 

Debt causes all kinds of problems, as my friend has said on his FB post. For instance, those just entering the labour market often have little ability to pay back their loans but, after a brief waiting period, have seriously high payments. Those payments can be the source of mental anguish. That I do not doubt, but they are also the source of other problems. For instance, they limit the ability of new workers to make significant purchases ... unless they can get further loans ... which has implications for the economy overall.   

They also create -- or, rather, perpetuate -- inequality. After all, the wealthy don't need student loans and so enter the labour market in a much better economic position than those who have students loans even if they have the exact same qualifications. One will begin to accumulate capital, say; the other will not and no amount of "saving for a rainy day" can disguise the brute facts of math. 

I use this example to illustrate how student debt can hamper one of the very things it was supposed to facilitate: equality of opportunity. 

If these things are true -- if other countries finance post-secondary education in different ways; if debt can subvert the very aims of what it was supposed to facilitate; if it can hamper the economy -- why do we have it? 

Well, the first reason is that no one said that the economy made sense or that it was a cohesive whole. Indeed, almost by definition a capitalist economy is neither cohesive nor does it make sense. I wrote a whole series of blogs (Myths of Capitalism) to illustrate this.  We should not, in other words, be surprised that one part of the economy is intended to facilitate one aim (say, social mobility; equality of opportunity through education) and another part (or, even the same part) subverts that aim.  

But, there is a more significant reason. Think about what student loans do: they are a way of financing post-secondary education.  That might sound odd.  After all, most people don't think of student loans in that way. But, think about what they do: they are a specific form of debt designed to pay for -- aka finance -- post-secondary education. Moreover, the amount of money that they move into post-secondary education is appreciable if Stats Canada data is correct. If that data is correct and the average, say, college student takes out an average of, say, $7 000/yr in debt to pay rent and tuition, etc., that is a fair piece of money being put into the economy and into tuition. It finances, in fact, students who otherwise would not be able to attend college for want or resources (under the current system). Thus, while I know student loans pay for more than just tuition; the fact is that without them we'd have far fewer college students -- or, university students -- than we now have. I have not done the math, but I'd guess that students loans are nearly essential for the economic well-being of colleges and universities. That is: without them, there would be so many fewer students that the economic stability of higher education would be threatened. 

We do not often add this up, but it is something to think about. The economic stability of our post-secondary system seems to rely on student loans. 

Student loans are, then, a way of having students finance post-secondary education and that is, in fact, their purpose.  And, because these are loans, they are paid back with interest. There may be a break on a rate or some other allowances that make the loan more palatable, but ultimately, there is an interest rate and so that means that simply by getting a student loan to pay tuition, a student is paying more than the sticker price. As I pointed out in the previous blog, debt services charges (interest) mean that you pay more -- in some cases a lot more -- than the price of the item you are buying if you go in debt (via a loan or whatever) to make that purchase. Thus, tuition has increased for sure over the last generation but by getting loans -- made necessary by these vary increases in tuition -- students are actually paying more than the cost of tuition for their education. 

This much is simple loan math and put in those terms it does not sound particularly good. In my view, it shouldn't. In effect, the state is suggesting, through student loan policy, not only that students should finance higher education but that they should pay more than the advertised price to do so. But that still does not explain is why we have student loans. In fact, it turns it into a bit of a question. What makes it even more interesting is that the state often portrays liberal student loan policies as progressive measures. If tuition goes up, someone will say, yes tuition is going up but we will counter that with bursaries and easier access to loans. Looked at in this light, easier access to loans does not look very progressive. It is a way for students to get an education that they would otherwise be denied. 

Except: why should they be denied it in the first place? We have student loans in preference to other forms of financing, because student loans are consistent with the general tenor of capitalism and individualism and the prevent the growth of taxes. Said differently, they keep a significant burden of financing post-secondary education on students themselves ... on the individual. We have them because the state does not want to increase taxes and spend the extra tax money on higher education. And, these loans seem natural and necessary. 

This also tells us something about saving for a rainy day. Student loans go often go to individuals -- students -- who have had no chance to save for a rainy day because they have not worked or at least not much. Student loans ensure that young people begin their adult lives in debt. 

I am picking on student loans not because I think they are a particular evil. But, because I think they highlight some of the general problems with debt. Think about what they do: 

  • Seem progressive when they are not
  • Ensure that students pay more for education than the advertised price because they have to cover interest charges
  • Keep the burden of financing on students themselves (something that is more and more true over the last generation)
  • Do little to enhance equal opportunity or social mobility and may, in fact, work against it
  • Disguise the fact that we have options and choice with regard to educational financing 
  • Ensure that individuals begin their adult lives in debt 

In short, student loans, as a particular form of debt, illustrate some of the odd cultural and economic dynamics of debt. As a sign of the time, they illustrate the odd and contradictory nature of our culture which mistakes self-financing for state involvement, regressive measures for progressive measures, and promotes economic instability in the name of promoting equality of opportunity. In short, as a sign of the times, student loans seem to me to be near perfect ... I just don't like the directions in which those signs are pointing. 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Beyond Our Means: Debt as a Cultural Sign

The CBC recently reported that Canadians have a debt problem.  You can find the story here. This is not news. In one way or another key financial institutions (central banks, economists, chartered banks) have been warning of debt issues for some time. There is a certain measure of hypocrisy to these warnings: the very institutions that, in one way or another, create debt or make their money from it, on the one hand, seem to warning about it, on the other.  That is of some significance and it is a point to which I will return later.   What causes this debt? How does it relate to the history of the Canadian economy? Is it a problem?

Debt is an economic issue, but its development is the product of a series of changes in values (culture) and the way financial institutions function. It is closely tied to consumerism and the expansion of consumerism (in terms of the both depth and breadth) over the last generation. Debt has always been with us. Histories of banking and the social elite, as well as governments, show that there have -- as best as we can tell -- been institutions and networks that carried debt for a very long period of time. Heck, the OId Testament has rules against usury. Today, debt has become a normal feature of life. Most of us expect to be in debt for extended periods of our working life. We don't necessarily call this debt "debt" because we don't like the term so instead we use terms like "student loans," "mortgages." "personal lines of credit," or "credit cards," among others. In short, there has been a dramatic expansion of the ways in which we can accumulate debt, label it, manage it, and pay it back. What I'd like to do in this blog and some others is to explore debt from a cultural and historical perspective. I hasten to add that I am not necessarily faulting debt -- although, to tip my hand, I think there is a lot to fault -- but attempting to understand and address the questions I asked above.

Debt occurs when you spend more money than you have. That is simple and relatively straight forward. I'm not telling you something you do not already know, but just to keep everyone on the same wavelength, let's give an example. Imagine I want to buy a car. I don't have the money so I ask the car seller person for a loan. They give the loan. Overtime I pay it back with a small extra charge. That extra change is, of course, called interest and it is compensation that I give the car seller people for getting to use their money. Because I pay interest, this means that overtime, I end up paying back more than the price of the car.  Moreover this interest is compounded. That is, you are, in effect, paying interest on interest. You can find a discussion of this here if you need a refresher. But, for our purposes, what it means is that you end up paying back more on your loan than a straight calculation of interest might suggest. For instance, imagine that I buy a car for $100. Over a three year period, the compounded interest I would pay on my $100, if the interest rate were 5%, is $116.15. For our purposes, what this means is that the car that I bought for $100 ended up actually costing me $116.15.

You can find a nifty site that allows you to calculate compound interest here.

You can think of interest rates as the cost of money. This is confusing because we often think of money as the way of address costs. But, in an economic sense, this is not strictly true. Money is a means of transaction and a symbol of wealth at the same time. When I get a loan, what I am actually doing is buying money. Why would I buy money? On one level the idea of buying money seems to make no sense at all. Well ... as I have already intimated, we buy money (get loans, that is accumulate debt) for all kinds of reasons so that we can take that money and use it to buy something else (a car, a house, an education, etc.). But, because we had to buy the money in the first place, our purchase of the car or house or education is mediated. We are not directly buying that thing that we want. And, for the moment, let us assume that the thing we want to buy is legitimate. After all, as I have been blogging, there is nothing wrong with education. And, I own a house and a car. I'm not shooting anyone down for buying such things. The point that is important to note is that the purchase is now mediated by a series of financial institutions -- I bought my car from a car seller but secured my car loan (bought money to give to the car seller which made the cost of the thing I wanted to buy go up) from my bank. My example is pretty silly and small but run the compound interest on a 25 or 30 mortgage at even a low interest rate over time and see what happens.  You might be surprised.

It is also important to note that not all interest rates are created equal. I'm middle class and because of that I have access to relatively easy credit at relatively low interest rates. In fact, my bank offers to sell me money all the time. They don't call it that. Like I said, they call it credit cards (increasing your credit limit) and lines of credit and "catch up" loans (remember those!).

It does not take a lot of see why excessive debt can become a problem. Bankruptcy (which can also be called a number of things) can be the product of a range of contributing factors, but it occurs when you owe more money than you can reasonably -- or, perhaps even possibly -- pay back over time. This is a product of the expansion of debt and credit (that is, the amount of money people are willing to sell you). I started thinking about this blog because of comments made on FB by a friend who has some serious crushing debt issues. He is about my age and has large student loans. His repayments on these loans are significant and, like many others, he is having a hard time finding full time employment. That is, he works in the precarious employment market, which guarantees neither regular work nor necessarily good wages. His quick calculations have led him to find himself in a situation that he finds really angering and I cannot say that I blame him (a subject I will get to as time goes by).

Let's play out an example to illustrate this point. If I have a salary of $100.00 per month and I owe $20 of that in rent and $15 of that for groceries and $5 for heat and $5 for utilities and $5 for renters insurance and $5 for a phone ... you can see how my regular bills start adding up really quickly. I have now spent over half my income and I've not paid my car loan or my car insurance or my student loan or the loan for my furniture nor gotten Christmas presents for family or gotten any clothes. Debts can mount for all kinds of reasons because there are so many ways to get credit. In addition to my car loan, I suspect most people have a credit card loan they have accumulated somewhere (they may even have more than one), a line of credit payment; they may need to buy school supplies. If you are a parent, you have a whole bunch of other costs. Furniture loans ... etc.

Debt serving charges (interest = the price we paid to buy that money in the first place that we now have to pay back) in this context starts to become a problem. Thus, in one situation debt is manageable. If I can keep my debt low (say, a mortgage and a car loan), I will be OK and can manage that debt from my income. I might not have a lot to spare at the end of the month but I can keep making payments and, over a long time, the amount I owe will slowly decrease. It becomes a problem when one cannot make payments, that is, one defaults, on loans. On a broader social and economic level, this is manageable if it happens on a modest level. In fact, defaulting on loans happens all the time. Money lending people know this and have it built into their calculations. A certain percentage of people to whom I loan money will not be able to pay me back. As long as it is not too many, the interest the others pay covers over that loss and things go well.

When it occurs on a large scale ... then that is where problems begin.  This is what happened in the US (again, there were a variety of contributing factors) in 2008. A whole bunch of people could not pay the loans on their houses (or, mortgages). Because of this, banks suddenly did not have a lot of money left in the till (and insurance companies that had insured those loans took a huge hit). In effect, the amount of capital (money) in the economy shrunk.

Again, I recognize that sounds odd. How does money disappear. Imagine this situation: I owe the Bank of Sackville $100 at 5% interest over three years, compounded that means that I will pay back just over $116. The bank uses that $116 for a bunch of things but let's assume we have a nice bank and say it is paying its employees with that money. Then I cannot make a loan payment because, say,  I lost my job or I was over-extended and had a bunch of other loans. I am starting to have to make choices between paying my loan and buying groceries for my kids. So, I don't pay loan (I default). But, I took the $100 and gave it to the car company. The bank cannot come and get back that money because I no longer have it. It can come and take my car, but I've now had the car for a bit, it has lost value, and so even if they take,  reselling it will not pay back the money that I borrowed (my debt), let alone the interest that is needed to pay employees. And, what if they can't sell it? Here is how money disappears), the bank had on its books my loan and interest as assets. Assets are the money I (or, you, or the bank) have. While the money was not actually there, because they assumed I would pay it back, it was counted as an asset: we have X amount of money coming in.

Again, this is not rocket science and you have all heard of this and perhaps even done it yourself.  You may have said something like "I don't have the money to buy X now but I get paid on Thursday and so I'll buy it then." When you do that you are counting a future earning (money you have not yet received) as an asset. What happens if you are not paid on Thursday?  That asset vanishes. The same thing occurs with the bank. The money that was on the books (because they lent it to me and I promised to pay them back with interest) was a fiction. The money did not actually exist. I was counting my future earnings as an asset that I would use to pay the bank and the bank was counting my payments as an asset to pay employees, give dividends to stock holders, etc. My insolvency -- my default on my loan -- makes it impossible for me to pay it back and the fiction of its existence is exposed. The money is actually not there. Thus, I guess it does not disappear per se but is shown to not exist.

This is what these warnings are all about. In effect, what the CBC expert is noting and what some financial institutions are saying is that there is too much debt in the Canadian economy, our rates of repayment cannot be sustained, this means people will default and defaults on a mass scale hurt the economy. In my example, what happens to the Bank of Sackville if I default on my loan and they cannot pay their employees?

How does all this relate to culture? What interests me is a couple of things and it is to these matters I will turn in future blogs. How did we think it was good to get into this situation in the first place? Why do we accumulate debt when, on one level, it does not make a lot of sense. How does debt relate to consumerism?

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Crisis of the Humanities (III): Am I a Better Person?

Are the humanities in crisis? And, if so, what can -- or, should -- be done about it? I have to admit that I don't really know the answer to either question. Instead, I've been trying to address some of the internal self-criticism generated by the humanities themselves. In particular, I tried to argue that supposed defenders of the humanities who assert limited "my way or the highway" definitions of the humanities as the practice of pure contemplation and who poo-poo the digital humanities and other skill-based pro-humanities arguments are off track. They are, in fact, making claims based on their own limited and, often, unsupported views about what they happen to think is best, rather than what is actually going on in the humanities. Their view, I have implied, has some measure of irresponsibility to it because: (a) they ignore legitimate merits of a humanities based education, (b) to argue that they should be paid to contemplate with the taxpayers who fund their contemplating having no say at all. Worse, yet, (c) these supposed defenders of the humanities are contributing to the very crisis of the humanities that they decry. They are, to be sure, not the only factor involved but the tendency of the humanities to attack itself does not help its cause.

In this blog I want to begin to address another line of argument raised by Stanley Fish: there is nothing inherent to a humanities based education that makes one a better person. This is part of Fish's general rejection of arguments put forward in support of humanities education. Fish argues that any self improvement that occurs in the humanities not the result of design but incidental to the general process of education itself. Hence, he contends, any arguments that the humanities might make for support based on the idea that they help people develop as people (what we might call self-actualize) is misplaced and non-operative from the get go. Let's begin this discussion by thinking about the overall merits of education and what we might mean by being a "better" person. In the next blog, I'll try to continue this discussion and move to a social level.

I think Fish is wrong but he raises a good point. There are merits to education, regardless of what form and focus that education takes. Here, I am using the word "education" to refer to a series of processes that involve both the accumulation of knowledge, information literacy skills, critical analytic skills, self reflection, and the like. In other words, I am differentiating education from propaganda. I've blogged on this before and so will not repeat arguments I have already made. Just assume the difference.

What the studies we have show us is that education --formal, informal -- at higher levels has a range of benefits: it seems to improve voter turnout, civic activism and volunteering, for instance. Higher education also seems to lower crime rates and improve life-long earning potential. And, it does seem to make people happier. Now this is not perfect. You will notice the word "seem" in this discussion. The interpretation of the data requires more nuance than I can (and will) devote to it hear and, to be sure, there are problems. For instance, gender is an important factor contributing to earning potential as well. But, the point is this: the data that we have points in one direction: more education is better than less education.

This makes sense. If given the choice, would you rather be more educated or less educated? If you were making decisions for someone's life, would you help them get more education or less education? When we think about different countries and societies and places to live around the world, which do we think are better: those with higher levels of education or lower levels of education? In fact, levels of higher educational attainment are now often used as one of the features that differentiate cities. When we study universities to assess whether or not they are doing their job, one of the metrics we use is completion rates: what percent of students are actually getting the education for which they paid. Thus, while I know this issue is complicated, the general point is nonetheless true. Education has its merits and we can empirically demonstrate this.

What of the humanities? Can we demonstrate their merits? Sort of.  The answers are less clear when we start to break down different types of education because the studies don't usually do this. They usually look at educational attainment, rather than History or Philosophy graduates verses, say, Commerce or Psychology or Physics grads. Such data is available in different ways but the general studies -- say, of crime rates and educational attainment -- don't query whether or not a History grad is more likely to become a criminal than a Biology grad but whether or not a grad is more more likely to become a criminal than a non-grad. See what I mean?

But, this does not mean that we have no evidence and we cannot make some arguments. First, there is nothing in the evidence that shows that humanities graduates are dramatically worse off than other grads. There is, as far as I can tell, some earning differences but these don't strike me as too significant (and really merit a discussion of their own). And, there are interesting trends in the anecdotal evidence. It shows that a broad range of employers like humanities graduates and, in fact, find them preferable to grads in other disciplines. This does not make you a better person but it does suggest that there are merits to the humanities. I'm not at all certain that I would agree with Fish -- that these merits are incidental. Instead, I would put it differently: education is beneficial and the humanities provide education.

What about being a better person? This is an even more difficult issue to address because it forces us to venture into a subjective ground: what makes someone better? My intention is not to enter into this discussion but to suggest that we should accept some level of subjective perspective and to argue that self-actualization is one ground on which we might rest claims to "better." Why? Because self-actualization (becoming better at being yourself and meeting your own objectives) does not require me to impose my thinking about what is better on someone else. Said differently, better does not equal, for example, thinking like me or knowing more of what I know or reading the books I read or looking at movies the way I look at movies. Instead, it takes advantage of subjective perspectives to ask "does the humanities help people be better?" and leaves the definition of better up to them.

Why would anyone be concerned about being better? Or, at least someone might ask this. Is not the whole idea elitist? Who are you, Andrew Nurse, someone might ask, to tell me (say, a person reading this blog) that I need to be a better version of myself?

That is a good question. I am sure that there are bunch of people out there who are really just plain old happy with themselves. Good. I am not arguing that you should be unhappy with yourself. Indeed, I would likely resent it if someone came by -- particularly someone I did not know -- and told me that I should do something to improve myself.

And ... yet ... does not the idea of self-improvement haunt our society? Go into any Chapters outlet and you'll find an entire section of self-help books: habits of successful people, how to win friends and influence people, how to lose weight, the secret of happiness, but it does not end there. One can find books of remaking one's space, on succeeding in athletics or business or the best places to travel and nifty things to see. One of the odd things about supposedly elitist suggestions with regard to self improvement is that the suggestions for self improvement (being a better self) rarely come from people like me: academics. Academics talk about all kinds of things all the time. How to fix the democratic deficit (better public policy), policies that will address unemployment (better economy), ways to make molecules do nifty things (better, say, medicine), or how to use a telescope to see a star (better research). But, most of the suggestions for being better come not from academics but from mass media. Daytime TV is populated with shows that focus on this but so is speciality programming (one show I watched the other day showed car wreck of a bar transformed -- in a way that helped a community heal after a hurricane -- into a new and snazzy bar that remade self confidence and community).

Said differently, I am not actually claiming to tell anyone how they can be better. I'll ask some more pointed questions in my next blog, but those people suggesting that we can be better and they know the secret of how to do it are legion. They are just not, by and large, in the academy.

What is more important, however, is that no one seems to object to what these people are doing. Whereas some folks will get hot under the collar of an academic says something about self improvement, no one seems to mind at all that there are quite literally hundreds of books out there on the subject, motivational speakers that charge an arm and a leg to come to your company or school to talk about how we can all be better, tv shows that focus endlessly on the theme.

Why? Well, the issue is not better nor who says it. I'm not particularly interested in the disjuncture between something being bad *if I do it* and good if some guy on TV does it. I am interested in what all this tells us about culture and the thing it tells us is that people are interested in better. They may not be interested in what I have to say, and they don't have to be, but they are interested in finding ways to self-actualize: to meet their own objectives, to live a better and, I dare say, richer life. Our society watches these TV shows, buys these books, goes to the talk and pays a premium for the seminar to find out the secrets of life and the way to lead a better, more full-filling and deeper, more meaningful life.

It is not me, I hasten to add, saying that this is a good thing. It is ordinary people (ordinary Canadians) out there watching these shows, going to the talks, buying the books. For a variety reasons about which I am not going to write, there is a desire for something more. Once we establish that fact, then I think we can start to have a discussion of the role the humanities might play in it. That, at least, is the subject of my next blog.

Monday, September 17, 2018

And ... you already forgot about it: Canada and Saudi Arabia

In the world of international diplomacy and foreign policy, there are certain unwritten rules. One of them is that mild criticism is to be expected and is to be either ignored or politely refuted if it is meaningless in practical terms, as was Canada's criticism of Saudi Arabia. For those who missed it, and I can actually see why you would, a number of weeks ago the Government of Canada issued a tweet critical of Saudi Arabia's human rights record. It was the mildest form of international criticism that one could have -- sort of like a cap and trade is the mildest form of environment protection policy one can have other than not protecting the environment or encouraging pollution, but that is another story to which I will circle around again. It is not intended as a point of international dispute, nor to disrupt relations, nor even to elicit a response. It may, as I suggested in my previous post, even be intended for domestic consumption. To be clear: Canada was going to do nothing with regard to Saudi Arabia. What upset the Saudis -- what triggered their effort to construct a one-country hard power-based boycott of Canada -- was a tweet suggesting that human rights were good.

What I want to do in this blog is further explore the fallout from this tweet in order to think about what it tells us about contemporary public life. I'll conclude by thinking a bit about how Canada should respond to this. But, and this is the key point I want to emphasize, it is fair enough to ask: what bad happened? Despite some prognostications of really bad stuff happening ... well, nothing did. The Canadian economy did not collapse; Canada's relations with the rest of the world were not harmed; the supposed mass withdraw of Saudi medical students and residents that would cripple the health care system did not come to pass and the journalists who reported these things as if they were true have now moved on to other matters.

This is important and ties into a series of other developments related to Canadian public life. The first and most obvious is the power of social media. But, to be clear, I think this is, in fact, the least important element of this story. Social media allows this story to happen in "real time" ... well, sort of .... but what happened here sped up developments that were occurring anyway. To be clear again, I think social media does have an effect on public life. I recommend Angela Nagle's book _Kill All Normies_ for a good study. But, in this case, the issue was not social media per se, but a government that was not interested in "taking" what it saw as criticism and which it construed as "meddling" in its internal affairs.  Social media makes statements -- like the one made by the Government of Canada --easy and, potentially, gratuitous, and that is a problem. But if we were to prioritize issues, the issue here is an unwillingness to accept criticism.

What is important in this regard -- and what is telling -- is the shockingly limited and mild character of the criticism. The Canadian government, in fact, issued the mildest possible tweet that carried with it no practical consequences.  That is a problem for the supporters of human rights, but it is not a problem for the Saudi government. I'd guess that the Canadian government was shocked by the Saudi response. This is a sign of how much times have changed. In the past, one might have expected the Saudi's to ignore the criticism or to register some sort of diplomatic response.

What this shows us, I previously argued, is the degree to which Saudi Arabia lacks serious soft power mechanisms of foreign policy and so must "go for the jugular," as it were, of hard power right away. But, what it also illustrates is the degree to which governments are unwilling to bridge any criticism and reject even the mildest form of progressive politics.  The Trump detainment of children in the US is an example. The that the proper response to gun violence is more guns is another. In Canada, the Ford government's rejection of cap and trade (the mildest most capitalistic form of environmental protection) is another example.

What this illustrates is not simply limited capacity to take other actions but an unwillingness to meet even the mildest of progressive concerns about human rights, families, safety in schools, or the environment.

I know my language is loaded, but in the US polls demonstrate among Republicans a marked decline in empathy. In other words, people are having a harder time putting themselves in others shoes and thinking through public life from that perspective. In the past, even opponents of environmental protection would have recognized that something needed to be done. They would have low-balled it. What is going on now is something different. In effect, the government of Saudi Arabia is saying not only do we reject the idea of gender of equality but we will do everything we can to shut down anyone who  thinks they can promote it. What Ford is saying with the end of cap and trade is not simply "I'm skeptical about global warming" but "I feel that the off chance that cap and trade might end up costing the average Ontarian a few bucks is too much."  What is Ford's plan to deal with environmental change? Well ... he has none because he has just ditched the mildest possible form of environmental protection.

What has gone on here, then, is another sign of the changes in politics and changes in public life. In the US, the opponents of immigration and no longer willing to say "yes, children should be protected" but now see children as an enemy. In Canada, the opponents of environmental protection see even the simplest and least intrusive mechanisms of trying to protect the earth as too costly. The opponents of gender equality in Saudi Arabia, see even soft, mild, and meaningless criticism as a step worthy of as much vindictive as one could possibly mount.

What should we do about this? Well, it changes politics and there is a broader issue that needs to be addressed in that regard. I have no intention of crapping on progressive politics. Instead, I will argue that I think progressive politics needs to re-evaluate its approach to public life. How that is done is another story.

Right now, I don't think Canada should back down before Saudi Arabia or Doug Ford. There are good signs still out there. Ford's campaign against the carbon tax went nowhere (although I am worried about the time it is taking the Liberals to get the ball rolling on this). He will lose whatever constitutional challenge he thinks he can mount (although I suspect that he knows that and whatever challenges are coming are intended to delay implementation as long as possible, hoping for more provincial political winds to change). But, backing down is not the solution. He has had to resort to extreme means to reduce the size of Toronto City Council.

Let's look at Saudi Arabia. The issue is not Canada versus Saudi Arabia. In fact, if we accept that logic and buy into that discourse, we are buying into the discourse that Saudi Arabia wants us to buy into.  Many Saudis support expanding human rights. Their government is among the least democratic on the face of the earth (which is why many people argued against military truck and trade with them). Frankly, I could care less what an undemocratic militarized government thinks of my government. It makes no difference to me and to anyone who thinks seriously about this issue. But, I think, as well, that we can and should refuse the discourse they want us to accept because it makes it look like everything in Saudi Arabia is just peachy but for those nasty meddling Canadians and if you think that is the case ... well ... I happen to own a bridge to PEI that I'll sell you cheap.

Instead what is at issue is two things:

1. Is Canada good to its word? If the Canadian government -- any government -- backs down before hard power threats (in effect, what the Saudi government is saying is "we will do all we can to hurt you") ... they will be backing down on ... well ... just about everything else. And, the things that Canada supposedly stands for will be lost.  Don't read what I am not writing. I am not arguing that Canada is perfect, that Canada's human rights record is good, that there is not a great deal that Canada needs to do.  What I am asking is this: what is the price of our morals? Or, personalize it, what is the price or your morals, values, and ethics?

The truth of the matter is that there is little Saudi Arabia can do to hurt Canada. It can sell off some government bonds but someone else will buy them. It can cut flights but ... so what? That won't stop transit. It can send the ambassador home but that is purely political theatre without any meaningful effect. And it can recall some students but those are Saudi students anyway. Messing up the education and careers of Saudi students is kind of silly and sort of like shooting one's self in the foot but, hey, if they want to do it ... go ahead.

The issue is nationally, what is our morality worth to us? If we back down, when there is nothing significant on the line, we say ... gee, even the smallest price is something that we are not willing to pay. We become, in other words, the progressive version of Doug Ford.  I'd like to believe that, as a people, we stand for something more than a few extra pennies in our pocket at the end of the fiscal year.

2. The second issue is whether or not we accept the shifting parameters of political discourse. Mild and meaningless criticism is not meddling in another country's internal affairs. If it were, Donald Trump -- whose criticism of Canada is far from mild and might not be meaningless -- would be the world's biggest meddler. Speaking only for myself, I am concerned about a political environment where even the mildest form of progressive politics -- politics intended to improve people's lives, to get them out of jail, say -- is viewed as a bridge too far.

Canada may not be able to go to traditional allies and partners in this new world of more extreme discourse and response but, in my view, that should not stop Canada from trying to be a positive force in the world. That is hypocritical. I know. Canada has much too look after and one's morality is not license to mess around in other countries.  Explaining how the two can be melded is another blog that I'll write sometime. But, I suspect that Canada will find that there are partners with which we can work to promote positive change.  It might not be the US or Saudi Arabia, but it might include some nifty countries and might provide a change to create some non-traditional relations. Working with those partners is Canada's next step in foreign policy.

Finally, the point I made at the start of this blog, one needs to avoid over-reacting. If some of the critics of the current government were to be believed, Canada should have retreated right then and there and/or never offered even the mildest of support for human rights. Yet, a few weeks later, the storm has blow over, other issues have become more pressing, and disaster has not occurred. I have no doubt opposition politicians will, later, try to "make hay" on this event: the government screwed up relations with .... But, if nothing significant has happened, how actually could that case be made? In this day and age of social media, evidence does not seem to really need to be in supply. All one seems to need to do make a vague assertion that can strike a memory.  It is up to those of us who support human rights to correct this vague assertion and memory.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Saudi Foreign Policy and Canada

It is easy to speculate about others actions when you don't know much about a country. This is the Canadian dilemma with regard to Saudi Arabia. While I suspect most Canadians could find the country on a map and are aware that it is a major oil producer with a state religion ... that is likely about it. For one reason or another, Saudi Arabia has made Canada the brunt of its vindictive and it is pulling out all the stops ... or, at least all the stops it can. It is sending the Canadian ambassador home, selling off Canadian state investment it owns (and perhaps private investments as well), stopping flights back and forth to Canada, and recalling a whole bunch of its students (perhaps up to 16 000) studying at Canadian universities.

By Canadian standards this is big stuff. Canadian knowledge of foreign policy often begins and ends with whatever has been on the news of late and the United States. And, these are often the same thing. Canadians are aware of things going on in other parts of the world, to be sure, and they often have deep -- and conflicting -- views on those subjects (say, Israel and Palestine, nuclear disarmament and North Korea, Russian intervention in other parts of the world, etc.) But ... Saudi Arabia ... in a spat with Canada and ... over a tweet .... seriously ... a tweet ...  that was, well, more or less the mildest form of criticism that the Canadian government could possibly have offered. You can find an assessment here.

What is going on -- that is, what should we learn from this -- and what should Canada do about it? This is a two part question, but a potentially important one for the development of Canadian foreign policy. So far, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has stuck to its guns but what is also clear is that this government does not know a great deal about foreign policy and is having a very difficult time navigating international waters. In large measure, I want to argue, this is because the world is different and IR theories that developed and were designed for past times -- even the recent past -- won't work. Canada needs, in other words, a foreign policy -- even a foreign policy of criticism -- that is conscious of its historical moment. So far, at least from what I can tell, neither the current government nor its critics have really demonstrated that. Instead, they are recycling the debates of the Harper era and that will not get Canada where it wants to go.

What is going on is several things. First, there are things specific to Saudi Arabia. It has established a particularly aggressive foreign policy of late: supporting rebels in Syria, attempting to internationally isolate Qatar, and conducting a destructive civil war in Yemen. It is embroiled in a three way fight for influence in its region of the world (with Iran and Turkey) and beyond. At home, it has cracked down on peaceful dissent, which includes (among others) women's rights activists. What are the wider implications of this?

Several inter-related factors are important to consider: the world of the Middle East, in which Saudi Arabia was a repressive but internationally peaceful and predictable client state of the US has now passed. Saudi Arabia will not step on US toes, because of US power, but otherwise it will follow what it perceives to be in its own interests and it will use hard power mechanisms to accomplish its aims. This has occurred, again, for a couple of reasons:

(A) Saudi Arabia lacks soft power options. It shouldn't. Its oil-based bankroll should allow it to develop a fuller range of foreign policy options, including effective diplomacy. For whatever reason, the Saudi government has chosen not to take that course but to instead focus on hard power options. Or, in the case of Canada, as hard a power as they can muster. The neglect of soft power foreign policy options, in other words, has left Saudi Arabia with few alternatives to a bellicose -- and potentially irrational --  foreign policy that seems intended to force other states into its line.

Canada is a good example. While the Canadian government would likely continue mild criticism of Saudi Arabia (as it does with a range of other states), that criticism is meaningless and, in the case of the current government, more or less intended for domestic consumption. In other words, these kind of tweets appeal to soft-centre-left Canadians who support human rights, were horrified by their almost complete irrelevance to the Harper government, and want to see their government saying the "right things." In point of fact, this is the kind of international human rights engagement against which supporters of human rights in Canada have been quick to argue. Talk that really does little.

And, make no bones about it, Canada was not actually going to do anything serious about the Saudi human rights record. It didn't want to because the current government does not really know what it is is doing on the world stage and the Conservative opposition is more interested in potential military sales than anything else.

What this means, of course, is that the Saudi effort to create a one-state embargo of Canada was meaningless. In fact, I'd guess that a lot more Canadians are aware of Saudi Arabia's human rights record today than they were a week ago. I'd guess a lot more people are scratching their head about the Saudi government and wondering about the political rationality of its policies now than a week ago. Not only has Saudi Arabia drawn more international attention to its own bad record, but it can't cause Canada to back down.

Why? Because whether we like it or not, the discourse of human rights is a selling issue with Liberals and long has been. Trudeau's father was, of course, a huge supporter of rights (think Charter) but so are people like Foreign Affairs Minister Freeland and so are the people who vote Liberal or whom the Liberals want to vote Liberal. The Liberals have no monopoly on human rights, of, but the issue seems to resonate with significant sections of the Canadian population and those are the sections where the Liberals are looking for votes. Put in different terms, if Canada misjudged Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia has misjudged Canada.

In terms of realpolitik, Saudi Arabia is playing a losing game here too and this is a key point. Saudi economic interchange with Canada is simply not great enough to have any effect. Imagine, for instance, that the highest estimate of Saudi students in Canada is true and 16 000 university students disappear. This is a tiny number. According to Universities Canada there are 1.7 million students in Canadian universities. The CBC this morning made much of the 700 or 800 Saudi medical students in Canada, but ... are we  to believe that there are no students, say in Canada, who might like those spots in medical school?  Sending an ambassador home is a big diplomatic move (that is why most countries never do it) but it is largely meaningless in terms of policy. Cancelling flights inconveniences people who fly but it does not stop transit between Canada and Saudi Arabia. It just inconveniences ordinary people looking to make the flight, perhaps university students who now have to look for a new school that will accept their credits less than a month before school starts (less than a few weeks before the US fall semester begins).

(B) This is not, however, just an instance of Saudi Arabia looking to exert its authority on the world stage. It illustrates a transition in world power away from the US/USSR binary of the Cold War era or the single super-power of the post-Cold War age and toward a more multi-centered international power system in which different countries compete internationally with each other and with "the west" for international influence and authority. In this regard, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, among others, are all engaged in the same international politics. The issue, in other words, is only Canada a little bit. It is really about other things and this is what the current Canadian government might have misjudged.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think Canada should be silent in the face of international human rights abuses and I don't think that Canadians should back down in front of aggressive hard power politics ... when they are in the right. I'll get to this in my next post.

What we are seeing, however, is what a multi-polar world looks like. The increased US evacuation of international politics under Trump is facilitating this development. While the previous US government, for instance, would almost certainly have "sided with Canada" (at least in terms of public statements), the current one has not and likely will not. Their approach is this: "this is none of our business and we wish both sides well. We hope they solve their problems." Likewise the EU -- preoccupied with its own issues -- took basically the same stance.

What does this mean? Well, it means that Canadians should not look to the US or the EU for support for our actions on the international stage. I watched CBC this AM and there was mild surprise that others -- our traditional allies -- have not sided up with us. But, the fact that our media at least were looking for this illustrates how much they have misjudged the world.

Not only is easy and ready support for an "international consensus" on human rights at hand, but it is not clear that there is an international consensus on human rights.

Again, don't get me wrong. I think the ordinary person -- the ordinary Canadian, American, Briton, German, South African, etc. -- is completely in favour of human rights. But, exactly how much political capital their governments are prepared to spend on it is not clear. We know from polling in the US that there is a decline in empathy, particularly among Republican supporters. Put in other words, things that we all could have previously assumed ... might not be easy to assume.  The new right in Europe, for instance, seems simply to not care about the lives of refugees. And, we have all see the problems with child-parent reunification in the US. Lots of people care, to be sure, and show that care every day. But, lots of others ... don't and this is giving, I think, their governments pause.

The influence of the decline of empathy on domestic politics, then, has the interesting and important effect of emboldening human-rights violating regimes. They were violating human rights before, that is clear, but they did so in different ways. Now, criticism of the violation of human rights is construed as "meddling" in another state's internal affairs. And, the declining international power of the US and indifference of European states facilitates that process.

For Canada, this means -- and Canadians should note this -- there is cavalry riding the rescue.  Canada needs to be deliberate in its actions and secure in its ability to stand on its own feet. (Again, more on this in the next post.)

The wider picture is this: this is what the post-New World Order -- the post-global age --  looks like.  It is not necessarily pretty. Rather than regionalized economic power blocks figuring out how to collaborate with each other under the umbrella of the WTO, what we have is militarized quests of influence based in little else than hard power. It is not pretty at all. But, perhaps even because of this, now is the time to rethink Canadian foreign policy. We should not abandon a commitment to human rights but we need to figure out exactly how to meet that aim in changing circumstances.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Practical Humanities Failure? The Critique of the Digital Humanities

In my previous post, I tried to argue that limited definitions of the humanities may make those who use who practice them feel good -- à la Stanley Fish, we can say "I engage in a life of pure contemplation" -- but that is a minimal, one-sided, and impoverished conception of what the humanities are and why they are important. My point here is specific: I am not trying to say that Stanley Fish is wrong when he asserts that contemplation (whatever this might mean in practice) is a key part of the humanities. I am trying to say that it is not the only part and, hence, Fish's contention that anything that diverges from pure contemplation is somehow debased relies on an artificial distinction that he himself has, in fact, created. Fish's conception of the humanities is, in other words, not inherent to the humanities themselves. Indeed, I tried to argue that Fish's conception of pure contemplation relies on the very skills -- the very practical values -- that he abhors. Feel free to disagree with me.

In this post, I want to turn away from the humanities in general to what is called the "digital humanities," which are a particularly target of Fish's vindictive. His argument is that the digital humanities are not, in fact, humanistic. And, that they really don't work. They are tools that are used -- to helps with analysis, at best -- but they cannot run by themselves. They require someone to analyse the patterns they discover or someone, in different words, to program the computer. For this reason, they fail.

My problem with this argument is this: who ever said that the digital humanities functioned as a form of AI? Fish is hunting a paper tiger because he is arguing that the digital humanities fail because they have not fulfilled a promise that they, in fact, never made. I don't work in the digital humanities myself -- although I have some ideas that I might start to implement sometime in the future -- but no one who I know ever argued that they living human beings were not part of the process of analysis. I edit a journal called Acadiensis and we have published a couple of pieces in the digital humanities in the past little while in which historians have used computer-assisted analytic tools (specifically with regard to social network analysis). These are good pieces but none of the historians who conducted this analysis ever said that a human being did not actually conduct the analysis. To argue that analysis still requires human thought is not a discover or a damning criticism. It is, in fact, to miss what the digital humanities are, in fact, all about.

There is a lot of this going around, at least in my neck of the woods. I've heard colleagues reject the digital humanities as little more than web page development, where a bunch of primary sources are posted. It does not, in their view, promote any useful skill. I don't believe that the digital humanities are necessarily the future of the humanities. There will always be scholars who reject the very idea of digital humanities and take a measure of pride in their rejection. They might even claim -- like Fish implies -- that they alone are staying true to the inherent and fundamental basis of the humanities.

I'm not at all certain that that perspective is correct. I want to contest it by making several points:

First, think about how much of our lives as scholars has changed in terms of how we conduct our work. I am writing this post, for instance, on computer. It will never see a hard copy.  It will never be written in cursive. I communicate with my students using various means, which include good old fashioned sitting down and talking, but I also semi-look after a Facebook page and I write a lot of emails. Colleagues text me. Acadiensis maintains a vibrant social media engagement connected to other social media institutions in our field. So, whether we like to admit it or not, shifting communications technologies have changed the way we work and how communicate to students, colleagues, and the broader public.

Second, digital humanities is not about simply creating web sites that archive or list primary documents or sources, but these are useful. The ability to access sources more easily should not be something that we shoot down. Indeed, judging from my own experiences (always a dangerous thing, I admit), many of my colleague and a great many of my students become frustrated when they cannot relatively easily access sources. It is a different technology but is this now part of what libraries and archives and museums were (and continue to be!) about. My town has a local library that is well used.  It does a bunch of things (including a children's summer programme), but one of the things that it does it make it easier for people to get hard covers of books that they otherwise would not have access to in Sackville. (Indeed, the digital world of new communications technologies is so prevalent that many people might not remember a day before Amazon and Indigo online sales. Some towns had a local bookstore. Some didn't.) While using the internet as an archival space is not the be-all-and-end-all of digital humanities (and, again, to the best of my knowledge no one ever actually said it was), there is nothing particularly wrong with this use.

In fact, one might go further, some of the larger projects (online exhibitions developed by archives, early Canadiana.org, the CBC's online archive, material made accessible via the NFB, along with a bunch of others), is really useful. A paper recently published in Acadiensis made really effective use of online genealogy sources. The author told me that he could not have written this paper -- at least in its current form -- without these sources.

This ability to store and access information is, then, not a bad thing. It is something we, as a society, have, in fact, been doing for a long time. It is one of the functions of libraries, archives, and museums, and is something that, as with those institutions, requires specialized skills. One does not just pop a bunch of stuff up on a web page and call it a day. There need to be standard approaches, for instance, to searching for materials.

Moreover, the skill needed for such things as a search (if it is not to become a completely over-the-top time consuming type of thing) is something that those of us who teaching in the humanities know about first hand because many of our students often do a pretty poor job of conducting online searches and so end up with weak sources and weaker papers than they could have otherwise written. Learning something about digital literacy does not replace other forms of literacy -- knowing about culture, history, information in general -- because it is consistent with it. It aids what we do and what we are asking our students to do.

This is my point: even in its most basic form -- providing access to information -- the digital humanities are useful, are consistent with what we generally do in the humanities, and can facilitate the very types of skills (assessing information) that is part of what we seek to do in our classes.

Third, this is important because we cannot stick our heads in the sand. Much of the information we access today as a society comes via new communications technologies: aka, the internet. Is the medium the message? I don't know and I don't tend to make that argument. Content, I usually argue, is important regardless of the medium in which it is conveyed. But, more and more of our content comes to use via the internet and so an ability to grasp what that is, search it, assess it, and engage it is important for our jobs. We can, and will, use more traditional technologies. I still go to historic sites and art galleries, libraries and archives and museums. I still read hard cover books. I don't see that changing and no one in the digital humanities is asking for that.

But, are we to ignore the fact that more and more of our journals are online? A good one here in New Brunswick (NB Studies) is online only and I've read about others contemplating going precisely in that direction as well. Conferences are streamed. I still want to be there in person but I do watch the streams (particularly archived versions when I can't make it.) Web archives are also being made accessible by a range of scholars. Should we ignore this information? Would you council a history student to ignore an accessible primary source? Would a student in literature be told to ignore a short story by an author who was central to their honours thesis? Would we suggest that one could study world music and ignore an easy way to hear what that music actually sounded like? And ... well ... you get the point.

Finally, digital humanities, I should say, are not a singular thing. I've focused on one particular type -- archiving -- because it struck me that much of the discussion I hear about it is misguided. Again: it is not the answer to the future of the humanities but it is not inconsistent with what we are doing in the humanities either. Other forms of digital humanities, as I've indicated above, use tools to help conduct analysis. These tools -- say, specific software packages or search analytics -- don't work by themselves. But, learning how to use them can help with the data we will have in our times, with data that is already being and has been digitized, it can help ask questions that we might otherwise ask of sources.

I read a piece a couple of years ago that made use of qualitative analysis software to assess the frequency with which certain key words were used in federal publications for newcomers who wanted to become citizens (or, more simply, in citizenship guides). To be sure, the analysis did not tell me anything that I did not already suspect, but it caught a few things -- say, inconsistencies in the use of certain words -- that I might otherwise have missed. The authors still had to do the analysis but the tools they used enriched and that has been my experience in history. Digital tools don't replace historical research but they can facilitate it. And, looked at in this light, the digital humanities are something other than a failure.

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.

Beyond Our Means: Student Debt as a Cultural Sign

In my last post, I tried to explain a series of things about debt and how it functions.  The key points are there and you can refer back to ...