"What, then, can be done?"
He rejects the traditional "pieties […] — the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better — because those pieties have a 19th century air about them". He rejects the argument that "the humanities contribute to economic health", on the grounds that "nobody really buys that argument, not even the university administrators who make it". And he rejects the idea that we can "ask computer science or biology or the medical school to fork over some of their funds so that the revenue-poor classics department can be sustained", on the grounds that "today it won't fly".
The only thing that might fly — and I’m hardly optimistic — is politics, by which I mean the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies — legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others — that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.
And when I say “explain,” I should add aggressively explain — taking the bull by the horns, rejecting the demand (always a loser) to economically justify the liberal arts, refusing to allow myths (about lazy, pampered faculty who work two hours a week and undermine religion and the American way) to go unchallenged, and if necessary flagging the pretensions and hypocrisy of men and women who want to exercise control over higher education in the absence of any real knowledge of the matters on which they so confidently pronounce.
Since Prof. Fish was once a fairly senior academic administrator — Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago –it's fair to look to his example to see what such aggressive efforts to explain and defend the core enterprise of the humanities should be like.
He doesn't give us much to work with in yesterday's opinion piece. There's a brief attack on SUNY Albany's president, on the grounds that he lacks a doctorate and called a town hall meeting for a Friday afternoon, with little notice, "when he could be sure that almost no academic personnel would be hanging around". The rest is a discussion of the legality of dismissing tenured faculty by eliminating departments and programs, which is interesting but hardly an aggressive defense of the core enterprise of the humanities.
A couple of years ago, in "Will the Humanities Save Us?", NYT 1/6/2008, Prof. Fish presented a longer explanation — though not exactly a defense:
To the question "of what use are the humanities?", the only honest answer is none whatsoever. […]
I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment. […]
You can talk … about "well rounded citizens," but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people.
Those hardly seem like arguments that would have changed the minds of the decision-makers in Albany.
In my post "Après Fish, le déluge?", 1/15/2008, I asked
So why does the MLA — to name just one of the professional associations of academic humanists — still have 30,000 members? There are two obvious reasons: externally, many influential people still accept the "ideal [that] belongs to an earlier period"; and internally, academia is one of the most conservative cultures in the world. Adding new things is possible there, given money; but removing old things is very hard. This is partly because of the tenure system, but mostly, I think, it's just a deeply ingrained cultural conservatism, compared to which your typical Saudi salafist is homo economicus.
I observed that Prof. Fish's account of the situation foretold a dire future for the academic humanities, even if academic conservatism slows the pace of change. But he failed to draw the obvious conclusions in his 2008 piece, and in 2010, he doesn't seem to notice the connection between his own beliefs and their logical consequences.