Pure Fish

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For a couple of days before the inaugural, the most emailed article on the NYT website was Stanley Fish's column "The Last Professor" (1/18/2009), which returns to a favorite theme of his:

In previous columns and in a recent book I have argued that higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.

See "Après Fish, le déluge?", 1/15/2008, for some discussion of his earlier discussions. His reason for revisting the allegedly endangered purity of higher education, this time, is to review a book:

This view of higher education as an enterprise characterized by a determined inutility has often been challenged, and the debates between its proponents and those who argue for a more engaged university experience are lively and apparently perennial. The question such debates avoid is whether the Oakeshottian ideal (celebrated before him by Aristotle, Kant and Max Weber, among others) can really flourish in today’s educational landscape. It may be fun to argue its merits (as I have done), but that argument may be merely academic – in the pejorative sense of the word – if it has no support in the real world from which it rhetorically distances itself. In today’s climate, does it have a chance?

In a new book, “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the University,” Frank Donoghue (as it happens, a former student of mine) asks that question and answers “No.”

Determined inutility is one thing — Prof. Fish is free to choose that path if he wants to — but determined ignorance of history is something else again.

It's odd for a scholar to throw around phrases like "today's educational landscape" as if contemporary economic and cultural forces were laying siege to institutions that were founded and managed as ivory towers committed to impractical scholarship. But the truth is that American higher education has always explicitly aimed to mix practical training with pure intellectual and moral formation, and to pursue research with practical consequences as well as understanding abstracted from applications.

Stanley Fish himself was an undergraduate at my own institution, the University of Pennsylvania, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin on this educational premise ("Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania", 1749):

As to their STUDIES, it would be well if they could be taught every Thing that is useful, and every Thing that is ornamental : But Art is long, and their Time is short. It is therefore propos'd that they learn those Things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental. Regard being had to the several Professions for which they are intended.

And Stanley Fish got his start as a professor at Berkeley, part of a system of public higher education funded by the the Morrill Act of 1862, which established the land grant system:

And be it further enacted, That all moneys derived from the sale of the lands aforesaid by the States to which the lands are apportioned, and from the sales of land scrip hereinbefore provided for, shall be invested in stocks of the United States, or of the States, or some other safe stocks, yielding not less than five per centum upon the par value of said stocks; and that the moneys so invested shall constitute a perpetual fund, the capital of which shall remain forever undiminished, (except so far as may be provided in section fifth of this act,) and the interest of which shall be inviolably appropriated, by each State which may take and claim the benefit of this act, to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

American higher education has from the beginning included and endorsed the full spectrum from pure to applied, in teaching as well as in research. And most academics, in my own experience, would reject not only Prof. Fish's commitment to inutility, but also his presupposition that a sharp distinction between useful and useless is a useful one.

He quotes Michael Oakeshott: “There is an important difference between learning which is concerned with the degree of understanding necessary to practice a skill, and learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining.” This is true enough — and the distinction between skills and principles is important — but Fish goes on to equate "understanding and explaining" with with "the absence of a direct and designed relationship" to "measurable activities in the world". This is logically false and historically preposterous.

Researchers in the natural sciences and mathematics have always been motivated to a significant extent by the desire to affect as well as to understand "measurable activities in the world". This has also been true, traditionally, of social scientists, historians, and even philosophers. And in the humanities, many of the most famous and influential scholars of earlier centuries and decades have applied their scholarship to practical ends, and have thereby gained knowledge and skills that made their "pure" research better. Indeed, the whole point of Edward Said's Orientalism thesis, flawed as it was conceptually and factually, was that the humanities scholars of past centuries, whatever their ideology, were useful servants of empire.

It may be true that Prof. Fish is "the last professor" of his type, in a certain sense. He represents a breed of humanities scholars that "caught the wave", flourishing in the margins of a system expanding rapidly to accomodate the baby boomers as students and the incredible success of post-WW-II research as the foundation of a new technological civilization. But it's inaccurate to present his own license to self-indulgence as the invariant pattern of the past, and unrealistic to project it as a plausible plan for the future.

This is not, in my opinion, just because his attitudes are the fruit of a specific and atypical historical situation. It's because a more balanced and integrated perspective on the relationship between useful and ornamental knowledge produces better education and better scholarship as well.

Prof. Fish may be right in predicting a dire future for the humanities:

Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past. In “ two or three generations,” Donoghue predicts, “humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.”

But if this is true — and in my last discussion of Fish on inutility I suggested that zero-based allotment of faculty slots would reduce tenured humanists by a factor of 10 — it's not mainly because 21st-century society and the 21st-century university are so different from their counterparts in the 19th century (though of course enormous differences do exist). A more important reason is that the leading humanists of the past 50 years are so different, in their attitudes and practices, from the leading humanists of the past.


  1. dr pepper said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 7:55 am

    Inutility? That makes no sense. At least, as i've always understood it, the claim has always been that the academic disciplines, especially the most rarified ones, are supposed to sharpen and broaden the mind, get people to believe in self improvement, civilized behavior, and all that. Perhaps that was wishful thinking, buit it was certainly not inutil in intent.

    [(myl) Exactly. ]

  2. David Hilbert said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 8:16 am

    I'm a humanities professor, a philosopher, and I found Fish's article pretty irritating. I think you're right that the emphasis Fish places on inutility is misplaced. Although my field has been caricatured as the very paradigm of inutility since antiquity, this has never been much more than a caricature. The problems philosophers work on are typically motivated by features of ordinary experience or by the desire to understand what's going on in other areas of intellectual activity. We share our thoughts on these problems with students and others not only because it's necessary to get a paycheck but also because we think it helps people to lead their lives and do their own jobs.

    Your suggestion, however, that the humanities persist only because of conservatism in academia seems to me to be as misplaced as Fish's confidence that humanist inquiry is vanishing. I don't see any danger of the humanities vanishing from the university or morphing into nothing but the teaching of composition and critical thinking. Although some fields, i.e. classics, are shrinking, most are holding their own just fine. This is not only because academics hate change. There's real demand on the part of students for our classes and there's the belief on the part of most faculty and many administrators that taking humanities classes is a valuable component of a college education. Just as in the sciences, high-level teaching can be enhanced by engagement with active research and so there is also support for continuing philosophical investigation. I teach in a second rank state university (although still a research institution) and maybe it's different in the elite universities, but the genuine respect many students and colleagues in science departments seem to have for philosophy suggests that humanists are not the despised outsiders you seem to suggest we are at the end.

    Perhaps philosophy is different from the other academic humanities disciplines and I certainly don't see the break in the nature of the profession that you suggest is present in the humanities. From my point of view, although there are innumerable differences between Bertrand Russell and Daniel Dennett they would each recognize the other as engaged with fundamental philosophical problems and use a very similar set of tools to approach those problems.

  3. Ken Brown said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 8:43 am

    "to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts"

    So *that's* why Texas A&M is called "Texas A&M". I never realised.

  4. Chris said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    And most academics, in my own experience, would reject not only Prof. Fish's commitment to inutility, but also his presupposition that a sharp distinction between useful and useless is a useful one.

    But if it were a useful distinction, Fish, by his own principles, wouldn't be allowed to propound it. It is only *because* what he is saying is useless that he is not a hypocrite for saying it.

    Anyone who attempts to be useless is almost guaranteed to succeed.

  5. Dan T. said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    Disgruntled students of higher (and lower) education have long complained that whatever they're learning is irrelevant to anything they'll ever do in the real world (when am I ever going to need long division / trigonometry / differential equations / organic chemistry?), but it takes some guts to proclaim that as a desirable feature of academia.

  6. JimG said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    I find it hard to accept the notion that ANY organized field of study would be entirely "inutile" for a student. Besides the benefits of learning how to study/learn, a student will benefit from learning, to some extent, how to think critically. As well, if the student has any interest in the field of study, the learning may contribute to personal satisfaction, self-confidence and perhaps even some integration of personality. Human minds vary infinitely, and ideas are yet one more type of tool that a mind can use to understand and respond to life's experiences and challenges. Even linguistics ;) can be useful as well as fascinating.

  7. Bloix said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Aristotle believed that the point of education was to prepare a governing class.

    "All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth."

  8. mgh said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    I have no idea what you're saying here.

    I thought you were saying that all (some? many?) basic scientists are motivated by a desire to make something useful to society, like a vaccine or a bridge. That seems plain wrong.

    Then, I thought you were saying that every intellectual pursuit benefits society in the long run, which takes all meaning from the word "useless".

    It would help if you defined clearly what you believe Fish means by "useful", and what definition you are using. (I would also be interested to learn what Franklin means by "ornamental").

  9. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    Suppose we call learning useful if it sometimes (not too rarely) directly assists in getting everyday things done around the office in real-world non-academic employment or in work (paid or not) done for society's benefit. And we call it useless if one really cannot imagine in normal circumstances that it might assist in a practical task in any non-trivial way. First, higher set theory clearly falls in the useless category, and so does the astrophysics of black holes. And those do not fall within the humanities. Second, a grounding in straightforward descriptive grammar can clearly sometimes aid a lawyer in preparing unambiguous contract language or a legislator in drafting a well-worded statute. And practical phonetics, even as taught at undergraduate level in the linguistics corner of an English department, can be very useful to actors, speech therapists, and broadcasters. So some humanities subjects can be useful. (I have personally found teaching the useful stuff gives me the most pleasure and satisfaction.) Among the reasons to be irritated with Stanley Fish is not only that he seems to want to defend uselessness as a positive virtue rather than an occasional epiphenomenon, but also that he seems to think there is some important line to be drawn between engineers and poets, between bankers and historians, and so on. He seems wrong every which way to me, and I think he deserves the thrashing Mark gives him above. I have occasionally thrashed him myself for being bone-headedly wrong about the (very useful) discipline of English grammar.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

    Geoff Pullum: …he seems to want to defend uselessness as a positive virtue rather than an occasional epiphenomenon…

    Not only a positive virtue, but a defining property of higher education.

  11. peter said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

    Your historical analysis could have extended further back. Medieval universities, for all their focus on what we now call the humanities, were very utilitarian — aiming to train men for careers in the Church. Elizabethan universities broadened this to also include careers in the law. Both groups – laywers and preachers – needed (it was thought) to learn theology, philosophy, classical languages and literature, and the arts of communication. Learning to recite Greek poetry by heart and engaging in dialectical argument was done for utilitarian reasons.

  12. Robert E. Harris said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    I believe the distinction between the engineers and the poets runs along the lines that the engineers may actually enjoy reading poetry (or even write some) but the poets generally know little about mathematics, statics and dynamics, strength of materials, fluid dynamics, chemistry, physics, biology, and other areas that are of great concern to the engineers and of very great interest to those who study these engineering-related subjects. Often, humanists express disdain for the intellectual work of basic and applied scientists, folks who more often than not support the teaching of the humanists' subjects.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    mgh: … all (some? many?) basic scientists are motivated by a desire to make something useful to society, like a vaccine or a bridge. That seems plain wrong.

    I didn't mention vaccines or bridges, nor did I use the phrase "useful to society". Rather, I asserted that many of the natural scientists and mathematicians of my acquaintance, over the years, have been interested not only in understanding the natural world and the abstract world of mathematics, but also in affecting it.

    My sample may be biased, since it's based partly on 15 years in the Bell Labs research area, and a similar period of time in an interdisciplinary university setting that includes psychology, biology, and computer science as well as linguistics, philosophy, mathematics and so on.

    However, I'd be quite surprised to find many natural scientists who supported Prof. Fish's attitude, especially if a bit of care is taken to distinguish some of the other issues here. When I arrived at Bell Labs in 1975, the then vice-president for research, Bill Baker, told me that my job was to identify the fundamental research problems that stand in the way of practical progress, and to work on solving them. I suppose that some natural scientists don't care much about the possible applications of their research one way or another; but in my experience, if not most of them would like to believe that their work will make a positive contribution at some point; and I think I've only met one, or perhaps two, who took Fish's position that consideration of possible applications is actively to be shunned.

    I'd be interested in any meaningful survey data that addressed this sort of question in a more general way.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

    mgh: …I thought you were saying that every intellectual pursuit benefits society in the long run, which takes all meaning from the word "useless".

    In natural science, at least, there are several dimensions involved: basic to applied; long-term to short-term; risky to certain; general to specific; fundamental principles to job-related skills; and so on. The general premise is that anything that increases understanding eventually turns out to be useful; and several centuries of science and engineering have for the most part supported this.

    The analogous questions in the humanities deserve a longer answer than will fit in a comment — but my conclusion will be that earlier generations of humanists believed that they were giving good value in return for the investment that their society made in supporting them; and that they were probably right.

    But it's certainly possible to be useless if you really want to work at it, though this is trickier for natural scientists that it has been for Prof. Fish.

  15. John Lawler said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

    G. H. Hardy certainly considered mathematics an art, at least in the sense that its goal was the Beautiful. He also considered it (or rather, the 'advanced' varieties of it), as completely useless, and went on to say so in his Mathematician's Apology:

    "No one has yet discovered any warlike purpose to be served by the theory of numbers or relativity, and it seems unlikely that anyone will do so for many years." (sec. 28)

    "I have never done anything ‘useful'. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world." (sec. 29)

    Both of these statements, of course, are rather embarrassingly false now. But mathematicians still pursue the esthetic of Elegance, the same way psychologists value good Experimental Design, or linguists prize great Argumentation.

  16. Mark Liberman said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

    John Lawler: G. H. Hardy certainly considered mathematics an art, at least in the sense that its goal was the Beautiful. He also considered it (or rather, the 'advanced' varieties of it), as completely useless…

    To the extent that this attitude promotes an aesthetic rather than utilitarian mode of evaluation, it's just a way of thinking about how to choose among alternative solutions, which can be (and is) applied in evaluating resolutely practical things like computer programs or engine designs. In that case, the idea is simply that other things equal, the solution perceived as more elegant or beautiful is likely to turn out in th e end to be better in other ways as well. To the extent that this attitude actively discourages or penalizes utility, it seems to me to be a residue of the old aristocratic disdain of "trade".

    And as you say, both number theory and relativity have turned out to have quite a few practical applications.

  17. Eyebrows McGee said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

    re: the usefulness of philosophy —

    I'm a lawyer in my real life, an adjunct philosophy professor in my somewhat funner secondary life. One of the topics we cover in the intro class (standardized syllabus for the department) is "What is a person?" We go through all the usual stuff, and then I tell them, "Right, your assignment is, imagine you've been asked by the Illinois State Legislature to present a definition of 'person' to be used in law, giving these entities all the rights and responsibilities of persons." They initially think it'll be easy, but as they settle into the assignment, they find that not only is this extremely difficult, but that IT MATTERS A WHOLE LOT. I constantly draw philosophical examples from contemporary legal cases (I have a great one with Socrates on the virtues and a local bank robbery they're all familiar with), and the amount of philosophical material I'm able to get from my husband's appellate work is astonishing. And vice versa, of course — one frequently makes philosophical arguments to the judge.

    Philosophy's only irrelevant if one's determined to make it irrelevant.

    I do notice this real disdain among some PhDs for the work that lawyers do, as if because it's practical and applied work, and intellectual work done for hire (*gasp*), it's somehow of a different kind or lesser quality than their "pure" research. These people probably feed the Fish.

  18. Nathan Myers said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

    The doctrine of inutility seems to echo the age of primogeniture. Younger sons seen trying to make an independent place in the world might be accused of dangerous ambition. Where might one park one's younger sons to keep them safe and out of trouble? The priesthood served until the Church began asserting itself, and then it was academia.

  19. Eyebrows McGee said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    @Ken Brown, re: Texas A&M —

    The Merrill Act created the land-grant universities, which with the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 were ordered to create (in cooperation with the USDA) the cooperative extension program, whose task was to extend the practical knowledge of the universities, particularly in agriculture, to every citizen of the state. They are state universities, after all. :) This is done through a system of county extensions, generally one in each county in the state, responsible for disseminating the latest scientific information on agriculture, horticulture, nutrition, the environment, some health programs, and various other programs to the public. They also serve as sort-of research field offices — it's typically your county extension that's tracking the invasion of, say, Asian Longhorn Beetles and Emerald Ash Borers.

    I really think it's one of the great geniuses of the American educational system, this idea that this knowledge ISN'T for the ivory tower but belongs to all the citizens and, moreover, we've got to GET it to them. The county extension program was a big part of why US agricultural production was able to expand so drastically and dramatically between the two World Wars.

    Full disclosure: I'm on the community board of mine.

  20. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

    " And when he [Apollo, as opposed to Hermes] occupies a college/Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge"

    from WH Auden: "Under Which Lyre"

    Prof Fish puts one's back up with overstatement, but his antithesis, Gradgrind, is a much more repellent figure. Cut him some slack.

  21. Mark Liberman said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

    David Eddyshaw: [Fish's] antithesis, Gradgrind, is a much more repellent figure.

    But why do we need choose between repulsive positions?

    Anyhow, thanks for the Auden reference, which is an old favorite of mine. You shouldn't leave out the stanzas before the one you quote:

    The sons of Hermes love to play
    And only do their best when they
    Are told they oughtn't;
    Apollo's children never shrink
    From boring jobs but have to think
    Their work important.

    Related by antithesis,
    A compromise between us is
    Respect perhaps but friendship never:
    Falstaff the fool confronts forever
    The prig Prince Hal.

    If he would leave the self alone,
    Apollo's welcome to the throne,
    Fasces and falcons;
    He loves to rule, has always done it;
    The earth would soon, did Hermes run it,
    Be like the Balkans.

    But jealous of our god of dreams,
    His common-sense in secret schemes
    To rule the heart;
    Unable to invent the lyre,
    Creates with simulated fire
    Official art.

    There are many other great passages, including:

    In fake Hermetic uniforms
    Behind our battle-line, in swarms
    That keep alighting,
    His existentialists declare
    That they are in complete despair,
    Yet go on writing.

    And especially relevant, given Prof. FIsh's long career in university administration:

    In our morale must lie our strength:
    So, that we may behold at length
    Routed Apollo's
    Battalions melt away like fog,
    Keep well the Hermetic Decalogue,
    Which runs as follows:

    Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
    Thou shalt not write thy doctor's thesis
    On education,
    Thou shalt not worship projects nor
    Shalt thou or thine bow down before

  22. Jon Weinberg said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    It may be worth noting that Fish has spent much of his professional life teaching in law schools, which have seen their own battles on the utility-inutility front, but which always have been committed to practical consequences to a degree that's made them fit badly with much of fancypants academia. But he seems to limit his vision of "higher education" to the humanities in any event.

  23. peter mcburney said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

    A practical problem which is usually ignored by the utilitarians is that of actually deciding whether or not some discipline or even piece of research will be useful, and when? Who would have thought, for example, that speech act theory from the philosophy of language would prove useful, three decades after Austin and seven decades after Reinach, for the design of computer communications languages? Who would have thought that soft-drink vending machines, motor cars and traffic lights would use a formal system (Boolean algebra) designed a century earlier for manipulating logical statements? Who would have imagined that we could more efficiently represent 3-D animations in video games using a mathematical system, developed more than a century before, comprising no fewer than three different imaginary square roots of -1 (the quaternions)? Who would have thought that, with its focus increasingly on interaction, a current topic in computer science would be argumentation, a subject explored by Aristotle 2300 years ago?

  24. mgh said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    Geoff & Mark, thanks for the additional discussion. Your familiarity with Fish may have caused you to read the piece differently than readers like myself did.

    To me, his definition of a "useless" endeavour was the one you quote, that with "the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world".

    To me, this sounds a lot like a quote I saved from Joseph Goldstein on the 2006 Lasker Awards: "The discovery of telomerase by the Lasker Basic Awardees is an example of pure curiosity-driven research that emerged from work on two organisms—a pond dwelling ciliate and baker's yeast—that have no direct relevance to human disease."

    Personally, I'm a cell biologist working on very basic questions and often, after telling someone about my work, they will ask, "So what will that be used for?", that is, what disease will it cure. Then, I need to explain how basic discovery benefits human health, and that the benefits are in the aggregate and in the long term.

    We should distinguish useful work (that which benefits society, often in unanticipated ways, in the long-term, in the aggregate) from Fish's "useful" work (which is designed to directly benefit society).

    Mark, I think you ignored this distinction. For example, you wrote that most scientists you have known "would like to believe that their work will make a positive contribution at some point". Surely that's true. But that is not a designed, direct effect.

    I read Fish's piece as a defense of these long-term, often surprising, aggregate benefits, and so I was gratified to read it and to see it on the most-emailed list, suggesting readers agreed with him.

    Geoff, I essentially agree with everything you wrote except I dispute that your definition of useless is the one Fish intends. But I can see how his misleading deployment of the word "useless" can be seen as gimmicky and frustrating if he really means something like "useful, eventually, but not directly aimed at solving a societal problem in the short term," as I understood it.

    I'd only add that, at least in the biological sciences, university departments are forging partnerships with biotech and pharma that really are historically unprecedented. So the idea that there's a new level of focus on producing direct & designed effects within academia may have some merit, at least in one field.

    Sorry for the extra-long comment.

  25. Mark Liberman said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    mgh: Mark, I think you ignored this distinction. For example, you wrote that most scientists you have known "would like to believe that their work will make a positive contribution at some point". Surely that's true. But that is not a designed, direct effect.

    True enough. But when I went on about scientists' attitudes, I was responding to you, not arguing directly against Fish.

    With respect to the nature of universities, it seems to me that the crucial point is whether decisions should be made with external goals in view, because this is what Fish is talking about, not the motivations of individual faculty members. Should the curriculum be designed to produce graduates who can write and speak more clearly, or who can read scientific or political articles with better understanding, or have learned how and why to avoid plagiarism? Should faculty slots and other resources be allocated in part on the basis of societal needs and scientific or technological opportunities? In this article, and in his recent book Save the world on your own time, Fish says "no".

    I agree with you that the new kinds of "partnerships with biotech and pharma" are a cause for concern. But in Fish's book, neither biotech nor pharma is mentioned, and "biology" comes up only in connection with the controversy over teaching intelligent design. The word "curiosity" does not occur, much less "curiosity-driven research". His whole argument is basically about the role of (certain kinds of) political discourse on campus; Fish wants to keep it out, which is fine with me, except that his criteria for exclusion would ban any consideration of societal connections and consequences in academic planning. His approach amounts to spitting ostentatiously in the face of the people who pay the bills.

    It's one thing not to give detailed control of academic decisions to funders, and quite another to insist that their needs and goals are in principle irrelevant.

  26. Dan T. said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 8:12 pm

    There's a big difference between wanting to be free to continue to pursue lines of inquiry even when no obvious practical benefit seems to be resulting (one never knows what unexpected benefits may result from it someday, and one can regard increasing the knowledge base of humanity to be an abstract benefit in all cases) and actually proclaiming it to be a good thing that intellectual inquiry be focused specifically in areas chosen to be of the least known practical utility, and that inquiry in directions that do have some clear utility are somehow corrupt.

  27. mgh said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

    Mark, those abstract goals (communication, comprehension, ethics) are ones I thought Fish was championing over the utilitarian goals he lists (typing, shorthand, or their modern equivalents). But it sounds like there's a lot of subtext I'm missing for not having read his book!

    He also conflates a labor issue (increased use of adjuncts) with an educational issue (teaching knowledge of no immediately discerned benefit). It's not clear to me that non-tenure faculty are worse teachers, or that profit-driven universities would push towards vocational teaching, especially since they rely on wealthy successful alumni for donations and status. (One could argue they would not waste time on workaday skills like typing.)

    Obviously you're bringing a lot of background to this that I don't know. Taking the article at face value, Fish opposes the attitude of "not trying to develop value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’ nonsense" so I'd have expected him to embrace the goals you list. But apparently not.

  28. mgh said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

    Dan, I agree. I read his piece as a defense of the former not an attack on the latter. But obviously he has some baggage I'm not aware of.

  29. Garrett Wollman said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    It may be a bit late to pile on here, but I wanted to comment because it sounds like the argument being made here (by Fish, or by Mark Liberman's mental simulation of Fish at any rate) is precisely equivalent to literature-snobbism, or music-snobbism: the clear implication is that anything with commerical appeal is, ipso facto, meritless (because the masses are ignorant rubes, whereas I, the speaker, am one of the elite, because my preferences are shared by a tiny minority) It seems to me that the literary phenomenon is at least in part a result of the limited size of the elite-media echo chamber (NYTBR, NYRB, NBCC, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper's, and maybe a dozen other politico-literary magazines); it seems not unlikely that Fishism is a result of the similarly limited size and self-reinforcement of the academic humanities establishment.

  30. ChrisB said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 10:36 pm

    The University has since the early 20th century at least held in the same structure both straightforwardly job-oriented faculties like law, medicine and engineering and faculties like arts and science that could at least refrain from giggling when avowing pursuit of eternal and inutile truths. Universities have always been capable of alternating nimbly between the two postures depending on the audience they are trying to impress, and will not in the future renounce either branch while there is a rhetorical purpose to having them in the toolbox.

  31. Martyn Cornell said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 10:20 am

    A couple of years ago I interviewed a Wall Street banker for a business magazine, and when I expressed surprised that he had taken a liberal arts degree, rather than a business or economics-related degree, at his (Ivy League) university before going into banking, he told me that top financial institutions preferred to recruit liberal arts graduates, because their education was supposed to be about the broader aspects of thinking for oneself, and of anaalysis, rather than narrow learning.

    Mind, looking at what has subsequently happened in the world of banking, perhaps they should have hired more economics graduates and fewer with liberal arts degrees …

  32. bianca steele said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 11:39 am

    I'd second mgh on his emphasis of that particular sentence of Fish's. He says the same thing in Professional Correctness: That there is no way that academics can influence the "real world" because there are no societal paths along which this influence could carry. I might have thought his NYT blog is an attempt to create such a path, but except for the couple of cute film posts he's made, he seems determined to address primarily academic concerns.

    I'd second Mark that what's missing in Fish's writing is as notable as what's explicitly said. In his recent nonliterary writing he doesn't seem very concerned about the problem of explaining himself to people from different backgrounds.

  33. JimG said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    Martyn Cornell aptly cites the Wall St. banker "about the broader aspects of thinking for oneself, and of anaalysis, rather than narrow learning." Then he wrote, " … looking at what has subsequently happened …, perhaps they should have hired more economics graduates and fewer with liberal arts degrees"

    I'd argue the opposite. The philosophy and ethical training would have been more important than the mechanical, arithmetic calculations of loans and balance sheets and macroeconomic formulae. Further, a course in the astrophysics of black holes might give a young economist a sense that there's a whole lot about the universe/world/life that's beyond his ken. Even when their intentions are good, we don't need leaders who think they know it all. Professor Fish may be right if he believes that universities should avoid turning out narrowly-educated tools, even if he's wrong about the positive value of specialized knowledge that's needed for work in a technical field. We want to keep the budding geniuses from being blooming idiots.

  34. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    @Mark Liberman:

    Sorry for the off-topicness, but I can't resist me-tooing about the Auden poem. I think I could recite most of it by heart …

  35. James J. Pancrazio said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

    I suspect that the abbots of monasteries in the middle ages made similar pronouncements about the state of education with the advent of the printing press. Perhaps the ancients lamented the change from the scroll to the book. As a result, it is no surprise that people would lament the advent of distance education, and student demand driven courses. It is my impression that Fish, Bloom, González Echevarría, etc. spend too much time teaching graduate students and not enough with undergraduates, which is what the majority of us do in this profession. These guys should spend a semester at a community college, or better yet, an inner city high school.

  36. dr pepper said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 3:46 am

    @David Eddyshaw

    " And when he [Apollo, as opposed to Hermes] occupies a college/Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge"

    Oh i don't know. Remember that time during Engineering Week when a fully equipped war chariot was found inside the Pythia's cave with both horses keyed up for the charge? That was not done through Apollo's inpiration.

  37. More Evidence that Stanley Fish is an Old Curmudgeon « the anxiety of influence said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    […] of historical academe is a bit off too. Mark Liberman, linguistics professor at UPenn and editor of The Language Log makes the case of Fish's historical inaccuracies using the charters of Fish's own […]

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