Après Fish le déluge II

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"What, then, can be done?"

So asks Stanley Fish in "The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives", NYT 10/11/2010, responding to SUNY Albany's decision to close programs in French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater.

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.


  1. John Cowan said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 12:43 am

    Those who are concerned with the arts are often asked questions, not always sympathetic ones, about the use or value of what they are doing. It is probably impossible to answer such questions directly, or at any rate to answer the people who ask them. Most of the answers, such as Newman's "liberal knowledge is its own end," merely appeal to the experience of those who have had the right experience. Similarly, most "defenses of poetry" are intelligible only to those well within the defenses. The basis of critical apologetics, therefore, has to be the actual experience of art, and for those concerned with literature, the first question to answer is not "What use is the study of literature?" but, "What follows from the fact that it is possible?"

       —Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

  2. erica said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 2:45 am

    Not sure if the Old Lady Job Justification Hearings have covered academics or politicians yet. Here's one where their insightful analysis helps a PR consultant:

    If the politicos come after you, ensure you have a few Old Lady panel members batting on your side.

  3. Adrian Bailey said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 2:45 am

    Good grief. Leaving aside for one moment the fact that universities are not institutions of vocational education, it should be obvious to any idiot that plenty of people are employed in jobs related to French, Italian, Russian and Theatre (and that by extension there is plenty of money in them). Classics is not so obvious until one thinks of the need for experts in museums, archeology, education and in the production of books, films, TV programmes and online material.

  4. iching said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 3:06 am

    "Here's to pure mathematics! May it never be of any use to anyone!"

    I love this toast supposedly proposed by the British mathematician Godfrey Harold Hardy.

  5. Dierk said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 3:07 am

    Thought No 1: Stanley Fish is still alive and publishing?
    Thought No 2: Who but some half-witted semi-intellectuals in newspapers takes Fish seriously?
    Thought 3: Fish would rather have us all do economics instead?

    Since when is immediate economic profit the base for scientific studies in whatever field? If that were so, that is, if the fishy argument would be true, no fundamental research would ever be done as it costs much more – see LHC – than any foreseeable practical application pays back.

    And what about the study subjects? If literary criticism, art criticism, linguistics [in Fish's time more part of the humanities than science] etc. are futile expensive niceties, which don't pay for themselves or add anything to society and humanity, what's with art, literature [incl. TV, film], language? Shouldn't we just stop doing any of it? Even Vincent's brother saw it differently.

  6. David Fried said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 3:44 am

    Excellent piece. Two small points: The humanities have always occupied a decidedly marginal place at even the best American universities at all times. I studied political theory and classics at an Ivy League school over 40 years ago. I don't know that there were a lot more of us interested in reading, say, Dante then than now, although I do think the teachers were more likely to love their subjects and successfully communicate the pleasure they took in them than the deadly practitioners of "criticism" and academic climbers who followed them, beginning in the next decade. Stanley Fish would be a fine example of the latter.

    The second point is that those of us who were interested were quite a bit better prepared by our public high schools than students are now. Why? Because, e.g., the mastery of foreign languages is ;not any part of a liberal education–it's a necessary precondition to a liberal education. The same goes for the ability to read and understand complex English prose of the nineteenth century and before; some familiarity with English prosody–I could go on.

    Fish has nothing to say about this. In fact he seems, like most academics, to take for granted the absurd idea that it is when you arrive at a world-class university that you should begin memorizing Italian conjugations, when the right age for that is 15 or 13, or 9, or 2. I read a fair bit of Greek in college, but I remember it mostly as a dull sludge through Liddell and Scott, not a wide-eyed engagement with Homer. Simply put, I started Greek way too late.

    Similarly he says the humanities were healthier when students were required to take big survey courses, in which they finally began to grasp such facts as that the Civil War took place in the 1860s and not the 1930s.

    Americans will begin to be educated, and universities will assume their proper role as terminal professional, scientific, engineering, and liberal arts schools for people who are actually interested, when we set a new goal–for 90 percent of Americans to learn all they need to flourish in a complex technological society, and in a free republic, in high school. Obama never offends me more than when says we must make is possible for every American to at least graduate from community college. I always think: "Yeah, so they can finally learn, at their own expense, what we have so shamefully failed to teach them for free by eighteen!"

  7. Abi said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 4:14 am

    Martha Nussbaum's recent book Not For Profit addresses the humanities crisis (although she defines it a little differently — for her it's not just a crisis of funding, but also of apathy towards the humanities, and a tendency to priorities only those subjects that directly lead to profit, precisely because they lead to profit), but her argument follows different lines. The argument is not that studying the humanities produces "well-rounded students", but rather that studying the humanities is necessary for the preservation of liberal democracy.

    What's certainly worth noting is that while those who study science may do so for love of the science, that's not how or why science is funded in the UK, and the stability of of science funding is also threatened in the UK, where Vince Cable has recently proposed that science which does not lead to profit or which is not "theoretically excellent" (how can he possibly know in advance?) should not receive any government funding.

  8. Matt Heath said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 5:19 am

    Hardy actually had a pretty straightforward argument about the value of "useless" pure mathematics. He thought it kept intelligent people out of trouble; people doing number theory weren't building better bombs.

    I guess this applies to literary studies as well as maths (better even since the mathematics Hardy thought was most useless has been put to work on military codes). It just needs a lot of pessimism about what people will do with practical knowledge for the argument to be convincing

  9. Leonardo Boiko said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 5:33 am

    > Leaving aside for one moment the fact that universities are not institutions of vocational education

    I don’t think they are, and you don’t think they are. My worry is that I see SO many people believing they are, at some point they may become just that. We are financed by society, after all.

    My own university (São Paulo) is currently debating a proposal to close courses with little “social impact”—which even the proposers recognize is an euphemism for economic value.

  10. jan wohlgemuth said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 5:54 am

    The fact that linguist(ic)s try to answer some questions about the nature of humans/humankind, thereby catering to (or even satisfying) our self-related curiosity seemed a well enough raison d'être for many people who asked me "… and what is that good for?"

  11. Ron Kauffmann said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 7:14 am

    The best argument I have heard favouring the financing of the humanities is the national one.

    The financing of hard and social sciences, albeit important, has a problem: There is no such thing as "American Chemistry", "Russian Math" or "German Economics". Research in those areas is always global, and there's no sense in talking about the national character of the subject.

    Not so in the humanities; consider the differences between German and American Philosophy, or Russian and French Literature. If a country wants to be more than an economic playground, if it wants to preserve its special national culture, character, discourse and ways of thought, then it should finance the humanities, much in the same way that it finances Olympic sports – for reasons of national pride.

  12. George said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 8:27 am

    I think I missed something. Professor Fish first dismisses the traditional justifications as futile "pieties." Then, he argues for political efforts to explain the "core enterprise" which is a tactic not a justification. So what persuasive arguments does Fish propose should be presented to political powers instead of the traditional "pieties?"

  13. Moacir said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 9:16 am

    I thank LL for reading Fish's piece so that I would not have to, having tossed it in the bin as soon as I saw Fish uncritically repeat the uninvestigated claim that Humanities departments are loss-leaders. To wit:


    Every class in the humanities I have ever taught has certainly paid the salary given the instructor (and TAs) several times over in terms of what students paid in tuition to sit there (An enrollment of one, in fact, made up the entirety of what I was paid as an instructor in my own self-designed course, iirc).

    I understand that there are many, many other ancillary costs (support staff, etc.), but humanities courses generally don't have outlandish technology/lab budgets that need persistent grant funding to keep cutting edge. I'm fine with a $1000 LCD projector that needs to be replaced every few years and a lot of chalk.

    If austerity is the actual administrative claim, then I would like to see more serious accounting done to justify it. But since austerity's actually just the cover for a general corporatist/vocational, anti-humanist bias, well…

  14. Rodger C said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    I agree enthusiastically with David Fried and Abi: The understanding of human experience that the humanities give is necessary to participation in a free republic, and the imparting of it ought to start (*used* to start) much further back in school. I had my first of three required history courses in WV in 6th grade. (I did a report on Wat Tyler's Rebellion–an early sounding of a theme, I guess). The decline of the humanities is one of the reasons American politics is the way it is.

    But improvementin this situation won't happen as long as any appeal to universal human experience and values is dismissed by humanists themselves as "hegemonic." (People who sling that word around ought to be made to actually read Gramsci, especially on education.) The vulgar, hegemonic (!) constructivism of today's academe is just as smug and stupid as the vulgar, hegemonic rationalism of my undergrad days. And who played such a large part in creating this situation? Why, the fellow who's now alarmed at the results, of course–Stanley Fish.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 9:48 am

    Per its website, Albany appears to be keeping (for now) its undergraduate majors in Chinese Studies and Japanese Studies, both of which have a language component. (If one perceives Spanish as a "persons of color"/"diversity"/"multiculturalism" language rather than a dead-white-male language, one might see a certain pattern at work here.) But even more bizarrely, Albany seems to be continuing to offer its undergraduates a linguistics major! That seems an odd sort of obscure offering to have survived the budget axe.

  16. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    "Hardy actually had a pretty straightforward argument about the value of "useless" pure mathematics. He thought it kept intelligent people out of trouble; people doing number theory weren't building better bombs."

    Presumably the modern version of this is that people doing number theory aren't building "better" derivatives.

  17. iching said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 10:03 am

    @Matt Heath:
    >>It just needs a lot of pessimism about what people will do with practical knowledge for the argument to be convincing
    Not really. No-one is suggesting that universities should discontinue the many disciplines aimed at "practical" knowledge. All that is at stake is that disciplines involving "impractical" knowledge also be given their due.
    As you pointed out, even many areas in Hardy's "pure" mathematics turned out eventually to have applications. "Of what use is a new-born baby?" is a common response to challenges against pure research. But even that argument misses the point in my opinion.
    Even if a subject (whether in the sciences or humanities) turns out never to have any possible practical use whatsoever (much less one concerned with any economic benefit), I, for one, would mourn its loss to culture, just as long as it involves a high order of intellectual rigour in the pursuit of truth and (gasp!) beauty.
    The same trends are apparent here in Australia unfortunately.

  18. Adam said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    The joke's on Hardy. Number theory turned out to be enormously useful: the basis of digital encryption.

  19. MattF said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    I suppose, since I'm a scientist, that I can raise the point that the humanities teach us the value of aesthetic experience. Where would we be without that?

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    I'm maybe getting hung up on the underlying SUNY-Albany story rather than Fish's riff on it, but for the discontinued foreign-language programs other than classics, isn't intrinsic-value-of-the-humanities the wrong line of defense? Aren't there lots of other sets of talking points out there justifying foreign-language literacy for American college graduates in vulgar/pragmatic/technocratic terms? Blah blah blah global competitiveness blah blah blah? If someone from the state legislature asks what the heck your university's French department is doing and you can't say anything trendier and more politically-savvy than "teaching kids to read Racine in the original," you might need better PR advisers.

  21. Greg B said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    Moacir's point should not be ignored. Another entry into this is over at Michael Bérubé's blog, with links to John Protevi and Chris Newfield. From the latter: "The humanities and social sciences are major donors to science and engineering budgets. Major dogmas about university research turn out to be wrong: science and engineering research costs money, and humanities and social sciences teaching subsidizes it." See http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/sick_and_tired/

  22. Nathan said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    @Rodger C:
    I don't buy this business of "the decline of the humanities". Every generation claims that education was done better in the good old days, but no one ever points to their own educational experience as deficient; they just talk about "kids these days". Starting with my elementary school days in the 1980s, I received an excellent grounding in grammar, history, geography, classical mythology, arithmetic, geometry, literature, earth science–a good liberal education, I would say. These days my daughter's curriculum seems to follow the same lines. I don't see the decline.

  23. Bloix said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    Not including Albany, the State University of New York offers undergraduate majors in French at 13 of its campuses, in theater at 12 campuses, in Italian at three, and in classics at one – Buffalo.

    I don't think that SUNY has the obligation to offer every major at every campus.

    But it's a scandal that if this move goes through, it will be impossible to major in Russian at any of the SUNY campuses.

  24. Rodger C said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    @Nathan: I'm very glad to hear that. I can only say that when I was in 11th grade, in my third required history course, I studied both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution clause by clause, and when I teach the Declaration nowadays (in freshman English) an average of about two people in each section have ever even read the paragraph that begins "We hold these truths …"–or at any rate remember having done so. As for the Constitution, forget about it. "Why haven't you people studied the Constitution?" "We're not allowed to because it says that God is the ruler of the country!" *sigh*

  25. Rodger C said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    That two is down from about eight a decade ago.

  26. Clayton Burns said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    Fish[monger] is an excellent index. If you are still reading Fishmonger, you are in line to be remaindered.

    If American universities are functioning, tell me then about the evidence for what they are teaching (or should be teaching) in this extensive article online at The New York Times:

    Magazine Preview Education of a President By PETER BAKER
    As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to change Washington. Two years in, he may have to change his approach to his job.

    What we might deduce from the article is that American universities are decades behind the times. However. Others might have opinions.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    @Bloix, I think it's rather artificial to think of the SUNY system and the CUNY system as distinct from each other other than as a matter of bureaucratic organization. Hunter College in the latter apparently offers a Russian major, and you don't have to have gone to high school within the five boroughs to go there at the in-state tuition rate. But there is perhaps a broader point, which is that we here in the State of New York really do have more dysfunctional public institutions than (most if not all of) the rest of y'all. So it again seems dubious for Fish to use this as the cue for a national trend piece. SUNY-Albany is currently ranked by US News (yes, I'm sure there are all sorts of critiques of the methodology) as the 143d most prestigious/prominent/desirable "national university." Not 43d, 143d. The extraordinarily hubristic decision half a century ago that SUNY should have not one not two but four flagship campuses means, as could have been predicted, that it now has none.

  28. Rod Johnson said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    Stanley Fish is 72 years old. I imagine I'm not the only person who hopes, pace Dierk's dismissal, that it's still "his time" and we needn't ready an ice floe for him just yet.

  29. Abi said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 1:48 pm


    I don't buy this business of "the decline of the humanities". Every generation claims that education was done better in the good old days, but no one ever points to their own educational experience as deficient; they just talk about "kids these days".

    What distinguishes the "humanities crisis" from a cry of "kids today!" the (demonstrable) drive to close certain departments and cut funding for projects that do not have a profit-making potential.

    In other words, the worry (at least, for me, in the UK) is not whether primary and secondary education is of the same quality as it was for my parents' generation as for me, but how, for example, Vince Cable and Lord Browne's proposals for the funding of research and higher education will affect my generation's ability to get a higher education or do research (in any field) at all.

    Those concerns are based partly in concerns about the future stability of research (in all fields) in this country, but also about the effect that will have on education at every level in future generations. We can't teach well if we're not adequately funded or on the cutting edge of research or short of staff (a problem that will only get worse if only the elite few can afford the humanities, or perhaps a higher education at all).

    Where the humanities fits into this "big picture" view is that they are seen as having less profit-making potential and therefore are more vulnerable to funding cuts. However, they are important to the skills we need to teach for democratic citizenship, which is Nussbaum's argument: critical thinking, empathy, what constitutes fairness, etc. It's not that these *can't* be taught in science courses, but they tend not to be in the same way, and humanities course are ideally suited to teaching these skills (among others).

  30. pm said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    One of GH Hardy's arguments for doing and teaching Pure Mathematics rather than Applied Math was that Pure Math is a far better preparation for anyone who wishes to apply mathematics to solving real-world problems. Pure Mathematics, unlike most capital-A Applied Math, teaches you to generalize, to think abstractly, to think carefully, to worry about the details, to reason from first principles, to reason by analogy from one domain to another, and to seek to solve particular problems by finding a perspective from which to view them as special instances of other, more general problems. Capital-A Applied Math does none of these, teaching merely a set of tricks which others have found to be applicable to solving particular problems in the domains it studies (mostly in physics).

    This difference between Pure and capital-A Applied Mathematics is why – fundamentally – new real-world applications for pure mathematics continue to be found. In fact, Hardy's criticisms of Applied Math had been made before he made them, as long ago as the second decade of the 19th century – by Charles Babbage and his fellow undergrads as they fought to introduce modern pure mathematics into the mathematics tripos at the University of Cambridge.

    This example creates a problem for myopic instrumentalists: How can the more applicable subject be the more theoretical, more abstract one? The same argument applies to the study of the humanities versus allegedly more applicable science and engineering. If we want people able to cope effectively with the technological and social changes they are likely to experience in the 40+ years following their university educations, we need to teach them to think, not merely how to develop web applications using PHP.

  31. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    The trouble with the Nussbaum / democratic citizenship argument is that until the last 50-60 years very few Americans went to college at all. Whatever, say, Tocqueville noticed about the widespread distribution in American society of the character traits needed for participation in democratic self-government could not have been the result of exposure to college-level humanities classes. (Although perhaps it's fair to say that in Tocqueville's day Americans were so swayed by the cultural prestige of the humanities that they had followed the lead of ancient Athens in excluding women, slaves, and metics from political participation?)

  32. Harold said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    That night an eagle swooped down from the skies onto Sophocles’ house
    And the garden suddenly rocked with a cry of cicadas.
    – Anna Akhmatova, “On the Death of Sophocles”

  33. Harold said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    "Cultural capital", to which the Fish so derisively refers, is only the background knowledge necessary to understand what you are reading. It is therefore one of the essential pillars of learning — from earliest childhood through to old age.

  34. Rodger C said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: Well, as I said, there was a time when a high-school graduate could be expected to know that the Constitution isn't a theocratic document. This whole thread has rather drifted off the topic of college-level humanities courses, but at any rate that's part of the point some of us have been making.

  35. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    Abi: …a tendency to priorities only those subjects…

    Could this be a cupertino by Wodrpress's American spellchecker for prioritise?

    As to the main subject: the problem seems to be in Fish's identification of the humanities with "[his] moments of aesthetic wonderment." Because, if that's what they were, they'd be hardly worth subsidizing.

  36. David Fried said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

    Matt f: I suppose, since I'm a scientist, that I can raise the point that the humanities teach us the value of aesthetic experience. Where would we be without that?

    With all respect, Matt, I think this is exactly backwards. All normal human beings innately enjoy aesthetic experiences, and therefore value them. Anyone who teaches that the enjoyment isn't the whole point–and that means most teachers, including most humanities teachers–is the enemy of humankind. The books, and the symphonies and the sunsets will always (God willing) be available, and some people will always be drawn into the difficult work of developing a discriminating taste about them because they enjoy the exercise of their God-given critical faculties. But what it is that we are enjoying when we enjoy the play of sunlight on old brick, or the flash of insight into a scientific problem, is as inherently indescribable and unknowable as what we are enjoying when we enjoy an orgasm.

    One of the hardest tasks of education is not to meddle with these human feelings, and we flub it totally. The easiest task of education is to provide a necessary foundation for young minds by teaching, e.g., the times table. A few afternoons of chanting and you're set for life. We flub this task totally, too, as I have seen in my own children, because of a near-universal sense among teachers that memorization is child abuse. The middling task of education is apprenticeship in technical skill, whether speaking a foreign language, playing the guitar, fixing a clock, or drawing a tree. We flub this one totally, too, largely by not providing the opportunities at all (for several reasons, one of which is that, say, playing the guitar looks way too much like fun, and may actually be the occasion for fun).

    Tackle these issues, and the problem of the humanities will pretty much take care of itself. Dumb example–Fish sneers at Spanish: too dull, too practical ,too evidently useful. I mentioned I read Dante in college. I read him in Italian. How? I turned my junior-high and high school Spanish into Italian before the course began with two dozen hours with "Teach Yourself Italian," and then read the English and Italian alternately on facing pages. Then I memorized the parts that gave me a shiver: "Questo, che mai da me non fia diviso, la bocca mi baccio tremando." (I couldn't do that now, at 60, or even at 30–but what you learn at 18 is yours for life.) The linguists here all know that this was the exercise of a trivial skill. The point, in large measure, is that you can learn Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian or Tagalog. If you learn it by 16 it will be of inestimable value always–just like ice skating!

  37. MJ said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

    Northrop Frye, via John Cowan, hits the nail on the head.

  38. Abi said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 3:17 am

    JW Brewer:

    The trouble with the Nussbaum / democratic citizenship argument is that until the last 50-60 years very few Americans went to college at all.

    No, that only highlights a need for (well funded, well-resourced) humanities to be taught throughout (well funded, well-resourced) primary and secondary education, and for higher education to be available to everyone who wants it, not only to the elite few.

    Coby Lubliner:

    We could call it a cupertino. We could also call it commenting on blogs when I should have been getting more sleep.

  39. Don said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 3:25 am

    This is mainly in response to David's comment rather than the original post. First, hear hear! I agree completely, and it's frustrated me to no end. But I think something has to change not just politically but also culturally. I don't think Americans honestly value education anymore, beyond simply as a means to an end. It's a way to get a job, and nothing more.. it doesn't have inherent value, doesn't develop a person, etc.

    In a survey by Newsweek, the US got ranked 26 in education, just behind Latvia, Hungary, and Croatia. Honestly, I suspect we only got that high because of the extreme differences (e.g. that in individual institutions and organizations, the education really can be quite high, offsetting the general abysmal level), not because of the general education level of the country.

    As an American living abroad, I constantly deal with problems when I have to call American banks or institutions to deal with some bureaucracy. As an example, I would say most of the employees I've dealt with have no idea how to dial a foreign number, and one didn't even know where Europe was (I'm not joking). Even worse, it's obvious that most of them just don't care. When I told someone how to dial an international number, she just got mad at me.

    I think the apathy needs to change, first and foremost. Education is not simply a means to an end, and it should never be looked at as such.

    It's not just the students, either.. the Finns all got a kick out of this article:

    http://www.iltasanomat.fi/uutiset/ulkomaat/uutinen.asp?id=2019986 (and in case you don't speak Finnish, you can get a somewhat mangled version with Google translate: http://translate.google.com/translate?js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&layout=2&eotf=1&sl=fi&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.iltasanomat.fi%2Fuutiset%2Fulkomaat%2Fuutinen.asp%3Fid%3D2019986&act=url)

    which shows that the capital of Finland is apparently.. Finland. And the major cities are apparently Paimio, Säynätsalo, Sunila and Otaniemi. Otaniemi isn't even a city, it's a part of another town, Espoo, and it's west of Helsinki, not east. The rest are mostly obscure places that most Finns wouldn't even know.. Sunila has a population of 1,141.

    The article doesn't say which book it's from, but apparently it's a quite prestigious book used in many schools, with a long line of editions. If these are the books we're using, then no wonder Americans are so bad with geography.. even the book editors don't care.

  40. Harold said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    The American textbook industry is captive to the giants of for-profit publishing, such as the Macmillan company. Textbooks should be not-for-profit and written by experts in their fields, not hacks re-writing the same erroneous material dating from the 1950s and the for-profit-testing companies.

  41. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    From my perspective as a college graduate who doesn't work in academia, there are several factors in the growing expectation that colleges will produce workers with specific skills. If education in the humanities is important to academia, then staff at colleges and universities need to recognize some problems and make some changes.

    Credentialism is one factor, and the decision to require teachers to have specific credentials and for teacher education to be part of state systems of higher education surely contributed to the perception that college provides access to particular jobs. The decline in alternate paths to other professions, such as law, when the ability to "read law" with a practitioner was discontinued, contributed further to the vocational nature of higher education in the United States. The participation of state college and university systems in higher education meant that such institutions had to defend their worth and their financial decisions to people who didn't necessarily share their educational philosophies.

    The habit of colleges and universities — when seeking applicants — of promoting studies that show college graduates earn more than high school graduates, promotes the idea that college is preparation for a vocation. A lack of candor about how the goal of many faculty members is the production of the next generation of scholars in their disciplines rather than the next generation of physicians, salespeople, politicians or various other workers also contributes to misunderstandings.

    The increasing dependence of higher education on loans instead of grants contributes to the need for students to be able to take on profitable work after graduation, and that affects the way they shop for college.

    Generally, the public attitude I see and the attitude I share is that higher education needs to provide undergraduates with the skills needed in the workplace unless higher education can persuade employers to take on the task of training workers again. (I consider it singularly unfortunate that employers are paying ever-increasing amounts for health insurance instead of paying for education and training. True, the emphasis on sedentary jobs in the workplace has contributed to many contemporary health problems that are costly to insure, but employers arguably might benefit more from paying for training and education than health care.)

    Given the expectation that humanities departments should pay their own way, it isn't surprising that ordinary people think they are useless, even if they are not as costly as science departments. For my part, I think the humanities are pursued in too narrow a fashion. I love learning new things, but interdisciplinary study in humanities — from my perspective as an outsider — isn't something available to undergraduates. There are occasional attempts at such approaches in freshman writing courses, but then the opportunities fizzle.

    A lack of appreciation for the humanities in academia is evidenced in the way scientific disciplines have designed their curricula. When my oldest went to college, there were numerous interesting courses she could take her freshman year. She took freshman writing courses on topics that appealed to her, but all the other courses that intrigued her in the catalog went by the wayside when her adviser began explaining the required science and math sequences for her intended science major. Even in her freshman year, there was no room left for experimentation.

    Instead of saying the humanities are useless and cutting off their funding, and instead of saying lobbying is the only way to save humanities departments, academics in all disciplines need to take a fresh look at education in the United States and call for major changes.

    Here are my preferences:
    1. Education should begin before age 5. We know so much more now, it takes longer to learn the things we need to master to be productive in an information-based economy.
    2. Foreign language instruction and introduction to topics in the humanities should begin before age 5 and should provide an interdisciplinary approach so students can appreciate and enjoy different arts and skills.
    3. Using the arts in education, particularly music, to help reinforce reading and math skills, is important.
    4. Middle-school age students should be learning practical skills in addition to academic topics. Shop, home economics (sewing and cooking, for instance) personal finance, gardening, auto repair, basic plumbing, computer maintenance and other hands-on skills should be emphasized so children can develop problem-solving skills and prepare for independent living.
    5. Child development and parenting skills need to be a part of curriculums for middle school or high school students. Basic health classes are no longer sufficient.
    6. Instruction in science and math needs to be a part of education at every level, beginning with young children and continuing all the way through school.
    7. High schools need to be more flexible and offer more options so students can combine learning with jobs or apprenticeships. Vocational training needs to be part of all high school educations, not a place to sequester certain students. Students who progress quickly in a particular subject area need to be allowed to learn more even if their high school does not offer the advanced instruction they crave.
    8. Colleges need to find ways to improve student advising and recruitment, and they need to offer more prerecruitment advising services to high schools. (High school guidance counselors are too busy with other administrative work or too uninformed to explain career paths and options in specific fields.) Academia should seriously weigh the advantages of more outreach to ordinary people (not just politicians) and find time for it by dialing back the pressure to publish, particularly incremental work. Publishing isn't unimportant, but combatting the current anti-intellectualism in the U.S. is vitally important.
    9. Colleges should design more programs based on the University of Cincinnati's co-op model, so students work and study their way through college. Unless vast infusions of grant money become available to colleges for student financial aid, working closely with employers to find jobs for undergraduates and meeting the training needs of employers will be the only way to reduce student debt in the near future.
    10. Colleges should experiment with inexpensive humanities education for all takers. If the courses are so cheap to offer, encourage attendance by the wider community, not just 20-something undergraduates. So what if bored workers and retirees fill humanities classrooms for credit-bearing classes? If the goal is learning, then colleges should stop trying to screen out other learners with admissions processes and administrative details.

  42. Acilius said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    Moacir makes a good point in saying that humanities departments are not in fact the money sinks of popular imagination, but are usually among a university's most reliable profit centers. That's certainly true of classics programs, for example. American classicists are never more frustrated than when trying to persuade administrators to look at their enrollment numbers.

    This, I think, shows that Fish is basically right. The people who decide what programs will be offered at American universities do not in fact care about any of the things they pretend to care about. Energy spent meeting their stated goals and criteria is energy wasted. What really drives them is a simple cost/benefit analysis. If they are pressed to cut programs, they will look for programs that do not have the support of external constituencies that can make their lives difficult. They can't cut the microbiology program, not because science is inherently valuable or socially prestigious or anything else interesting, but simply because the pharmaceutical company that endowed the program will punish them if they cut it. They can't cut the program in Korean studies, not because Korean culture is a great source of humanistic riches and Korea is a vital part of the modern world, but simply because well-organized Korean-American groups will make a stink if they do. If they cut classics, on the other hand, they meet the demands to reduce service at no cost to themselves. So, if we want to preserve the humanities what we have to do is create an external constituency that will make it costly for university officials and others to move against them. In the absence of such a constituency, complaining when humanities programs are cut is like complaining when water flows downhill.

  43. Clayton Burns said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

    One might argue that the tedium and incoherence of a Fish New York Times opinion is a good argument for the elimination of the humanities. But why bother. He would not pay any attention, nor would the editors of the NYT.

    What I would like NYT to do is strengthen the Sunday paper because that is the only media product that I include in my must-read list for students. If we were to look for a model of discourse that works, we might accept cross-examinations in criminal trials. As imperfect as they can be, they are a far better tool for discovering facts and interpretations than canned op-eds from academics who stopped thinking at least a decade ago.

    If no improvements are possible in the humanities–if the only purpose is to teach us how to get an emotional charge out of viewing a mediocre painting–then it is clear that the shop should be closed. That is the ultimate message of droning op-eds from Mr. Fish: "I do not believe in myself or my readers, so please put me out to pasture."

    If we were to attempt to identify key areas in which a humanities perspective in linguistics and psychology would be productive, we could analyze the past, conditional clauses, and the memory workspace. Could we make gains in cognitive plasticity if we had far more powerful programs for teaching adverbial subordination?

    That is my current project: inculcating a memory page containing nine standard real and unreal conditions, studying the section on conditions in the COBUILD English Grammar, practicing recognition there of the forms on my memory page, and interpretation of non-standard or hybrid forms. As background, I have created four other memory pages for 60 verb elements of the past: first, four past tenses (and voices), three present perfects and past perfects; second, 15 past modal sentences to the pattern of report verb or adjective, past modal, and reported future unlikely or likely conditions; third, 24 modal past perfect sentences (nine counterfactual); fourth, eleven non-finites to be used in the past.

    It seems curious that this arrangement is not how grammars teach the past at all, so that students end up with a jumbled impression of what it is. Given that the past in English is so deep and so different from the systems in many other languages, students could easily spend five years in school just focusing on the past without worrying about formal systems for the present or future. Perhaps this slice right through English–where we isolate the verb elements of the past and teach students how to name them, recognize them, and coordinate them–might seem an obvious tool to anyone with a good empirical base.

    What interests me is the 3D assembly of elements such as "was eating," "had eaten," "had to be kept penned up," "would see," "must have taken," "would have taken," "being eaten," and "having been eaten" as a system–that we just assume that students grasp when they do not at all. They are in especially wretched shape with the perfects.

    A good way to teach linguistic creativity for English is to have students perform counterfactual transformations–1.If they lose weight during an illness, they soon regain it afterward. (If they had lost weight during an illness, they would soon have regained it afterward). 2.The best thing to do is to fix up a screen so as to let in the fresh air and keep out the flies. (If you had fixed up a screen, that would have been the best thing to do to let in the fresh air and keep out the flies. If you had wanted to let in the fresh air and keep out the flies, the best thing to do would have been to fix up a screen). 3.I was running because I was late. (If I hadn't been late, I wouldn't have been running). 4.She was having great difficulty getting her car out, and so I had to move my car to let her out. (If she had not been having great difficulty getting her car out, I would not have had to move my car to let her out).

    These strong counterfactual relationships for condition, purpose, reason, and result have three major exceptions: "had to" for purpose ("They had to improve crop yields to support their families," where you have only one counterfactual transformation), "because they wanted to impress me" for reason, which generates two counterfactual transformations, and reversed time order for result ("They got in, so you left the door open," where the reversal of the time sequence means that the result clause becomes the conditional clause in the counterfactual transformation).

    There is no grammar workbook that teaches the past or conditions in anything but a mechanistic way. Therefore, students are denied the opportunity to develop the memory workspace that will enable them to enhance their cognitive abilities to the extent that they will become much better at economic analysis or intelligence tasks.

    It is as if at West Point and in CIA training and education there is not even the most basic understanding of how language plasticity influences cognition. If we have a remarkably well organized Thoth's "emerald tablet" of memory workspace (misleadingly called "working memory"), we will be far more effective at–for example–American Political Rhetoric, which under the influence of Saint Sarah Palin threatens to revert to animal grunting.

    If there were a Harvard Introductory Psychology text teaching an extended student phenotype based on Wilder Penfield's sensory homunculus, a new putative student homunculus, one of the most important tools would be linguistic plasticity. That should be chapter one in the AP Psychology textbook, my student says, the memory chapter in which you would actually learn techniques of memory. In the UPenn Introductory Linguistics text interfaced with the Harvard Psych Intro, we would make a far more determined attempt to teach the sound systems of English and plasticity generally. How to do this work in phonetics and phonology could be the subject of another post. Perhaps by Mark (but not by Marc).

    It is indicative that G. K. Pullum's invaluable grammar texts are not to be found at the Chapters in downtown Vancouver. Perhaps if CUP put as much energy into marketing them as is going into peddling Cambridge IELTS 6, Past Papers, we could make some headway.

  44. Harold said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    It would be easier to teach Latin — or Ancient Greek!

  45. Rodger C said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    @Don: If I construe the English version of the article correctly, these little Finnish places have in common the fact that they all contain buildings designed by Alvar Aalto. I have the horrible suspicion that this has something to do with where "Aalto, Alvar" would appear in an alphabetic search.

  46. peterv said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

    Acilius said (October 14, 2010 @ 2:36 pm):

    "So, if we want to preserve the humanities what we have to do is create an external constituency that will make it costly for university officials and others to move against them."

    For Classics, perhaps that external constituency is the espionage community, according to an article by Peter Jones in this week's "The Spectator" magazine;


    Jones argues that Classics is the only school subject which combines intensive study of language, culture and history as an indivisible package with unconditional commitment to the study of primary sources.

  47. Ray Dillinger said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    This goes back to the idea of the Mission Of The University. Why is it there? I'm going to assume that any enterprise in a free society has a duty to provide value to those who are paying for its services, although as applied to universities some find this idea offensive. But, seriously. Who are your customers and what do they want or need you to provide to them?

    If Business foots the bills (whether directly, or through taxes) then it wants graduates who are capable of doing the jobs it needs done and research capable of being economically exploited by private industry. Some of those jobs and that research are in language, theatre, etc, but not many. In Theatre, particularly, the supply of people who want to do these jobs so far outstrips the supply of jobs that it can be argued that it is unnecessary to spend money on training at all; the naturally-occuring tiny fraction of people who *WILL* one way or another train themselves and find their way into the jobs no matter how difficult that becomes, is more than are needed to fill those jobs. If the university is there to serve business, then there is no justification for pure humanities or fine arts.

    If Students foot the bill (through tuition or the contributions of very wealthy families) then they want institutions to help them become who and what they want to be. Their desires are more diverse than those of business alone. Many of them are motivated to become wealthy, and seek to acquire skills in demand by business, but many want to study things because simply because they enjoy studying those things, or because they wish to become people who know them. Students also care, deeply, about the social structures formed at University; it is in these contexts that many of them meet friends and contacts who will remain valuable for their entire lives. If the university is there to serve the students, then the fact that humanities and fine arts are pleasurable to study and give pleasure to know, creates the demand that fully justifies their teaching.

    If Governments foot the bill (through subsidies and grants) then the university's mission is to assist in providing political stability, a governable populace, upward mobility insofar as it helps the government stay in office, research applicable to national business, military or intelligence advantage etc. Their research focus is broader than that of private industry in that they are interested in research that can be commercially exploited by many actors nationwide rather than held secret and exploited by a single company of private industry. Fine arts and humanities have some value in this model in terms of asserting a cultural identity, preventing people from feeling disenfranchised, providing "shibboleths" that enable upward mobility (though this function is increasingly void as such requirements have effectively disappeared), etc.

    And finally, if Universities themselves foot the bill (through endowments, etc) then they are responsible to no one and ought to do exactly as they please.

    As far as I know there is no university that exists exclusively serve just one of these interests, nor which is funded by just one of these groups. Endowments are usually a way of organizing contributions from other sources who, regardless of what they may officially say, expect that they are paying for services. The contributions of governments to endowments are usually disguised in the form of tax-exempt status, but constitute a major part of their value. Every department that wants to do research seeks support from any actor they deem likely to contribute. So, in the end the "mission" of a university, or the way it provides value to those who pay for its operation, is always some combination of the above.

    As the proportions of the university's support provided by the various benefactors change, the mission of the university itself ought also to change. In an era when government and students contribute less and private industry contributes more, it is good that the role of humanities and fine arts at universities to shrink. At institutions supported in greater part by Tuition fees, the University must fulfil its mission by expanding the roles of the humanities and fine arts.

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