Do The Humanities Matter?

If you read my posts long enough, you’ll find that one of my favorite navel gazing type questions is “What is an educated man?”. It touches on the topic of education, and what we consider valuable. The humanities, the study of the quest for knowledge, is a study of supremely human endeavors, after all. Therefore, it follows that studying the humanities is a good thingtm.

But that’s not the way the teaching of humanities has progressed, especially at the university level. Indeed, many of the leading intellects have let it be known for decades, and have taught for decades, that there is no intrinsic value to – well, anything, including the humanities.

[R]enowned literary scholar Stanley Fish devoted a lengthy New York Times blog post to being unable to articulate a reason why the humanities matters. “If it were true [that the study of great works enlarges the soul], then most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so.” Fish smugly presents his inability to defend humanistic study as a good thing, even as proof of its value.

As you can see, Erin O’Connor, at Critical Mass (which I really, really recommend to you if you like to read about education issues) goes even farther than I in her critique of Fish. She notes that according to him the study of humanities cannot be defended. And that proves it’s a good thing???

Fish says:

You can’t argue that the arts and humanities are able to support themselves through grants and private donations. You can’t argue that a state’s economy will benefit by a new reading of “Hamlet.” You can’t argue – well you can, but it won’t fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum). You can talk as Bethany does 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.

And as day follows night, Fish later quotes Anthony T. Kronman:

Kronman is not so much mounting a defense of the humanities as he is mounting an attack on everything else. Other spokespersons for the humanities argue for their utility by connecting them (in largely unconvincing ways) to the goals of science, technology and the building of careers. Kronman, however, identifies science, technology and careerism as impediments to living a life with meaning. The real enemies, he declares, are “the careerism that distracts from life as a whole” and “the blind acceptance of science and technology that disguise and deny our human condition.” These false idols, he says, block the way to understanding. We must turn to the humanities if we are to “meet the need for meaning in an age of vast but pointless powers,” for only the humanities can help us recover the urgency of “the question of what living is for.”

Perhaps the best answer to both Fish and Kronman is to firmly place thumb to nose, wave digits and with tongue thrust outward, say “ThtUHEppppTTTT!”

O’Connor is much more articulate than I, and responds more intelligently.

Rejecting Fish’s echo-chamber ideal of the humanities, Soltan suggests that such a vacuous position is the sad result of too much relativistic postmodernism, imbibed for far too long. Even though Fish has shed a lot of the “there is no truth, there is only text” posturing that made him famous, his thinking is still tainted by it … and his vision of the humanities is correlatively elitist and decadent. Considering how much energy Fish and others have exerted in recent years trying to tearing down elitist, decadent models of artistic apprehension, this is ironic, to say the least.

With top notch university philosophers like Fish leading the pack, I can see why the humanities are in serious trouble. What I start to believe is that university science curricula is in nearly as much difficulty.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Education, post-modernism

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