Archive for December 10th, 2010

NYT: “Do colleges need French departments?” Josh Landy thinks they do.

Friday, December 10th, 2010
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My recent article on Joshua Landy‘s rousing defense of the humanities built on an earlier New York Times article:  “Do Colleges Need French Departments?”  The Proust scholar addressed the question with his students in the video above, and to the rest of the world here.  The NYT focus is once again the Albany Massacre, which we wrote on the Book Haven here and here.

Josh told me that he’d made a similar spirited defense on Arcade, “SUNY Albany, Stanley Fish, and the Enemy Within.” It’s worth a look.  Inevitably, perhaps, Josh also attacks Stanley Fish‘s much-blogged post, “The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives“:  “Let’s put it this way: if the most prominent humanists are publicly proclaiming their belief in the utter uselessness of what they do, what reason could a cash-strapped administrator possibly have for not shutting down their departments?” he asks.

Fortunately—as many excellent Arcade posts, among other things, have shown—not all of us feel the same way our “friend” Stanley does.  But it’s time for all of us to get just as vocal as him.  Yes, it may be embarrassing for us to make positive claims for what we do (we’ve specialized for quite a while in making negative claims about more or less everything), but we may just have to accept a little embarrassment.  Perhaps it’s the price we’ll have to pay for heading off future Albanys.

What can we say? Plenty. Here are his talking points:

  • Yes, the humanities do enhance our culture. … In fact, it’s hard to know what culture is if it’s not things like Picassos and Pink Floyd albums and Toni Morrison novels.  Not to mention the people, like Henry Louis Gates and Michael Fried and Helen Vendler (or for that matter Sister Wendy or Benard Pivot or the makers of Art21), who help us to love those works even more.  This may not be an exciting thing for us humanists to say to each other, but it’s straightforwardly true.

    "Has he not read his Bakhtin? Has he not read, well, anything?" (Photo: L.A. Cicero"

    "We need every voice we've got." (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

  • Yes, some of those books that people teach do contain “the best that has been thought and said.”  It should be remembered here that Fish has a very hard time distinguishing between the humanities in general and literary study in particular.  But the rest of us, I think, understand that the humanities also include, among other disciplines, that of philosophy.  Who wants to say that W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, to take just one example, is not among “the best that has been thought and said”?  I’m not in any way arguing for a core curriculum (it’s part of Fish’s polarizing thinking that you’re either a hip value-denier or a pathetic canon-defender; let’s resist that false dichotomy).  I’m just saying that people who teach DuBois (and Lao-Tsu, and Nietzsche, and de Beauvoir…), in whatever context, are doing everyone a favor.multidisciplinary minds and a broad spectrum of experiences.” (qtd. in Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind, 132.)  These are not humanists.  These are business people.
  • What is more, the humanities expose us to—and, very often, cause us to fall in love with—other cultures, both within our country and outside it.  Is it embarrassing to say this out loud?  Certainly.  Does it need to be said?  Apparently so.
  • And then there’s the fact that exposure to the humanities changes us, enriches us, expands our imagination, clarifies our thinking, gives new depths to our being.  Yes, even the literary humanities manage this.  Fish appears to believe—stunningly!—that great literary works could help us only if they provided examples for emulation in the form of heroic characters.  Has he not read his Bakhtin?  Has he not read, well, anything?

Josh concludes:  “There’s much, much more to be said; please help me in saying it.  We need every voice we’ve got.”  A lively discussion follows — check it out.

The empty chair, a presidential statement: “Mr. Liu Xiaobo is far more deserving of this award than I was.”

Friday, December 10th, 2010
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While he was named as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Liu Xiaobo was incarcerated, probably working in the prison factory that makes electrical switches.  In Oslo — an empty chair represented him.

Some Twitter users who listed their location as Beijing had changed their profile pictures to an empty chair.

In light of the refusal of one-third of the invited nations to attend in the face of Chinese threats — China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran — it is gratifying to know that President Obama sent out this graceful statement of support today:

One year ago, I was humbled to receive the Nobel Peace Prize – an award that speaks to our highest aspirations, and that has been claimed by giants of history and courageous advocates who have sacrificed for freedom and justice. Mr. Liu Xiaobo is far more deserving of this award than I was.

All of us have a responsibility to build a just peace that recognizes the inherent rights and dignity of human beings – a truth upheld within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  In our own lives, our own countries, and in the world, the pursuit of a just peace remains incomplete, even as we strive for progress.  This past year saw the release of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, even as the Burmese people continue to be denied the democracy that they deserve.  Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos Horta has continued his tireless work to build a free and prosperous East Timor, having made the transition from dissident to President.  And this past year saw the retirement of Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, whose own career demonstrates the universal power of freedom and justice to overcome extraordinary obstacles.

The rights of human beings are universal – they do not belong to one nation, region or faith.  America respects the unique culture and traditions of different countries.  We respect China’s extraordinary accomplishment in lifting millions out of poverty, and believe that human rights include the dignity that comes with freedom from want.  But Mr. Liu reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law.  The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible. I regret that Mr. Liu and his wife were denied the opportunity to attend the ceremony that Michelle and I attended last year.  Today, on what is also International Human Rights Day, we should redouble our efforts to advance universal values for all human beings.