Am I the only one dispirited by current conversation about “defending” the humanities? Apparently, Stanley Fish feels exactly the same way – he talks about it in the New York Times here. He takes aim at a report recently published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences titled “The Heart of the Matter.” He starts his attack with some of the fluffy verbiage surrounding the claims the report makes for the humanities:
“The humanities and social sciences provide an intellectual framework and context for understanding and thriving in a complex world.”
“A thorough grounding in these subjects allows citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.”
The humanities and social sciences “enable us to participate in a global economy that requires understanding of diverse cultures and sensitivity to different perspectives.”
No wonder I get depressed. Fish does, too:
In each of these sentences, and many others that might be instanced, the key words — “framework,” “context,” “complex,” “meaningfully,” “understanding,” “diverse,” “sensitivity,” “perspectives” — are spectacularly empty; just where specificity is needed, sonorous abstraction blunts the edge of what is being asserted, rendering it unexceptionable (no one’s against understanding, complexity and meaningfulness) and without bite.
Then the Milton scholar tackles the equally empty recommendations:
“Increase NEH funding.” Fine idea, but only political efforts of a kind not mentioned here will do that trick. College teachers should “reach out” to their colleagues in K-12. Sure, let’s have a joint bake sale or a dance. “Embrace the chance to connect with the larger community.” What exactly does “connect with” mean and where does the “chance” reside? “Deepen knowledge of other cultures.” Add “deepen” to the list of words that say nothing. Develop “intercultural skills.” First tell me what they are and how they differ from mono-cultural skills. “Expand the pool of qualified teachers.” Wait a moment while I wave my magic wand. “Promote Language Learning.” Yes, that’s something we could and should do, but it will take money, and money has systematically been withdrawn from public higher education for decades.
The report alludes to this unhappy fact, but doesn’t take it up. Nor does it take up the converging factors that accelerate the rush to vocationalism and short-term payoffs — the mania for online education, unsupportable student debt, rising costs in every area of a college’s operation, the Internet’s preference for chunked-up bits of information, the elimination or radical downsizing of French, Russian, German, religious studies, theater and other programs because they cannot be justified under zero-based budgeting assumptions.
The wish to make humanities “relevant,” and apply it to “the great challenges of the era” is part of the problem, he thinks, turning away from the notion of the humanities “as a cloistered and separate area in which inquiry is engaged in for its own sake and not because it yields useful results,” he writes. “It is the rejection of this contemplative ideal in favor of various forms of instrumentalism that underlies the turn away from the humanist curriculum. The rhetoric of the report puts its authors on the side of that ideal, but when push comes to shove, they are all too ready to dilute it in the name of some large abstraction — democracy, culture, social progress, whatever. They are, in short, all too ready to depart from the heart of the matter.”
Might we add that a central concern of the humanities is the use of language itself – for truth, understanding, or simply pleasure? As opposed to language used to muddy, distract, and hide. The way our gummint uses it, for example. Somehow, language has been taken hostage by the marketing and public relations people, as well as government bureaucracies, and we have to get it back.
Read the rest of Fish’s piece here. Fish has had a chunk of my own heart since, during a lonely wander through the Stanford Bookstore, I stumbled upon one of his hefty volumes on John Milton, and bought it. It fit the moment perfectly.
Postscript: Apologies, Mr. Orwell! We didn’t realize that today is your 110th b’day! No wonder he’s smiling. Here’s a cake we baked.