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


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.

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

  1. Jeff Says:

    That first bullet point is particularly nice. I recently saw a university president announce his plan to rescue the humanities, which consisted of three pillars: lobbying to maintain or increase NEH funding; hiring more humanities profs at his school; and going out and informing the public that the humanities are good for them. And I thought: What a parochial response! Quite a bit of art, writing, and thinking occurs off-campus, and academics are doomed in their outreach efforts if they continue to assume that “academia” and “the humanities” are necessarily synonymous.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Interesting point, as always from you, Jeff. Thanks!

  3. Elena Danielson Says:

    RE abolishing language departments: The surprise is that the challenge to traditional university language departments took so long to develop. A strong foreign language requirement was the foundation of university language and literature departments in the 1950s and 1960s. Forcing 18 year olds to memorize adjective endings was far from ideal language learning, but this instruction was the financial basis for the graduate students who conducted serious literature research. This edifice crumbled decades ago when the foreign language requirement was basically ditched for a symbolic one year that could be satisfied by a largely useless high school class. Without the pressure from university requirements, high school foreign language instruction faded. Ever since, it is not unusual for a tenured professor earning over $100,000 a year plus benefits to lecture a class of a few, even two students. Prorated per student that is not really cost effective. (It came home to me in the mid-1980s, when a brilliant Stanford professor taught a seminar on a core work of literature to one student. When I took the same class in the 1970s, there were about 20 students.)…Any meaningful solution has to start in elementary school with foreign language instruction at age appropriate stages. Meanwhile most of our university students basically live in an English language bubble, even when they travel, even when the “study abroad.” When Herta Mueller won the Nobel prize, she was largely dismissed by Americans, who had never been able to read her astonishing, largely untranslated and largely untranslatable work. And Europeans dismiss Americans as insular and provincial…

  4. Justine Szabo Says:

    Ms. Haven, please don’t be disingenuous. You write (in your first sentence, no less): “No sooner had I written an article on Joshua Landy’s rousing defense of the humanities, than the New York Times comes up with this: ‘Do Colleges Need French Departments?'” You link, helpfully, to the article you wrote. You published that article on December 7, 2010. The NYT article – the one which was written “no sooner” than yours (and which you also linked to, also helpfully), was written on October 17, 2010. This is not “no sooner” – it’s actually almost two months sooner. Don’t sacrifice your integrity as a journalist for a catchy way of saying things.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Color me embarrassed, Justine. Someone pointed the NYT article out to me after I had written my own, and I assumed it was a new article, not one I had missed earlier. I’ll correct the piece to reflect reality.

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