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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Stanley Fish on the Use of the Humanities

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In a two-part blog for the New York Times, the veteran literary critic Stanley Fish considers the uses of the humanities in contemporary society and education. Sadly - and like myself - he struggles to come up with a definitive answer. In his first post, "Will the Humanities Save Us," Fish takes on Antony Kronman's claim in his new book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life.

Kronman considers that in the past “a college was above all a place for the training of character, for the nurturing of those intellectual and moral habits that together from the basis for living the best life one can” and that immersing oneself or even memorising the great texts of history would improve one's capacity to live the good life: “to acquire a text by memory is to fix in one’s mind the image and example of the author and his subject.” Only the humanities can address “the crisis of spirit we now confront” and “restore the wonder which those who have glimpsed the human condition have always felt, and which our scientific civilization, with its gadgets and discoveries, obscures.”

It's a nice idea, though as Fish observes it appeals not so much to the promotion of literary study as to the denigration of everything else, particularly science (and I would argue that some of the best scientific writing contains a powerful sense of wonder and awe at the complexity of the natural world, even if it does not offer a template for ethics and living).

Admirably refusing to buckle to this vision of secular humanism and literary criticism's didactic value, Fish argues:

If it were true, the 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. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged.

And that, I believe, is how it should be. Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject.
In his second post on The Uses of the Humanities, Fish analyses a religious poem by George Herbert, riffing on the ambiguity of the homophone "sun beam" and "son beam." Such humanistic readings matter, Fish declares, because:
The satisfaction is partly self-satisfaction – it is like solving a puzzle – but the greater satisfaction is the opportunity to marvel at what a few people are able to do with the language we all use. “Isn’t that amazing?,” I often say to my students. “Don’t you wish you could write a line like that?”
Fish notes, rightly, that when we talk about the use of the humanities, we are invariably - if often implicitly - referring not to the creation of texts like George Herbert's, but to the analysis of such products within the disciplinary silos of academia:
The challenge of utility is not put (except by avowed Philistines ) to literary artists, but to the scholarly machinery that seems to take those operating it further and further away from the primary texts into the reaches of incomprehensible and often corrosive theory.
This is a somewhat different issue:
The funding of the humanities in colleges and universities cannot be justified by pointing to the fact that poems and philosophical arguments have changed lives and started movements. (I was surprised that no one mentioned “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book Lincoln is said to have credited with the starting of the Civil War.) The pertinent question is, Do humanities courses change lives and start movements? Does one teach with that purpose, and if one did could it be realized?
Again, Fish reiterates his argument against secular humanism: the neoconservatives who declared war on Iraq in apparent ignorance of religious history were actually "as widely read in history, philosophy and the arts as anyone." Fish - excuse the pun - sticks to his guns:
I am saying that the value of the humanities cannot be validated by some measure external to the obsessions that lead some (like me) to devote their working lives to them – measures like increased economic productivity, or the fashioning of an informed citizenry, or the sharpening of moral perceptions, or the lessening of prejudice and discrimination. If these or some other instrumental benchmarks – instrumental in the sense that they are tied to a secondary effect rather than to an internal economy – are what the humanities must meet, they will always fall short. But the refusal of the humanities to acknowledge or bow to an end they do not contemplate is, I argue, their salvation and their value.
This all sounds very bold in the face of some philistine comments: the point is, there is no point. Only it seems that for Fish, contrary to his own terms, sees that there is a pragmatic value, though it is methodological rather than ethical:

The first is that taking courses in literature, philosophy and history provides training in critical thinking.
Well, he's right, and the ability to analyse texts and motivations, the refusal to conform to received authority, and the willingness to assert alternative arguments all explain why English graduates are among the most highly sought-after by employers.

Of course, it would be wrong to claim that English literature students have any special ability to think critically. As Fish observes, sports commentators do this all the time. But I do think there may be a case that English studies does it more (economic jargon warning!) efficiently and with more transferable potential. If you are able to study a John Donne poem and a postmodern novel, you are probably going to be able to scrutinise the latest marketing material for Proctor and Gamble. The capacity to analyse Manchester United's skill at the offside trap probably does not.

The second reason for supporting the humanities that Fish offers is less forceful:
Let's support the humanities so that Stanley Fish and his friends have more people to talk to.
That is, being able to discuss literature, culture and politics in a sophisticated way enlivens dinner parties whereas discussions of football or the weather invariably dull them. Unfortunately, I think the champagne is probably still on ice when it comes to the issue of the true value of literature, as I have been discovering throughout my PhD in the subject. Still, at least I now have something to talk about over the cheese twists.

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