Thursday, October 14, 2010

Stanley Fish is Craven and Unashamed

I try to concentrate on the up-building at The Gruntled Center, but today I have to offer a criticism of a fellow professor.

Stanley Fish is an English professor and a famous critic of the Western canon of what is best to teach in English and related fields. He recently wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about the "crisis of the humanities," sparked by the decision of the State University of New York at Albany to abolish their French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater departments. Fish recognizes that SUNY's conclusion that the humanities are not really necessary is, in part, the fruit if radical criticism like his. And yet Fish still opposes SUNY's decision. Why? I will let him explain:

I have always had trouble believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum — that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said — but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.


Thomas M. Cothran said...

I don't see the problem, in the context of the whole article. Fish is arguing that the humanities ought not be justified by claims that they produce better workers or make our society better (seemingly in a moral sense). Fish has argued for some time that an extrinsic justification for the humanities devalues the humanities (at least, this is the same thing he was saying six years ago when he spoke at UK).

And I agree. The best human activities are those that are complete in themselves, that aren't undertaken for a further end, but an end intrinsic in the activity (as Aristotle says). The humanities are such an activity, and as a consequence, it is one of the things a political society ought to be ordered toward. However, our society is largely not. Anti-intellectualism has always been endemic in our culture, and the business model of the university is just a later stage in its development.

If our culture as a whole doesn't call every person to intellectual greatness -- that is, if intellectual development is not essential to our common idea of a good life -- then, to that extent, our culture has become bestial. Animals too can work and provide for bodily needs (and we usually regard working animals, such as ants, as a lower sort of animal), but what is distinctively human and far more worthwhile are the things that pertain to the intellect. If we don't have an ideal society that seeks do develop the intellectual ability of all its citizens for sake of the inherent value of such activity (and not to just get a job), we might as well provide a practicable way for those who do regard the things of the mind as more important than the things of the body to pursue the higher things.

Gruntled said...

I agree that a business justification for teaching the humanities is misbegotten. But Fish also rejects the argument that the humanities are a distinctive excellence that all educated people should know. He just says it is his job and kids at public universities should be required to take it so he can be employed. Craven.

Scott said...

On the other hand, you have to admire the honesty. Craven honesty but honesty nonetheless.
Austin, TX