Month: June 2018

Yet Another Post in Defense of History and the Humanities

Yes, One Thing after Another has been silent for some time. This blog has not been slumbering. Rather, our good blogger has been very busy performing a variety of tasks associated with his job, including research, service, and preparation for fall classes. Despite a very long “to do” list, One Thing after Another has been spurred to action by a recent article authored by Stanley Fish entitled, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities.”

https://www.chronicle.com/article/Stop-Trying-to-Sell-the/243643?key=m1JvRRyygNd0EHj5AaFoO0ti00iCHCUA2K5ZxC8dMYxDxHtupVA2vVdwCkhaYR63dmtqcHlDbzFCVllkSGhIczZsMXBNMGRlUVpJWFdFUjRSR1cxNS01VnN2SQ

Fish, who is professor of law at Florida International University and a visiting professor at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University, first attained prominence as a literary scholar, so he speaks (or writes) with some sympathy for the plight of the humanities. It makes sense to trace his argument before coming to terms with it.

Fish commences his essay by following the philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott who, in turn, seems to be following Aristotle. Education, so the argument goes, should be pursued for its own sake, not some “ulterior motive” like job skills. Once education is inspired by ulterior motives of this sort, it is no longer education because it is no longer true to itself. So when the time comes for public universities to defend the humanities in front of the state legislature, these schools should admit that there is no defense—or at least no intellectually consistent defense that is outside of the humanities’ own frame of reference which is knowledge for its own sake.

Fish proceeds to demolish the various justifications for the humanities that are frequently adduced by its defenders.

  • To the belief that the humanities provide students with indispensable language skills that help uphold culture, hold society together, and produce knowledge, Fish counters that this is an “in-house argument” unlikely to sway legislators.
  • When confronted with the argument that the humanities are useful because they teach us important everyday skills (e.g. writing), Fish states that one need not study “Byzantine art or lesbian poetry” to learn those skills.
  • As for the idea that the humanities lead to the happiness that one associates with a “fuller experience of life,” Fish responds that years of study have not necessarily made him a better person inspired by the highest motives.
  • The argument that democracy needs humanities professors to guide it and that students who engage with the liberal arts are better citizens also receives short shrift from Fish; he believes the former smacks of “elitism” and “academic exceptionalism” while the latter is only incidental to a college educational (and questionable at best).

Better to admit that there are no defenses of the humanities extrinsic to itself than to build our citadel on sand or so Fish claims.

One Thing or Another has encountered somewhat similar arguments before. Some months ago, this blog responded to an essay by the classicist Justin Stover that also claimed traditional defenses of the humanities were both wrong and futile (although he made more of the fact that the humanities have always been about sustaining an intellectual class—something that Fish only alludes to). There is much validity to such arguments. After all, how can we declare that the humanities make us better citizens and people when Alcibiades, who learned at the feet of Socrates, turned out the way he did? (See the two above as depicted by François-André Vincent, who painted this scene in 1775.)

And yet . . . One Thing after Another is unable to capitulate to such arguments. Perhaps this blog continues to writhe like a worm on a fish hook, struggling against its fate, because it cannot accept the ultimate destiny of the humanities which, according to Fish and Stover, seems to be some sort of marginal place where lovers of books and arcane topics gather together to follow their cranky dreams.  In any event, this blog will leave it to the other disciplines in the humanities to defend themselves; what follows is a defense of history.

This blog will concede that it became interested in history for its own sake. And yes, if the study of history has given a fullness to this blogger’s life, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a better or happier person than other people. And maybe One Thing after Another has not been a model citizen. And sure, studying history was not indispensable to becoming a good writer—this blogger could have learned to write in many other disciplines. Having conceded all of these points, this blog still believes history is important and that everybody should study it. Why? First, because it is interesting, and since it is interesting, it can be the spur to learning how to read, think, and write. In other words, it is a convenient medium by which to teach all those skills that people need. Yes, the History Channel has gone downhill since its glory days, but do you ever wonder why there is a History Channel and, say, no Chemistry or Sociology Channel? Many people find history fascinating, and they will willingly write papers on the subject or read books about it when they might not be willing to do so in other subjects. Second, history shows us that the world has not always been as it is today. The discipline allows us to understand the different outlooks of various civilizations. That being the case, we can gain perspective on our own time and consider alternative modes to our present way of doing things. Third, history shows us how we got to where we are today. There is no understanding the European Union, the conflict in Gaza, or the Chinese government’s current outlook (to name just three contemporary examples) without some reference to the past. No matter where we live, we are in the middle of a long story with no beginning or end, but to understand the chapter we are currently reading, it helps to know the ones that came before. Finally, the study of history can sharpen our judgment of people and events. If we are careful, we can even make valuable analogies with times past. Learning these skills, obtaining this knowledge, and honing this judgment might be inspired by the love of history for its own sake (as Fish argues). But are these not valuable incidentals? Do they not have the potential to turn us into better citizens and leaders should we choose to be such? Is it not better to know a bit about history rather than be confined by both time and place, utterly bereft of any experience outside our own immediate ambit? One Thing after Another grants that these things could perhaps be learned outside the university—but the task of learning them would be that much more arduous. Perhaps the university is the place at least for history.

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