Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Important Questions

You can always count on Stanley Fish to ask important questions, and to answer them in a counter-intuitive or even an annoying way. Here he is today:

Do the humanities ennoble? And for that matter, is it the business of the humanities, or of any other area of academic study, to save us?

If you've read any Fish before you won't be terribly surprised by his answer:

The answer in both cases, I think, is no. The premise of secular humanism (or of just old-fashioned humanism) is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them. Philip Sydney put it as well as anyone ever has when he asks (in “The Defense of Poesy,” 1595), “Who reads Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back that wishes not it was his fortune to perform such an excellent act?” Thrill to this picture of filial piety in the Aeneid and you will yourself become devoted to your father. Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you.

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. 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.

In many ways I think Fish is right--that there is no particular justification for the humanities, and certainly that they do not necessarily ennoble (sad to say). The humanities are, as Fish says, their own justification--and in this day of outcome-based education and anxiety about skills and tests and who knows what, that's bad news for us. And yet I still believe--though I fear it is elitist to say so--that reading and writing and thinking deeply are indeed good in and of themselves; that participating in these practices is both pleasurable and valuable for their own sake.

(I also believe that learning to read critically is still an essential skill, but I'm not going to argue with Fish about it because I take his point, that justifying the humanities from outside the humanities is giving in to an outlook that, in general, I do not share.)


  1. But if we don't at least try to open the doors on what we do in the humanities, then can we rest when the fields of the humanities die off? The implicit assumption these days is that if we can't measure it and standardize it, it has no value. That is, in and of itself, an idea worth fighting. It seems ironic to me that "student-centered learning" was closer kin to the humanities for so long, and now, at least from an assessment standpoint, the humanists fight this notion while the sciences, business, social sciences, etc. move to embrace it. Not to act IS to act...

  2. yes, we do have to fight the notion that the immeasurable is not valuable. But is the best way to do that, to jump on the assessment bandwagon? Isn't that caving in, rather than fighting?

    I'm not sure, myself. I do actually think--as you probably know--that what I do has great value, and it may even be a value that can be assessed. But, often, not right away.

    Unfortunately, too often "student centered learning" turns into "giving them what they want"--and what they want, what they have been taught to want, CAN be measured and assessed--and if it can't, they don't want it. Sigh. I'm still struggling with this.