So I thought I’d share with you an excerpt of a talk I recently gave on dignity and higher education:

Today’s “postmodern” professor of the humanities doesn’t even claim to have a “wholistic” view of the art of human life, although he or she often still enjoys the perks of professors who thought they could offer people real guidance. Stanley Fish, one of our most notable practitioners and defenders of humanistic study or “liberal education,” sees in his ironic way that privileges without responsibilities can’t last long. Fish observes that our universities, more than ever, are defined by the ethic of measurable productivity and efficiency. The humanities, meanwhile, seem increasingly impractical and unaffordable. Higher education, it seems, need not waste time and money teaching our bourgeois bohemian students how to enjoy the products of other cultures tastefully. They can pursue their hobbies on their own. The faculty members, Fish claims, who “deliver insight and inspiration” are obsolete, because nobody believes they really have the warrant to tell students what to do or how to live.

Fish doesn’t spend enough time blaming himself for this state of affairs. He admits, in his postmodern way, that he doesn’t teach anything real, and yet he still wants what he does to be given noninstrumental value, to be cherished in its “inutility.” Fish, despite himself, ends up giving in to the “business model” of university administrators:  What doesn’t generate power or productivity isn’t real. He can’t defend the traditional proposition that what we most need to know in order to live well can’t be measured. He’s clear enough that professors like himself can and should disappear, precisely because they know of no true standard of human significance or dignity that trumps productivity. Postmodern professors of humanities have come close to putting the humanities and liberal education out of business.

Articles by Peter Lawler

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