The crisis in the humanities has “officially” arrived, Stanley Fish asserts in his October 11th piece for The New York Times. Why now? Because on October 1st, SUNY Albany decided to cut the French, Italian, classics, Russian and theatre programs from the university curriculum. The elimination of French, in particular, “was a shocker.”
Sounding ever so desperate and disoriented, Fish’s solution—though he admits it probably won’t work—is for “senior administrators” to save the humanities by explaining and defending “the core enterprise . . . to legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others.” And what is the “core enterprise” of the humanities according to Fish? To employ humanities professors, of course! Fish states that there is “something” of value in the humanities, though he is at a loss as to what that might be, and concludes with this:
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.
Yeah, that’s probably not going to work.
In a follow-up piece, Fish gives it another shot:
When it comes to justifying the humanities, the wrong questions are what benefits do you provide for society (I’m not denying there are some) and are you cost-effective. The right question is how do you—that is, your program of research and teaching—fit into what we are supposed to be doing as a university. “As a university” is the key phrase, for it recognizes the university as an integral unity with its own history, projects and goals; goals that at times intersect with the more general goals of the culture at large, and at times don’t; but whether they do or don’t shouldn’t be the basis of deciding whether a program deserves a place in the university.
Instead ask what contribution can a knowledge of the Russian language and Russian culture make to our efforts in Far Eastern studies to understand what is going on in China and Japan (the answer is, a big contribution). Ask would it be helpful for students in chemistry to know French or students in architecture and engineering to know the classics (you bet it would). And as for the ins and outs of French theory—casually vilified by so many posters—don’t ask what does it do for the man in the street (precious little); ask if its insights and style of analysis can be applied to the history of science, to the puzzles of theoretical physics, to psychology’s analysis of the human subject. In short, justify yourselves to your colleagues, not to the hundreds of millions of Americans who know nothing of what you do and couldn’t care less and shouldn’t be expected to care; they have enough to worry about.
In other words, while we are no longer part of the family in our own right, Fish encourages humanities professors to beg our colleagues not to throw us out of the house because “we sure can cook and clean real well” (i.e., help you in politics and theoretical physics). Isn’t this exactly the sort of pragmatic argument Fish wants to avoid but can’t?
If this is the best reason a leading professor at a secular institution can provide for saving the humanities—and it seems that it is, having swept the Judeo-Christian foundation for humanistic inquiry under the rug—then the humanities are probably dead, but only, I think, at secular institutions. At places like Houston Baptist University, where I work, which was noted in First Things‘ inaugural issue on colleges and universities as an up-and-coming institution, the humanities are beginning to thrive again. (In fact, we recently revamped the core curriculum to focus on “Great Works” and increased it by twenty odd hours.) The humanities are also thriving, by all accounts, at places like Ave Maria, Grove City College and Wheaton.
I second R.R. Reno on Matt yesterday: if the decline of the anti-foundational approach to the arts is an opportunity for Christian artists and critics to fill the gap, so, too, is the decline of the humanities at secular institutions an opportunity to put them back in their proper theistic context at religious institutions like HBU, Ave Maria, Grove City College and numerous others. In fact, it’s not just an opportunity, but a responsibility.