Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The New York Times and the Defence of Humanities

Stanley Fish's recent defence of the modern languages in the face of the threatened cuts at SUNY Albany has led to on-going discussions at The New York Times. This has occurred in two ways. Firstly, Fish himself has written a follow-up piece that responds to some of the comment generated by the first one. This piece specifically replies to the view that humanities departments generally subsidise other departments, pointing out that such arguments are not the best form of response giving the problems of calculating cross-departmental subsidy. Secondly, it points out that the real problem concerns the cutting of state subsidy, exactly the same problem as is being faced in the UK with the proposal of the Browne report that the teaching block grant should be removed from the universities. This second point also makes clear the need for those defending higher education in the face of cuts to make common cause across national divides since it is essentially the same kind of attack that is being made in many places. Thirdly, Fish rightly argues that the defence of the humanities generally should not mainly consist in generic appeals with regard to the outside culture. The problem with appeals of the latter kind is that they can be met by emphasising a sizeable presence of things such as theatre in the wider culture. It is true, as Fish states, that theatre studies does not offer the same return to ordinary citizens as watching live theatre performances. Similarly, university provision of study in modern languages or in philosophy does not provide some clear and evident pay-back for the ordinary guy. The "value" of the humanities, if we must speak of the matter in these terms, is more nebulous than that. Fish emphasizes the basic self-sustaining character of the study of humanities and this is certainly one way to go, one that has more in its favour than just trying to reach for external justifications.

The second way the New York Times has responded to the situation is by organising a panel discussion on the topic of whether colleges need French departments. Stating it like this has something of the flavour of the BBC panel discussion earlier this year which asked whether homosexuals should be executed when faced with the prospect of a law requiring this being passed in Uganda. It is not, shall we say, the most supportive way of framing the question. And nor do all of the respondents do as well as Fish has in arguing the case for the humanities. In light of the fact that Martha Nussbaum has recently written a book in defence of the humanities we might expect that she could do better than open by making a "business case" for them. Her general case is that we require critical thinking, history and imagination in order to make democracy work but this kind of defence has a number of problems. Firstly, "critical thinking" as practiced in many places has a tendency simply to replace elementary logic and be a poor substitute for it at that. Secondly, whilst history is certainly valuable for much we shouldn't be resting our claim for humanities only on an historical value as if there were nothing they could teach us today. Thirdly, whilst the stress on imagination is better it would be good to connect that to an investigation of reason and thought, which are as much under attack as values of imagination and rather more core to the academic activity of humanities research and teaching.

John McWhorter, in his contribution, makes clearer the limits of Nussbaum's approach as he argues that there is no special need for the amount of humanities teaching on offer and no evidence of a general literacy in the culture due to its present prevalence. McWhorter's analysis sees little specific point in humanities study and Nussbaum's view is unlikely to convince him otherwise. In reply to this kind of position it is necessary to point out that it is far from evident what any intellectual endeavour that is not very applied indeed can offer to the general culture and that, in any case, certain kinds of humanities studies can be very applied indeed (but not that all should become so).

Mark Bauerlein also brings out the problems with Nussbaum's emphasis on history as he takes this to its logical conclusion and argues for curbing the "pretensions" of humanities theory (a la the "jokes" of Brian Leiter) and focussing instead on the historical values of such writers as Plutarch. This suggestion that there is a fall-off in student numbers and that such a fall-off is the result of humanities departments own concentration on the "wrong" subjects plays right into the hands of the bureaucrats. Rather than assess the question from the standpoint of "market-share" as Bauerlein does we need instead to look at the pattern of cuts in the humanities. There is not a general fall-off in students studying in these areas as Bauerlein suggests and, even if there were, there is certainly no specific fall-off in places where there is an emphasis on "theory" at the expense of the "classics". The experience, earlier this year, of Middlesex University, was rather that a thriving programme was cut. It was cut, despite the lack of evidence of student fall-out and the cuts in humanities generally are not based on some claim of lack of student satisfaction as these departments often have higher satisfaction ratings than others (not that such surveys in themselves are the best means of measuring anything).

Ellen Schrecker makes the better point that cutting the humanities out of institutions that are not at the top of the Ivory League will simply exacerbate general social inequality. Humanities graduates at the top institutions land good jobs even though they study subjects that are apparently not "vocational" and reduction in humanities departments outside these institutions will simply turn the latter towards being only trade schools aimed at particular kinds of outcomes, which will inevitably lower the status of the latter. Gaye Tuchman correctly adds that the emphasis on such outcomes is, in fact, part of the same outlook that led economies to look primarily at fast means of garnering wealth, something that created the crisis that is now being used to justify the current cuts.

The fact that open debate is happening in this area is itself broadly encouraging though the need for it to be focused more specifically on the right kinds of justifications of the humanities is apparent from reviewing the New York Times discussion. Academic study and research in the humanities does contribute to the wider culture in a number of ways but to focus on this as the primary justification of this as an area of study is problematic since this contribution is not one that is open to either simple statement or clear presentation (not least to those who insist on quantification). The university itself is imperilled if there is not humanities in it since without the humanities you either have institutions focused on science (itself less instrumental than policy-makers seem to think) or on simple vocational emphasis. Whilst the former can be excellent it is notable that serious institutions of scientific research incorporate humanities since without it they cannot look at the discipline, philosophy and language of their own areas of study. If the latter proliferate at the cost of universities then there is no doubt the result of this will be a general closure of access to the areas of thought that are some of the most creative. The time for a general campaign for the humanities and against cuts in higher education is clearly now.

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