Fish Receives Gift Horse, Looks in Mouth

Stanley Fish is at it again, this time writing about the virtual lack of a pragmatic answer to “what is the value of humanities studies?”  Here is his NY Times entry.  While he does raise a few good points and keeps the article on task (and he surprised me by some responses to comments”), I was left with the same feeling many of his pieces elicit.  A bulk of the feeling I’m referring to could be partly a sense of betrayal, or maybe merely an irresponsible shirking of great opportunities in exchange for a clever obfuscation of the values and meanings that are part of studying humanities.  What I mean is, as gifted and well-known figure Stanley Fish is, why would he focus on how little one can come up with – in practical terms – when asked to value the study of humanities; couldn’t he serve the field, and others, so much better by answering the question, rather asking it?

It makes me question what  purpose should a “literary conscience” serve; on one hand, I can see a valid argument for why Fish pushes buttons and raises tough questions the way he does – it makes people respond, and makes them think.  But on the other hand, if you were writing something that would have an influence both publicly and academically, and the results were things like increased scrutiny on humanities departments to justify their budgets, or destabilizing the poet’s communication to the reader … well, should you?

All in all, the article really isn’t too bad; I imagine it won’t change hearts and minds, rather simply confirm beliefs one way or the other.  My biggest disappointment was how quickly he skimmed over what I thought was a valid answer to the value of humanities.  Essentially, many responded that the classes were themselves the value, the fact that they existed was the thing we should value.  I wish he would have stayed on this response longer, because I think that is where a real answer lies, if one were pressed to come up with one. 

If you ask me, I would just skip any kind rhetoric that tried to suggest the humanities as the sole place some practical, pragmatic thing or service was found.  In short, I would admit that, honestly, there was absolutely none.  It isn’t what the humanities departments provide, but what they represent: a culture that acknowledges there is indeed something of value besides a bottom line, or a technical innovation, or a medical benefit.  Since there is no necessity to the humanities, in a survival-of-the-species manner of speaking, it means it is a choice.  The fact that it is not a necessity is, in turn, what makes it perhaps one of the highest necessities, for its role in defining the human species as something unique to the world. 

I have to go back to Agee when I thought of this; much of Let Us Now Praise Famous Menis these long expositions of Agee wrestling with himself, realizing how silly things like art and aesthetics and these esoteric notions suddenly seemed when he was thrust in a culture that was more concerned with not going hungry and keeping the family clothed.  But he succeeds in this struggle by making his work capture and embrace the families he live with, not using them as vehicles for art but rather using art as vehicles to truly portray them.  I instantly thought of Agee when I read Fish’s articles, especially once he began explaining how some of the very responses to the question were the same reasons some would give to justify budget cuts.

 It makes me think if that truly becomes the dominant attitude toward the humanities, then it might actually do some good, albeit in a roundabout way, for the humanities to lose support enough to nearly do away with it.  Why?  Because only then would we be assured to see the emergence of works of necessity, only then would we get works that had to be written for the sake of literature, not for the propagation of graduates and journals and entries on a resume. 

I’ll admit, one of the most valid reasons for the sort of question Fish writes about is the sheer lack of importance anything coming from the humanities reeks of – at least in literature.  I mean, we have so-called poet-critics who can’t stand people like Billy Collins because he actually gets people other than writers to read poetry – and so they only toughen their stance and refuse to see the big picture; we have leading critical theory journals like Critical Inquiry who have entire symposiums dedicated to “the problem of theory” in its current state, as if they don’t know what is wrong, all while they write about Derrida again and again in the most convoluted, specialized language one might come across. 

That sort of guarded, “you must be this educated to ride this ride” attitude smacks of the same desperate throws made in the late 50s by literary academics who hated the idea of Hemingway as literature, saw Salinger as trash fiction, and thought it instead their job to educate the public what real literature was.  And that, my friends, is the final last step into being lost: forgetting that literature is just as much defined – if not more – by the people outside of classrooms.  Without the culture it is a part of, the arts are nothing but empty exercises in disaffect, a history of a dead religion, records of human experience only visible to their creator. 


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