Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fish, Stanley. "Will the Humanities Save Us? Part 2" NEW YORK TIMES January 13, 2008.

All of this should not be taken to mean, as it was by some, that I am attacking the humanities or denigrating them or declaring them worthless. I am saying that the value of the humanities cannot be validated by some measure external to the obsessions that lead some (like me) to devote their working lives to them – measures like increased economic productivity, or the fashioning of an informed citizenry, or the sharpening of moral perceptions, or the lessening of prejudice and discrimination. If these or some other instrumental benchmarks – instrumental in the sense that they are tied to a secondary effect rather than to an internal economy – are what the humanities must meet, they will always fall short. But the refusal of the humanities to acknowledge or bow to an end they do not contemplate is, I argue, their salvation and their value. As Stacia says in words more precise than mine, “The subject of these studies are not to be used as tools to achieve something else . . . they are the achievement.” Of course, this does not mean that anyone will pay for them. In fact, as several posters observed, my argument (and it isn’t only mine) that the humanities are their own good and aren’t much good for anything else can be used to justify turning humanities departments into service departments and cutting funding for humanities research. I still remember serving on an all-university committee at Johns Hopkins University and hearing one of my fellow committee members say that he would happily support the English department because his wife very much enjoyed seeing plays. When I told him that the department never put on plays, and at that moment did not even have a faculty member who was interested in plays, he was amazed and asked the obvious question: What then do you do? When I replied that we research things like medieval astrology, Renaisssance iconography, 18th century political satire and romantic theories of the imagination, and then share our findings and interpretations with students, his puzzlement grew. . . . Read the rest of Fish's (as usual) provocative argument here: http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/the-uses-of-the-humanities-part-two/.

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