Smells Like Day-Old Fish

So I got to this one a little late, and it's already past its prime. So what? Dig in.

Stanley Fish blogs about the ridiculous question, "Will the Humanities Save Us?" In his defense, at least Fish says, "no" -- a better answer would be, of course, "what a stupid fucking question!"

Again, in Fish's defense, he's not the one raising the subject, although he does blog one of his semi-anonymous commenters: "When a poet creates a vaccine or a tangible good that can be produced by a Fortune 500 company, I’ll rescind my comment."

Money and technology, baby. That's where the Liberal Arts College of the Future is headed. Bank and Bytes.

Although none of these commentators uses the word, the issue they implicitly raise is justification. How does one justify funding the arts and humanities? It is clear which justifications are not available. You can’t argue that the arts and humanities are able to support themselves through grants and private donations. You can’t argue that a state’s economy will benefit by a new reading of “Hamlet.” You can’t argue – well you can, but it won’t fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum).
He does give lip service to -- and then dismiss -- an argument that I'd bet most of us around here would agree with:

You can talk as Bethany [another commenter] does about “well rounded citizens,” but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people.

At one time justification of the arts and humanities was unnecessary because, as Anthony Kronman puts it in a new book, “Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life,” it was assumed that “a college was above all a place for the training of character, for the nurturing of those intellectual and moral habits that together from the basis for living the best life one can.” It followed that the realization of this goal required an immersion in the great texts of literature, philosophy and history even to the extent of memorizing them, for “to acquire a text by memory is to fix in one’s mind the image and example of the author and his subject.

...he goes on...

Here then is a justification of the humanities that is neither strained (reading poetry contributes to the state’s bottom line) nor crassly careerist. It is a stirring vision that promises the highest reward to those who respond to it. Entering into a conversation with the great authors of the western tradition holds out the prospect of experiencing “a kind of immortality” and achieving “a position immune to the corrupting powers of time.”

Sounds great, but I have my doubts. Does it really work that way? Do the humanities ennoble? And for that matter, is it the business of the humanities, or of any other area of academic study, to save us?

The answer in both cases, I think, is no.
Is Fish using "save" here in the "soully" sense? I've already defended Fishyboy a few times here, so it's time for me to point out that he was the one who introduced the word "save" and then answered it in the negative. As for asking whether the humanities "ennoble" (which was suggested by the author he quotes), I would just ask, don't we consider literacy ennobling? Culture? Wisdom? If all of those things are ennobling, then why is immersing yourself in them not? So I (once again) call BS on you, Fish!
Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged. And that, I believe, is how it should be. Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university.

He's back to "saving" again. But I sniff in this a lot of personal grudgery:
If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so.
"Yeah, you wouldn't think the humanities were ennobling if you knew some of the fuckwads I've had to put up with for the last 45 years!" seems to be what he's saying there.

So in the end, if humanities do not "ennoble" (I say they do, and his suggestion that if they did, professors in the humanities would be the "most noble" is absurd -- it is ennobling to be exposed to culture, and thought, whether as an amateur or a professional), and they do not "save" (which red herring he threw into this discussion for no apparent reason?), what do they do?
To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good.
I would like to take this argument a step further: "what is the use of Wall Street?" and "what is the use of technology?" To make life easier? To improve the economy? But why are those things important? There is only one possible core answer to any of these questions: human happiness is the purpose. Technology makes our legs and arms happy, for they may slack. Money makes our bellies happy, for they are fat. But culture makes us happy, in our minds.

[I would add to this that the creation of each of these things feeds a different beast: creating technology satisfies the mind, "making money" satisfies ambition and pride, and making culture... ah, better ask Mark: he's in the industry...]

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