Saturday, January 24, 2009

Stanley Fish on the Humanities...and a Response

One of my classmates posted this doomsday article about the humanities by literary critic Stanley Fish on Facebook earlier this week. Later, Fish wrote this one to follow it up.

As someone with a couple of English degrees, which I have found eminently useful on a variety of levels, I found both articles pretty appalling, perspective-wise.

So I was glad to read this response from Alex Reid over at digital digs.

I'm not sure whether I agree with him point by point (haven't thought it out that thoroughly), but I agree with Reid that there are indeed strong uses for the humanities, even if many people (including, it seems, Fish) don't see it that way.

I also agree with Reid that it's good for people in the humanities to intervene in society. For instance, I think it's a shame that general audience books and publications by professors are looked down upon, tenure-wise. I think they should be encouraged.

However, I also think there's use in academics doing their research--however "elite" it may seem--and speaking in specialized language. The research of the humanities often helps us to learn about, well, humanity. Reading and studying literature, theology, or philosophy, for instance, helps us think about the big questions of why we're alive, which is as important as anything else. And car mechanics don't get remonstrated for having a specialized language.

Though I agree that universities are becoming more corporatized and that there's a danger that the humanities' role will be lessened, I think this would be a big mistake. It's not that we can't learn critical thinking about the big questions--or about how to read and write well--outside of these disciplines. But having them in our universities serves as a concrete, visible reminder that these things are important to us as a society. And that's a darn good thing in and of itself, even if those professors were not--both directly and indirectly--helping to teach valuable skills to others (which they are).

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