Fishing For Purpose

When asked about the theme for December’s annual MLA convention- “The Humanities at Work in the World” – Yale comparative literature professor and MLA president Michael Holquist spoke of the need “to raise the consciousness of people outside the academy about the importance of the work that’s done inside the academy.” Acknowledging that the humanities do not enjoy wide public support, Holquist diagnoses the problem as a superficial one of public relations – if humanists simply advertise their worth more effectively, he suggests, the public will accept their self-assessment at face value.

But that’s a glib analysis of a problem that goes far beyond appearances. The real problem the academic humanities face is a loss of purpose, imagination, and professionalism. No amount of PR can conceal that or make it palatable to a skeptical public – and efforts to do so risk revealing exactly how intellectually hollow the humanities currently are.

A case in point: Stanley Fish’s recent attempt to use his New York Times blog to justify the humanities. A Milton specialist who has written numerous books on literary theory, Fish is a public intellectual who has long been at the forefront of the most influential movements in the humanities. That’s why the New York Times gave him his very own online forum, “Think Again.” It’s also why his posts there routinely draw hundreds of comments from academics and lay readers.

A skilled rhetorician, Fish is exceptionally able to walk finer intellectual lines than most. So it was instructive to see him take up the perennially vexed question of the humanities in two posts at “Think Again.”


In the first, Fish observes that the humanities don’t lend themselves to standard modes of assessment. You can’t argue that the humanities are justified because they bring in money -they don’t. You can’t argue that the economy is enhanced by citizens well-versed in Shakespeare – it isn’t. You can’t argue that knowing art history is a compelling job qualification – it’s not. Nor can you argue, says Fish, that studying the humanities produces well-rounded citizens – not in a world where allusions to art and history are seen more as pretentious turn-offs than as welcome signs of cultural belonging.
Finally, Fish contends, you can’t argue that immersion in art and literature is morally uplifting – as tempting as it might be to try. Fish spends quite a bit of time on this one, in large part because he wants to answer – and discount – the thesis of Yale law professor Anthony Kronman’s new book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Kronman believes the humanities can help us confront the “crisis of spirit” caused by careerism and an over-reliance on science and technology; he suggests that the humanities enable us to “meet the need for meaning in an age of vast but pointless powers,” even to answer the “question of what living is for.” As good as this sounds, Fish says, it’s wrong.

He ends on a decisively insular note: The purpose of humanistic study, he argues, is to “enlarge” one’s knowledge of the humanities, and so enhance one’s pleasure in them. “To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?'”, Fish concludes, “the only honest answer is none whatsoever.”

Fish’s post drew hundreds of comments – as did a follow-up post a week later. Stressing that his subject is not the arts, but the professional interpretation of the arts (“not the existence of Shakespeare, but the existence of the Shakespeare industry”), he returns to the issue of pleasure. Opening with a close reading of a line from a devotional poem by the seventeenth-century Anglican poet George Herbert, Fish says his insights are their own reward: “I get something like an athletic satisfaction from the experience of trying to figure out how a remarkable verbal feat has been achieved.” The sports imagery is instructive here – not least because the poem Fish is reading is resolutely spiritual; it’s as if Fish is tacitly acknowledging how anti-intellectual and amoral his vision of the humanities ultimately is. Similarly instructive is Fish’s comparison of humanist study to solving “puzzles” – an image that reduces academic work to the level of a diverting mental game. Together, Fish’s metaphors suggest that as far as he is concerned, the purpose of the humanities is to amuse the humanist.

Fish spends more than 4000 words defending the academic humanities – and the end result is deeply indicative of the malaise that defines the field today. When those who have benefited most from the system can’t – or won’t explain what they do in anything other than self-serving and solipsistic terms; when they can’t come up with a single sincere sentence to explain to people why they should care about (and fund, and allow their children to study) the humanities; when they assume that it is acceptable to blithely parade their cynicism about their own work before a public whose tax dollars and tuition checks pay for it, there is a very serious problem.

Fish does finally offer two passing explanations for why the humanities matter – but they are so flimsy as to be unworthy of the space they take up. The humanities, Fish concedes, may help develop critical thinking skills – but he feels that the phrase “critical thinking” is meaningless, and that whatever skills it references could probably be better acquired elsewhere. Lastly, the humanities might offer the prospect of better conversation at social gatherings (an explanation he rejects as silly even as he puts it forward).

Fish is no fool, and it’s worth asking why he avoids a rationale centered on such elemental and obvious academic things as research and teaching. Surely one could argue that the academic humanities produce, preserve, and refine necessary knowledge about history, philosophy, and the arts; surely one could argue that academic humanists do invaluable work when they convey that knowledge to students, as well as when they teach the reading, writing, and reasoning skills that go along with it. And surely, too, Fish could argue that those skills are broadly useful and endlessly transferable, that they enhance one’s employability and also enable one to participate in a common cultural conversation. But Fish is mum on such points. And it doesn’t take much digging to see why.

Elsewhere on his blog, Fish has had quite a bit to say about academe’s ethical lapses.

In a series of posts over the past year and a half, Fish has argued that academics tend to misunderstand the concept of academic freedom. He has stressed repeatedly that academic freedom does not mean – as many academics, administrators, and higher education officials seem to believe – that professors are free to say and do anything they want in the classroom. Along the way, he has repeatedly conceded that professors use academic freedom as a cover for indoctrinating rather than educating. “No idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply,” he stated in July 2006. “Advocacy is just not what should be going on in a university,” he noted in March 2007. Fish acknowledged yet again the problem of “professors who use the classroom as a stage for their political views” in October 2007. Later that month, he tore into the AAUP for issuing a partisan statement on “Freedom in the Classroom” that validates the “accusation that the academy’s leftward tilt spills over into the classroom.”

Time and again, Fish has argued that academics do not reliably behave professionally – and he has observed, too, that even in official statements about professional conduct, academics seem more interested rationalizing partisan classroom conduct than in articulating clear, ethical standards. Fish knows very well what his colleagues are about. He’s even writing a book about it Save the World on Your Own Time argues that “the invasion of political agendas” into academic work has paved the way for an “extremely dangerous” conversion of the classroom into a political bully pulpit.
So it’s not surprising that Fish cannot in good faith argue that the humanities matter. It’s all very simple, really: The academic humanities have no compelling purpose without responsible humanists. These days, regrettably, the humanities’ principal purpose seems too often to be exactly what Fish says it is: to amuse, enrich, and advance academics themselves.

Erin O’Connor

Erin O’Connor is a research fellows at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

10 thoughts on “Fishing For Purpose

  1. Following your description of Fish’s logic, humanities are just a more expensive Suduko.
    Didn’t John Stuart Mill have something to say about this issue of whether “pushpin is just as good as poetry”? (quote approximate)
    Sure, Mill’s an old dead white guy, but …

  2. A degree in art history prepares one for jobs outside of academia such as dealing in art, working at an auction house (like Christie’s), working at a museum, and so on. My wife has a degree in art history, and I have one in philosophy. She has many more opportunities than I do.
    Also, the humanities include foreign languages, which are helpful outside of academia.
    By the way, I’ve never read “The Fairy Queen.” Is there some reason why I should read that rather than “The Shahnameh?” The latter would improve my knowledge of Middle Eastern culture, while the former wouldn’t.

  3. Yes, *The Fairy Queen* is by Spencer. For some reason, Shakespeare is a pass, while writers like Spencer or Milton or Pope are never really brought up — as if a dose of Shakespeare takes care of all ills.
    The issue of what constitutes an educated person is up for discussion. The issue of what constitutes “necessary knowledge” is as well. But it’s easier just to swoon over Shakespeare than to produce a rational argument for why everyone needs to read *The Merry Wives of Windsor*.

  4. Laura, why would an “educated” person have to be educated in the humanities?
    Fish has some good statements, but I disagree with his conclusion. The point of the humanities should be to develop the ability to do the types of analysis that are useful in other fields. Just as word problems in math are designed not to test the ability to do that particular calculation, but to develop math skills that can be applied to other, real calculations, historical or even literary analysis can develop reasoning skills that can be useful in decision making elsewhere.
    All this is subverted if the instructor instead tries to turn the humanities toward the promulgation of some political viewpoint or simply writes it off as “entertainment.” No one should be asked to give money for the entertainment of others. Such a program would be an insult to parents, students, donors and taxpayers alike.
    Worst of all is that idea that the main purpose of the humanities is to develop a “educated person” – to create an ability to make literary illusions in order to mark oneself as better than others. This is not merely a waste of time, but rather is counterproductive to society.

  5. I would mention by the way that The Fairy- Queen is a semi opera of Purcell based on A Midsummer’s Night Dream by Shakespeare.
    The real question is whether someone who has received merely technical training is educated or not. Of course, one could well ask if the university is the best place today to get an education in humanity… It’s possible that a trade school engineer may well be more profoundly educated than someone who has passed successfully through the factories of academe.

  6. Of course it matters.
    If the engineer is going to school to learn engineering, “The Faerie Queene” (which is Spenser, of course, not Shakespeare) won’t do him a bit of good. If he’s going to school to be an educated person who is also an engineer, then it becomes more relevant.

  7. Laura, does it matter? I mean, if it’s good to study Shakespeare, it’s good for everyone to study Shakespeare. That’s what a “good” is: a categorical imperative.

  8. O’Connor writes, “Surely one could argue that the academic humanities produce, preserve, and refine necessary knowledge about history, philosophy, and the arts; surely one could argue that academic humanists do invaluable work when they convey that knowledge to students”.
    Well, surely one *could* argue that, but one would have to actually argue it and not simply assert it. That is to say, calling what the humanities produce and teach “necessary knowledge” begs the entire question Fish raises: why is knowledge about Shakespeare necessary? Why should it be a requirement for an engineer to read *The Fairy Queen*? What *end* do we have for teaching history, philosophy, art history, or literature?
    I’m not happy with Fish’s answers, but criticizing Fish’s answers won’t answer his questions. Nor will blaming the politicization of the academy, for at least politicizing academics are *trying* to answer these big questions.

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