Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Decline and Fall of the Humanities

Allow me to join Stanley Fish’s nostalgia-fest on the occasion of the demise of several Humanities departments at the State University of New York, Albany. Link here.

As its president just announced, SUNY, Albany will no longer have departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian, or theater.

Fish comments: “For someone of my vintage the elimination of French was the shocker. In the 1960s and ’70s, French departments were the location of much of the intellectual energy. Faculty and students in other disciplines looked to French philosophers and critics for inspiration; the latest thing from Paris was instantly devoured and made the subject of conferences.”

Having been involved in such efforts myself, I can attest to the accuracy of Fish’s recollection. In the midst of the Viet Nam War counterculture many of us looked to France for inspiration and new ideas.

We may not have understood what we were getting involved with, but French departments were where it was happening. When you are young, what matters is where it is happening.

Not only did these departments give us deconstruction, critical theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes, but they also encouraged those of us who were working in to narrow confines of the literary world to expand our horizons.

As we know now, it was a mixed blessing. I myself started working my way out of French thinking many years ago. Others have not been as fortunate, or, if I may say so, as prescient.

Humanities departments have been infested with the bastard offspring of French criticism. They have been taken over by political correctness.

You lie down with totalitarian thinkers and you get up thinking that you must impose your politically correct opinions on the mass of humanity. If that doesn't work, then you must impose it on your students.

As I have mentioned on the blog, and as is well known, Franco-Germanic thought is not the same thing as Anglo-American political and economic philosophy. Get too close to the first and you are going to become an inveterate critic of the latter, especially its emphasis on free markets, free thought, and free trade.

If you live in the university system, you can lull yourself into complacency by thinking that your world does not function according to free market principles.

Which might turn out to be the greatest of the grand academic illusions.

Now, the president of SUNY, Albany has shown us that the free market in ideas has caught up with the Humanities.

Stanley Fish notes correctly that the Humanities need defenders. But who is going to defend them, and against whom.

Fish charges academic administrators with the task of defending the Humanities: “But it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.”

As much as I admire Stanley Fish, he is begging the question here.

He has overlooked the fact that, for the past four decades, many leading academic humanists have not been defending the great traditions of our culture.

They have deconstructed the great tradition; they have trashed the canon. In their classrooms the great intellectual and artistic achievements of Western civilization have been reduced to propaganda vehicles whereby powerful interests have oppressed and exploited the weak and feeble among us.

Sad as it may be, but to say it in terms that only a true academic humanist would understand: they are hoist on their own petard.


David Foster said...

ONE job of university admninistrators is to publicly defend the value of the liberal arts; another job, and the one that should come first, is to ensure that the liberal arts are actually being taught in meaningful form at their universities.

In the business world, there are executives who fail to understand that *marketing* is not a synonym for *advertising and sales promotion*, but rather encompasses defining the product or service such that someone might actually want to buy it. The same critique applies even more to university administrators, who are mostly focused on fund-raising and PR and seem mostly to have very little concern with the actual effectiveness of their institutions.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Great point, thank you, David.

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: Another Truism, Revealed

They have deconstructed the great tradition; they have trashed the canon. In their classrooms the great intellectual and artistic achievements of Western civilization have been reduced to propaganda vehicles whereby powerful interests have oppressed and exploited the weak and feeble among us. -- Stuart Schneiderman

How about THIS....

A fool's brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence University education. -- George Bernard Shaw

So many 'fools' in higher education. Not just the students, either.


[Education, n., Replacing an empty mind with an open one.]

P.S. Or so it used to be. Now it's a 'closed' one....

Chuck Pelto said...

P.P.S. Addendum

Philosophy into Folly: What Stuart is addressing in the item.

Science into Superstition: What Stuart is addressing one door down the hall from here.

Art into Pedantry: Likely something Stuart addressed before I became familiar with this site. Or maybe something coming soon.

Proud Hindu said...

What type of job can a degree in the "humanities" or "liberal arts" get you in today's economy?

For those who want to study French or classical intellectual thought from France, they can do so on their own time and dime - quite cheaply on the net or otherwise.

I don't think it's a good idea to spend thousands of dollars on an education that is not going to get you a decent job in today's world.

I'm a lover of Asian philosophies but I wouldn't spend thousands on studying them and raking up debt unless I was planning on becoming a professor of such. So I self-taught and also studied at the feet of gurus (for free).

I saved those thousands of $$$ so that I could travel to and around Asia, not sit in a stuffy classroom and read about it.

Stuart, since you are the Official Lady Gaga Anti-Fan, check this out:


Pretty demented stuff.

David Foster said...

Michael Hammer, a renowned and (and actually intelligent) management consultant, strongly advocated the importance of the liberal arts, *in conjunction with hard sciences and technologies*, for those aspiring to executive position. For liberal arts, was talking about traditional, substantive disciplines. Here's my excerpt of his ideas.

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: Please Pardon....

....my blatant christianity, but I'm suddenly reminded....God only knows WHY....of an old 'comment'. Something suggested thousands of years ago. Had to do with 'itchy ears'. And how so many misguided people would seek after 'new ideas'. Just because they were 'new'.

Why is it that I'm seeing something akin to Stuart's observations about Freud, a few doors down the hall from here? Vis-a-vis the 'Fall of the Humanities'?


[There is nothing 'new' under the Sun. -- the Old Philospher]

Retriever said...

Undergraduate colleges are not supposed to be trade schools. That's what you go to a vocational school, or to med school/law school/business school etc. after college for.

People are dumbing down colleges to the lowest common denominator, in much the same way as public library collections now are replenished and culled based purely on the basis of what is popular, and what circulates a lot. Throwing out Aeschylus but buying more copies of Danielle Steele.

It is deemed elitist and arrogant to promote the good, the true, the beautiful, and to preserve and promote the same against the forces of cultural barbarism.

I'm old fashioned. I believe in core curricula that include the Classics, Greek or Latin, the story of the European Renaissance and Reformation, at least one European Language (not Spanish, as everyone capable of breathing has to learn that now), Biology, Statistics, Economics, Expository Writing, U.S. History, Western Philosophy, etc. etc.

There is nothing (except the technology and the scenery) going on in politics now that one couldn't gain insight into by studying the Greek and Roman classics.

Also, the colleges need to teach remedial (ie: non PC) history to students who are taught by battle phobic teachers who focus on peaceful farmers and avoid the subject of war. And who believe that George Washington Carver was of equal significance to Thomas Jefferson in the history of the US.

Part of the problem is that high school students nowadays have so many choices in courses, that they do not get thru a decent core curriculum, so they arrive at college ignorant about their own history and certainly about that of Western civilization but vaguely believing that recycling is a good thing, all people are pretty much the same and talking it out is GOOD, and it is Bad Nasty and Horrid for the US to try and impose its will or have an Army. But chill to play bloodthirsty shooter games, in the dark indoors and never get any exercise oneself.

Sorry to rant, but the point of the humanities is to make the rest of one's nasty, brutish, short life more meaningful and bearable. Most people are wage slaves, utterly at the mercy of their employer's whims these days, and it helps a great deal to have a classical education and some perspective.

Turning out employable students is a separate task. That involves part time and summer time work, career counselling, and advice on projects and independent research in internships. Most colleges do an abominable job at this. Even the the most diligent and resourceful student needs advice and planning help.

If a person is limited academically, there are obviously many technical skills they can and should learn that would be far more useful to them in future than flunking out of college courses they are not suited to. Part of our trouble is that we aren't willing to admit that not everyone is suited to college.

RKV said...

The notion of the university as the repository of the true, beautiful and good is a fiction.

The first university in Europe (Bologna) started as a law school (canon law that is). Other early medieval universities (Paris, Padua, Cambridge, Oxford) had a mixed curriculum of Arts, Medicine, Law, and Theology, which is to say at least 3 out of four faculties were "professional" i.e. "trade schools." Instruction in the "arts" consisted of a curriculum of grammar, rhetoric, mathmatics, music, theology, and astronomy and was required to get into the professional schools (in a model that stands unto this day).

As much as I enjoy the humanities, and have profited (intellectually) from my studies in the same, economic reality has to take hold. We graduate way too many college students, and as noted the quality and rigor of the education has slumped (unsurprisingly). Community colleges and trade schools need to be the destination of many more students, rather then burden them with debt for the rest of their working lives. The way to cut education costs, btw, is to remove state subsidies (loans, grants, research contracts) and privatize higher education altogether. At that point the unions will have no where to go to extort their gold-plated pensions from the public till. The humanities will survive, albeit on a reduced scale. I mean how many professors of Scandinavian languages do we need in the US, anyway? I'm not suggesting the answer is zero, but the number probably doesn't exceed 10, at least given modern pedagogy (the web).

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the remarks. The major problem with the humanities today is that they are not teaching the humanities. If they were teaching Aeschylus and Aristotle, and working to help students to appreciate the wisdom of past canonical authors, I believe that more students would be taking the courses.

As RKV points out it would be amazing if undergraduate colleges taught grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Certainly, these all involved philosophy.

And it would be better if students were required to add study of the next four courses: music, astronomy (i.e. hard science), geometry, and arithmetic.

All of these studies have considerable value as preparation for different career paths. Not all of them are part of the humanities. Math and science are clearly not. But then again, how many college students today have really studied these ancient liberal arts?

Of course, these subjects might also be well beyond the interest or capacity of many college students. I certainly agree that many young people who are in college today would do better to go to trade school, incur far less debt, and learn a thoroughly marketable skill.