Stanley Fish on the End of the Humanities

My reply on the Times website:

Well, just lucky, or just acquiescent, I suppose.

The instrumentalization of the university isn’t a necessary or inexorable fate. It’s part and parcel of a culture that deems profit the highest good, and inquiry the pastime of effete “elites” who spend their days in meaningless debate on exegesis of “non-essential” texts.

What the financial and economic crisis now unfolding shows us, I hope, is that practicality as an end in itself isn’t really that practical, that at the end of the day, reasoned and thorough debate on issues that affect each of us profoundly is as important as the business cycle or technological advancement. Take philosophy, for instance. Once the queen of the sciences, it has, as you suggest, assumed a position at the margins, deemed thoroughly impractical by those who move the levers of commerce and fundraising. But is the work of Kant, whose ethics caution against willing an end that is not universal, or Adorno, who (rightfully) fulminated against the idiocies of mass culture, or Habermas, who provided valuable if flawed insights into the nature of the transformative and toxic mixture of media/business/government, really useless in contemporary society?

I would argue no, and I would hope that any defenders of free inquiry would agree with me. At the end of the day, the humanities play a critical role in directing and regulating contemporary discourse. To dismiss them as old hat or as useless in a “globalized economy” is to admit that the modus vivendi of profit/success maximization is indeed the greatest good. The universities ignore this at their own peril. I have no doubt that a greater number of universities will abandon their obligations to direct inquiry toward the pursuit of the good life, which, as Aristotle reminds us, is the ultimate pursuit of philosophy. But anyone with an intellect can see through the ruse of the free market ideology, and can dare to ask what the world should be like, even if the answer is “impractical.”

Practicality in itself is meaningless if not directed toward some higher pursuit. The goal of the humanities is to do just that, and if the universities fail, alternate avenues of discourse will open up. Your column is disappointing in this respect, Professor Fish — that you don’t wager a defense of the humanities, but complacently bemoan that times were good while you were around, while those of us who are young (I’m 23) should have no hope for the future of critical inquiry. It may be a burlesqued trope that the humanities “broaden minds,” but I would argue that the value of the humanities lies in their willingness to challenge the illusion of political and economic consensus, to point the way to pursuits that have nothing to do with productivity or profit.

Critical inquiry is one of few goods-in-itself, and it will be a sad day when the institutions which exist to safeguard the opportunity to pursue such inquiry relinquish their responsibilities.


~ by Benji on 19 January 2009.

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