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Study General SUNY Albany, Stanley Fish, and the Enemy Within
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SUNY Albany, Stanley Fish, and the Enemy Within
The President of SUNY Albany has just decided to close its programs in French, Italian, Classics, Russian, and Drama.  Here’s a great idea: let’s tell him he did the right thing!


Yes, that’s just what Stanley Fish decided to do, in his much-forwarded New York Times blog post (  He writes—I kid you not—that humanistic study serves only one end: allowing professors of literature to eat.  “I have always had trouble,” he says, “believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum—that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said—but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.”

Is this supposed to help?  Let’s put it this way: if the most prominent humanists are publicly proclaiming their belief in the utter uselessness of what they do, what reason could a cash-strapped administrator possibly have for not shutting down their departments?

This is not the first time that Fish has told the world that what he does, and what we do, is completely pointless.  “To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’,” he writes ( here, “the only honest answer is none whatsoever.”  Maybe Fish doesn’t think people will take him seriously (or maybe he doesn’t care), but alas, some people have done just that.  Mark Liberman, a linguist at U Penn, picked up the line I just quoted ( and added: “Prof. Fish doesn't bring up the logically related question ‘how many faculty positions should be devoted to the humanities?’ But I will. And as he frames the issues, at least, the only honest answer is roughly one tenth of the current number.”

Fortunately—as many excellent Arcade posts, among other things, have shown—not all of us feel the same way our “friend” Stanley does.  But it’s time for all of us to get just as vocal as him.  Yes, it may be embarrassing for us to make positive claims for what we do (we’ve specialized for quite a while in making negative claims about more or less everything), but we may just have to accept a little embarrassment.  Perhaps it’s the price we’ll have to pay for heading off future Albanys.

What, then, can we tell university administrators and the world at large, beyond (as Fish suggests) pointing out their ignorance about 18th-century poetry (  Plenty.

(1) Yes, the humanities do enhance our culture.  (Fish: “it won’t do to invoke the pieties informing Charlie from Binghamton’s question — the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better.”)  In fact, it’s hard to know what culture is if it’s not things like Picassos and Pink Floyd albums and Toni Morrison novels.  Not to mention the people, like Henry Louis Gates and Michael Fried and Helen Vendler (or for that matter Sister Wendy ( or Benard Pivot or the makers of Art21 (, who help us to love those works even more.  This may not be an exciting thing for us humanists to say to each other, but it’s straightforwardly true.

(2) Yes, some of those books that people teach do contain “the best that has been thought and said.”  It should be remembered here that Fish has a very hard time distinguishing between the humanities in general and literary study in particular.  But the rest of us, I think, understand that the humanities also include, among other disciplines, that of philosophy.  Who wants to say that W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, to take just one example, is not among “the best that has been thought and said”?  I’m not in any way arguing for a core curriculum (it’s part of Fish’s polarizing thinking that you’re either a hip value-denier or a pathetic canon-defender; let’s resist that false dichotomy).  I’m just saying that people who teach DuBois (and Lao-Tsu, and Nietzsche, and de Beauvoir...), in whatever context, are doing everyone a favor.

(3) Yes, amazingly, the humanities do contribute to the economic health of the state.  (Fish: “it won’t do to argue that the humanities contribute to economic health of the state... because nobody really buys that argument.”)  Don’t get me wrong, I would hate to imply that the humanities need an economic reason.  But, well, if you want one, here it is.  Employers, it turns out (,  actually like philosophy BAs.  Sidney Harman, chairman of audio equipment company Harman International, says “Get me some poets as managers.  Poets are our original systems thinkers.”  (Mind Your Own Business, p.10)  And Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Laboratory, says “many engineering deadlocks have been broken by people who are not engineers at all...  The ability to make big leaps of thought,” he explains, “usually... resides in people with very wide backgrounds, multidisciplinary minds and a broad spectrum of experiences.” (qtd. in Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind, 132.)  These are not humanists.  These are business people.

(4) What is more, the humanities expose us to—and, very often, cause us to fall in love with—other cultures, both within our country and outside it.  Is it embarrassing to say this out loud?  Certainly.  Does it need to be said?  Apparently so.

(5) And then there's the fact that exposure to the humanities changes us, enriches us, expands our imagination, clarifies our thinking, gives new depths to our being.  Yes, even the literary humanities manage this.  Fish appears to believe ( —stunningly!—that great literary works could help us only if they provided examples for emulation in the form of heroic characters.  Has he not read his Bakhtin?  Has he not read, well, anything?

There’s much, much more to be said; please help me in saying it.  We need every voice we’ve got.
I'm glad that, in addition to several arguments about why the humanities are important or useful "in themselves," you included an account of one way that they may be economically useful.  Since some universities seem to be reorganizing themselves on a corporate, profit-driven model (a deplorable development if this account is accurate), it's hard to counteract the development of an ideological distinction between measurable economic values and humanist values (to which the discussion of universities often pays only lip service, since these values can be imagined as vague or elitist).  So it's probably useful to supplement claims about the purposes of education with economic arguments of this sort, at least as a way of making an opening in the discussion.

While this argument describes economic benefits of the humanities, an argument directly concerned with university finances was offered recently in the context of an ongoing "crisis" in the University of California system.  Robert N. Watson, a professor of English at UCLA, wrote a nice article (here: addressing the common supposition that science departments make money for universities but the humanities don't.  The UC president, Mark G. Yudof, has offered this misconception as an argument for cuts to the humanities, even asserting that humanities departments are a central problem in the UC budget crisis: "So, we have this core problem: Who is going to pay the salary of the English department?"  Prof. Watson's article refutes this assertion, partly by offering financial figures that show humanities departments generating net profits for the university (far from being subsidized by the sciences), while the much-touted government grants that make expensive science departments viable cannot be redistributed to other parts of the university.

None of this is offered as an argument against funding the sciences; but the article raises the question of why these preconceptions circulate, not only in the public but also among university administrators.  I would think that this has something to do with the crisis rhetoric of the beleaguered administrator facing a "stubborn, fiscal reality" that Yudof again deployed in his evasive but rather transparent reply (
It's happening everywhere.
This from Mary Beard's blog at TLS:
Very important topic Joshua!
A friend of mine, in a language department, has constantly had only a few students, but this number is decreasing. Her latest class, analyzing paintings, has 3 students, one of them blind (which I find quite metaphoric).
It's obviously a hard fight to keep the department from closing (which is also why I'm not mentioning the department).

As Jeremy already alluded to, this question can't be separated from the more general topic of the crisis of the university. Jeremy mentioned the UC System, and I'll remind people of T.J. Clark's address regarding the falling apart of UC Berkeley, from where he sadly lately decided to retire after seeing its continuous decline. Here's a great university going to shambles.

The crisis in the humanities is only the first visible symptom of the larger disease of people simply not understanding what universities are good for. The difference between a dept. of Biology and a research facility in a pharmaceutical company is harder to see even for many members of these departments. For those who don't know many scientific dept. are increasingly "bought" by large companies.
The concept of Tenure and what comes with it is increasingly put into question.
The increasing political and company control over the universities, their curriculum and departmental allocations.

What is Academia good for?
Less and less people understand these days. If all one wants to do is get a job why should they go to the university?
Perhaps the almost mandatory aspect of universities today has had a backlash of a disliking of the university. But I think more importantly, in a world which only understands information it is less clear for people what is Academia good for.
Suppose you ask people what would happen if today we decided to close all the universities, would people mind? If the university would be exchanged with professional schools teaching the mechanics of the job and later in-job training? I don't think so. What is this thing that Academia does? If it is only to produce better air-conditioning and medicines, which is what many people feel, then why not close it altogether. Perhaps letting everything be run by companies. (Compare with the conversation on How to do good science).

What does Academia do?
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