I should probably repent of many of the things I've said about education. But only because I think I probably sounded like Stanley Fish.
His fears have been the topic of much discussion lately, and for a while I dabbled in tentative comments because I found myself confused about how to read his recent blog post/book review.
Friends have commented on it and pointed at it and commented still more on it. Mr Verb has given it the twice over, and Mark Liberman has decided to fry him some Fish too.
I would suggest reading all of these of course. But especially the comments on Liberman's piece where there has been an excellent ex-change of ideas. (I put that hyphen in there for you Santos and now I feel like a filthy whore.)
Two ideas that I reject: 1) That education should try to not be utile. 2) That the humanities are in danger.
Regarding the first:
The differences between basic and applied science are not all clear. Fish embraces the argument that the difference between applied skill and basic theory is an important one. And I can agree, if only because finding those differences will foster beneficial, and perhaps merely interesting, discussion. Categorization is a fine practice. I have no problem with the pursuit of delineations. The imposition of delineations is less valuable to me.
So the insistence on
inutility as a requirement is ridiculous. Fish's definition of theory, or
learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining (Oakeshott's words) is:
understanding and explaining anything as long as the exercise is not performed with the purpose of intervening in the social and political crises of the moment, as long, that is, as the activity is not regarded as instrumental – valued for its contribution to something more important than itself.
as long aslines get me. Why not say even if there is no purpose of intervention? There is no reason to insist that no useful goal be present. Even if that goal has political implications. Insisting on non-instrumental study is only necessary if we don't trust the scholars to reach worthy understanding. With such insistence Fish has already judged theories and creations that he has not yet seen or known.
Fish is setting the stakes around a perfectly fine pursuit: aesthetics that survive without apologetics. This could be simply because he would like that pursuit of happiness protected. It could also be because he believes education needs it. But his argument must then snake around to its point. Such a scholarly path is useless by his own demand. So why does he argue it's important? For its own sake. And why should we care about its own sake? Is it an important type of scholarship? To whom? To the people who do it. Can it be important to anyone else? No. So why should anyone else care? They shouldn't.
This is of course a false argument I've made. I'm counting on importance being identical to utility. But my disagreement stands. Fish's insistence on purposeful purposelessness relies on intrinsic importance. But his defense of intrinsic importance does not adequately indict utility. Unless he believes that utility or an effective agenda is incompatible with intrinsic importance his argument has set the protective stakes wider than necessary. He seeks to turn a right into an obligation. He believes that without intent indifference the right and opportunity to indifference will be lost. Again — that's only a problem if one believes that inutility bestows a value that utility destroys.
Since I don't think it does, I come to my second point: that the humanities are not in danger.
The proportion of tenure track faculty to adjuncts and graduate instructors is changing. Universities are bigger and more inclusive than they used to be. Our population has grown and a greater percentage of citizens is getting a university education. Small seminars in padded chairs are reserved for a small and dedicated group of teachers and students.
This change in proportion doesn't signal an extinction, just a wider demographic within the ivory tower's blast zone. And while those groups used to have more of the campus to themselves, they now have to share the quad. But no one is telling them to leave. This is only a problem for future Professors Fish if they insist on being the only game in town. And if they're determined to be useless there's no reason to lament their replacement by people who do gorgeous work and don't mind if it serves a purpose greater than itself.
I've changed a line in this post: In calling
aesthetics that avoid apologeticsa
fine pursuit,I seem to contradict my criticism of Fish's agenda. Avoid implies more intention I meant to indicate. I changed the line to
aesthetics that survive without apologetics.Still, it's not the best line.