Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fish out of school?

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. [Update: I have to mention Polyglot's fine post as well.]

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.

Those as long as lines 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 apologetics a 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.


  1. Consider this: what would an argument-for-inutility have to sound like to convince you? That is, what appeal, other than an appeal to utility, convinces you?

    See... I think we're in the questionable habit (for a generation & a half or so) of trying to give our kids our conclusions, not the skills to reach their own. That is, we are collectively more committed to the notions that global warming is happening than we are to giving our children the ability to figure that out for themselves.

    You may have seen this?

    Student A, taught only "usefully" will certainly be able to respond to this video by saying things like the kids in the video (around the 2:15 mark). But student B, taught to think the way Fish suggests, might be able to evaluate for themselves...

    That example is speculative, nowadays, because a liberal arts education is becoming rare. But as I pointed out somewhere the other day, I have every confidence that Pres. Obama himself is the product of quite a few "useless" classes at Harvard.

    One more point: most of my friends who got "useful" degrees as undergraduates took jobs and immediately started to learn a brand new skill once they arrived under their new employer's roof. That is, a business degree very rarely prepares someone for the specific task they will find themselves charged with upon graduation... in fact most jobs have a "training period" even for college graduates. It seems that "useful" education has become little more than a stamp of institutional approval...

    But then, if you have a keen eye, you may recognize even all of THIS as a veiled appeal to long-term utility.

  2. i'll take look at the video to understand your point more fully.

    but your question: "what would an argument-for-inutility have to sound like to convince you?" misses the point i'm making. it's not inutility that bothers me. i love that education has been and still is occasionally unconcerned with application. fish's argument falls apart when he says that the determination to be inutile is important.

    even in the long term. ...that the humanities must be dedicated to work that will never be of consequence to any group or purpose outside themselves. more important than themselves.

    you say the liberal arts education is becoming rare. really? i got one. you got one. my sister got one. most of my friends got one. i have classes full of kids that are getting one ...even here at indiana's college of agriculture and mechanics.

    is it really liberal arts education, or is it just liberal arts schools that are becoming rare? (and are they really?)


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.