Humanists, despise thyselves

Stanley Fish has a depressing review of Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors:  The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, posted a few days ago. An excerpt:

Stanley Fish--Courtesy of Indiana University

Stanley Fish--Courtesy of Indiana University

In “ two or three generations,” Donoghue predicts, “humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.”

How has this happened? According to Donoghue, it’s been happening for a long time, at least since 1891, when Andrew Carnegie congratulated the graduates of the Pierce College of Business for being “ fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting” rather than wasting time “upon dead languages.”

Industrialist Richard Teller Crane was even more pointed in his 1911 dismissal of what humanists call the “life of the mind.” No one who has “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness . . . are those who are useful.”

The opposition between this view and the view held by the heirs of Matthew Arnold’s conviction that poetry will save us could not be more stark. But Donoghue counsels us not to think that the two visions are locked in a struggle whose outcome is uncertain. One vision, rooted in an “ethic of productivity” and efficiency, has, he tells us, already won the day; and the proof is that in the very colleges and universities where the life of the mind is routinely celebrated, the material conditions of the workplace are configured by the business model that scorns it.

I find especially delicious Crane’s quotation.  It reminds me of a friend in college who gave the following definition of an English major:  Someone who makes life more difficult than it really is.  The obvious riposte, of course, is that the English major sees the deep and underlying difficulties of life that no man or woman has seen before.  Doctoral dissertations can be written on Love Story and on Goodnight Moon, if one only knows how to go about seeing and reading in the right way.  And I suppose the obvious riposte to Crane is that a man with a taste for literature is not so interested in happiness, narrowly construed, after all.  We delight in being morose, in thinking deep thoughts, and in being sadder for it.  Of course, we wish the world would recognize the legitimacy of our sadness and reward it with wine and women, and extensive paid vacations on the French Riviera–but in most respects a knowing melancholy is its own reward.

I thought I should also note the titles of several other Crane texts, published between 1909 and 1911:  “The Futility of Higher Schooling,” “The Futility of Technical Schools” and “The Demoralization of College Life.”  Crane apparently saw a lot of futility in education.  And Donogue takes the current state of higher education as evidence that the Cranes and Carnegies of the world have really at last won the day.

I’ll be the last to say that Donoghue doesn’t have a point.  And it does seem to me that faculty often make their cases for their pet projects or their majors or their departments with a lack of awareness–or perhaps interest–in the facts of how institutions are run as institutions.  Almost as if their paychecks appear miraculously in the bank every month and don’t come from clearly defined and self-replicating economies that make the traditional project of education for its own sake increasingly precarious.  [Ok, now I’ve alienated faculty members and clearly deserve to die].

Still, there’s counter evidence.  All in all, humanities remain relatively robust.  My colleague, Joseph Huffman, pointed out that today’s Chronicle of Higher Education that the ARts and Humanities continue to produce over 13% of the college and university graduates in the United States, trailing the Business and Professional fields, to be sure, but well ahead of the sciences and most others.  Hardly the fainting violet that everyone takes the Humanities to be these days.  Even in the stuff that Fish-Donoghue present, there’s reason to hope.  Should it not say something that people have been saying this kind of thing for 100 years, or more?  That is,  does the fact that Crane could say this kind of thing 100 years ago point to the ultimate triumph of his point of view, or to the remarkable endurance of certain kinds of humanistic educational ideals, the ideal that it is better to know–oneself, one’s fellows, one’s world–than to not know?  That ignorace, far from bliss, is a failing of our purpose;  to learn, to explore, to develop the mind that God gave us is surely part of our vocation as human beings.  Maybe this latest sense of humanistic despair and crisis is merely one more chapter in an ongoing saga.  It is, in many respect, our secularized version of the Christian divide over works and grace.  Americans for the most part have little use for grace and celebrate the man who works his own way in to heaven–or wealth, or political influence, or whatever.  The old line humanists among us, like Stanley Fish, insist that our real goal in life is no worldly good at all.

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