Oberlin Blogs

Of What Use is a Newborn Child?

March 11, 2009

John West ’10

Job Losses in Recent Recessions. Line chart shows a dip and recovery for two previous sessions, and a dip only for the current (2009) recession.

Yes, the sky really is falling. From Speaker Pelosi's office, here.



I have seen the future, and there's a non-trivial chance that, in ten years, the U.S. is going to look like the movie Mad Max. I know what you're thinking: But, John, Mad Max is an awesome film. I agree, but I'm saying the future is like Mad Max now that we know Mel Gibson is kind of crazy and possibly anti-Semitic, and I think we can all agree that is not awesome.

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, let me rephrase: we're all totally and completely [screwed].

Our economy is in the crapper; our elected officials are busy Twittering during presidential addresses and bitching about earmarks (which make up a staggering .6 percent of government spending); our fourth estate is gleefully gossiping about Michelle Obama's clothing choices and asking idiotic gotcha questions. (For example, The Times is wondering if Obama is a Socialist--a question that makes sense in light of The Communist Manifesto's exhortation that the proletariat control the means of production and implement a modest tax hike on the top income bracket.)

Yes, America is falling apart. I ran across a statistic the other day while reading the Harper's Index. "Date by which the head of Russia's foreign-service academy says the United States will have totally disintegrated : 7/4/2010." Look, I have no idea what the context is for that fact, but if the head of Russia's foreign-service academy says it, than it's probably true.

All that's left to do now is ponder what, exactly, our new dystopian future will look like. Will it be like McCarthy's The Road, complete with weird cults, cannibalism, and quasi-biblical cadence? Will it be some neo-feudal nightmare in which we all bow and scrape to whoever has guns? Will the Republicans win another election? Only time will tell just what fates await our poor souls.


But, leaving aside for the moment our coming doom, I would like to turn to things of more immediate concern.

I'm totally and completely [screwed].

Assuming I graduate from Oberlin (which, at this rate, will be in about 20 years), I'll have a B.A. in philosophy and a B.M. in historical performance. And something tells me there isn't a huge job market right now for people whose learned areas of expertise include arguing for the importance of superempirical virtues in theory choice and playing--and generally obsessing over--music that's been dead for over 250 years.

There was a time when I didn't feel so miserable about the future and sure professional disaster that it holds for me. Sure, I told myself, the banks collapsed, but people with humanities degrees can think critically, and that's always useful. I go to a respectable and generally awesome school! I get good grades! I know lots of multisyllabic words that end in '-ism' and '-ist,' and I know the names of lots of postmodern thinkers, and I can even string them all together in ways that make almost-meaningful sentences! Watch: Rorty's critique of foundationalism and its representationalist foundations helped to found a physicalist philosophy of mind.

C'mon!? Who wouldn't want to hire me?

I was happy--confident, even, in the virtues of a liberal arts education. I didn't once think of transferring into some other program or school that would make me more hirable, something like cyptozoology or "how to be a repo man."

But then a series of articles and columns in The New York Times sucked the wind out of my pro-humanities sail. (Wow! That was a terrible metaphor. Or was it a simile. Or could I have just said analogy? Do you see what three years of liberal arts education gets you?)

It started with "In Tough Times, Humanities Must Justify Their Worth," continued with "Doctoral Candidates Anticipate Hard Times," and ended with a one-two punch eloquently delivered by Stanley Fish:

To the question "of what use are the humanities?", the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. [here]


I can remember countless times when I've read a poem (like Herbert's "Matins") and said "Wow!" or "Isn't that just great?" That's more than enough in my view to justify the enterprise of humanistic study, but I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment. [here]

But, for all my gratuitous snark and jocular jadedness, I actually disagree with Fish, and I don't think the world is as bleak as all of that. For all of my bitching, I am a philosophy major and a historical performance major because I love the subjects and believe that they are important things to study.

So, if you'll allow, I'm going to try to be less of a smartass and actually give a defense of the humanities. Fortunately for me, the venerable Stanley Fish probably doesn't read this blog, and, as such, he won't call me out for my straw-man arguments and cheap shots (obscurity and mediocrity have their advantages!).


I'm going to sum up Fish's argument like this:

(1) The humanities are not "instrumental to some larger good," or, to put it differently, they are not useful outside their own insular context.

(2) In order to be justified, the humanities would have to be "instrumental to some larger good," or useful outside their own insular context.


(3) The humanities stand unjustified.

The first problem with Fish's argument is the way it exploits the ambiguity in the word humanities. Fish alternates between arguing against the humanities classes themselves and arguing against the "scholarly machinery" that surround the classes. It is not altogether clear to me that the arguments should be lumped together. It isn't necessarily the case that if a philosophy class (for example) is not instrumental to some larger good, then the "scholarly machinery" of the discipline of philosophy will not be instrumental to some larger good. Nor would the reverse seem to be the case.

To take an example from real life: my philosophy of science class is probably not all that instrumental to some larger good; rather, it seems to be mostly an intellectual exercise for the majority of the students in the class. But the philosophy of science as a discipline makes important contributions to the shape and direction of the sciences, and, by extension, contributes to "some larger good."

But looking past Fish's shifty equivocation, he seems to be using humanities to mean not those disciplines called the humanities at colleges (at least at Oberlin) but to mean a specific class of disciplines that Fish finds obnoxious. He writes:

The challenge of utility is not put (except by avowed Philistines) to literary artists, but to the scholarly machinery that seems to take those operating it further and further away from the primary texts into the reaches of incomprehensible and often corrosive theory.

Here Fish seems to be saying that the humanities are not those disciples that create primary "texts" (or performances, if I understand Fish's use of the word text). So, theater, creative writing, and performance majors, you guys are safe. Phew.

But Fish goes even further: it's those disciplines that operate at a certain distance from their primary texts that are bad, disciplines that--to quote an unnamed character in Fish's column--"parasites on the carcass of literature." So are humanities classes that deal in more direct ways with their texts not really humanities classes? How about my high school English classes, are those problematic? Are intro-level courses?

(I might say that Fish is forgetting one of the best lessons of late-twentieth-century scholarship, namely all activity in a discipline is theory-infected. In science, this means you can't make a clear distinction between observation and theory. In the humanities, this means you can't make a clear distinction between the "incomprehensible and often corrosive theory" and the text itself. Unfortunately, I'm not altogether certain that what I'm saying makes any sense whatsoever.)

The way I see it, Fish is either reducing the scope of the humanities to those disciplines that "operate further and further away from the primary texts" and do not produce primary texts, or he is claiming that only a subset of the humanities stand in need of justification. Either way, the problem is much less endemic than Fish would have you believe. His broadside is directed not at specific disciplines but at The Humanities, even though, by Fish's own admission, much of the humanities are not problematic.

And it isn't that radical to say that some disciplines in the humanities are goofy and unjustified. I make fun of certain classes and majors all the time (these classes and majors will go unnamed for obvious reasons). Everyone I know has their own pet academic field upon which they love to shit. Hell, cultural conservatives have been making a variation on Fish's point since Feminism and Women's Studies. But there is nothing in Fish's claim that certain fields in the humanities are unjustified that supports the claim that the humanities themselves are unjustified.

Lastly, I would point out that Fish is too quick to dismiss the idea that the humanities produce critical thinkers. He writes:

This, then, is critical thinking - the analytic probing of formulas, precepts and pieces of received wisdom that too often go unexamined and unchallenged. This skill, Warren Call claims, is taught in humanities courses where students "analyze ideas, differing viewpoints, justifications, opinions and accounts" and, in the process, learn how to "construct a logical assessment . . . and defend their conclusions with facts and lucid argument."

That certainly sounds like a skill worth having, and I agree that it can be acquired in courses where literary texts, philosophical arguments and historical events are being scrutinized with an eye to seeing what lies beneath (or to the side of) their surfaces. But it also can be, and is, acquired elsewhere. Right now millions of TV viewers are acquiring it when they watch Chris Matthews or George Will or Cokie Roberts analyze the current political moment and say things like, "It would be wrong to draw any long run conclusion from Hillary Clinton's victory in New Hampshire because in other states the voting population is unlikely to be 57 percent female and 97 percent white," or "If we are to understand the immigration debate, we must go back to the great waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries," or "Homelessness is not a single problem, but a nest of problems that cannot be solved piecemeal."

You can hear the same kind of thinking on sports radio, where host and callers-in debate the ingredients that go to make up a successful team. And critical thinking is what tens of thousands of preachers encourage every week in their sermons when they ask parishioners to slow down and reflect on the impulses, perhaps obscure to them, driving their everyday behavior.

So two cheers for critical thinking, but the fact that you can learn how to do it in any number of contexts means that it cannot be claimed for the humanities as a special benefit only they can supply. Justification requires more than evidence that a consumer can get a desirable commodity in your shop, too; it requires a demonstration that you have the exclusive franchise.

Aside from the snide point that I sincerely doubt that anyone can learn critical thinking from media blowhards like Chris Matthews or George Will, I don't really think that Fish's argument makes a lot of sense.

Of course, you can learn critical thinking in many different ways, but the best--or at least one of the best--ways to do it is by going to a school like Oberlin, surrounding yourself with smart people, and learning from them. Similarly, some people (maybe even I) could learn quantum mechanics by buying a book and reading it, but the most effective way for most people (I would venture) is to take a bunch of classes in quantum mechanics.


Well, this has gotten out of hand. Right now, this blog post is longer than the paper I'm supposed to be writing. My last thought is--if you've managed to make it through the previous 2,000 words--to ask what you thought of Fish's argument.

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