Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A letter from "Will the Humanities Save Us?"

I ran into this interesting discussion provoked by Stanley Fish's column in which he takes up and discusses an argument by Anthony Kronman in his book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. The main question seems to be how to argue for the meaning of the humanities without basing your argument on some kind of utility. Citation from Fish, who is citing Kronman:

"[...] Kronman is not so much mounting a defense of the humanities as he is mounting an attack on everything else. Other spokespersons for the humanities argue for their utility by connecting them (in largely unconvincing ways) to the goals of science, technology and the building of careers. Kronman, however, identifies science, technology and careerism as impediments to living a life with meaning. The real enemies, he declares, are “the careerism that distracts from life as a whole” and “the blind acceptance of science and technology that disguise and deny our human condition.” These false idols, he says, block the way to understanding. We must turn to the humanities if we are to “meet the need for meaning in an age of vast but pointless powers,” for only the humanities can help us recover the urgency of “the question of what living is for."

Fish does not agree with this idea of secular humanism where the examples of action and thoughts presented in the classic works of literature, history, philosophy etc. are believed to have an enobling effect on the reader, because they create a desire to emulate them. Here's how Fish argues his point:

"It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge."

Fish concludes his column by stating that "the humanities are their own good" and that they cannot or should not be justified by any outside perspective. Humanities for humanities sake, then.

What puzzles me is the idea that the enobling effect of humanism is based on emulating. Only on emulating? This seems to be too simplisistic a view on how for example the literary works "work", effect the reader.

So Fish seems convincing in his arguments, but I get a feeling that there is something "fishy" here. To use the teachers and students in literary departments as examples of why the premise of emulation does not hold seems in some way too easy, almost stupid. But then of course Fish wants to make the distinction between religion, which "saves" us, and science which educates us and helps us to develop certain skills, like rhetorical analysis.

But I cannot - at least not yet - agree with Fish that the only possible argument for the meaning of the humanities is "art for art's sake". But what then? It is true that Kronman's idea is well, just idealistic. But but but... I have to admit to thinking that he is not totally of the track, either.

(Some blogposts responding to Fish's column are also worth reading.)

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