Twofish's Blog

January 15, 2008

Stanley Fish shows how awful academia has become…

Filed under: academia, history — twofish @ 6:53 am

There are these sad and awful writings by Stanley Fish that I think illustrate how out of touch and useless academia has become, and why we really need to rethink the entire system of higher education.

I happen to come from an intellectual tradition that believes that the role of the intellectual in society is to serve as leaders and examples for the community and to carry the eternal flame from past generations to future ones. The fundamental belief is that if people think about what they are doing, and learn from the past, that in the end society benefits. One reason I find myself outside of academia and in the world of business and commerce is that I find far more people on Wall Street who are trying to use their skills to make the world a better place than I’ve ever found in academia. Something I find shocking is that academics don’t really try to use their skills and their learning to make even academia a better place.

You can’t argue that a state’s economy will benefit by a new reading of “Hamlet.” You can’t argue – well you can, but it won’t fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum). You can talk as Bethany does about “well rounded citizens,” but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people.

Utter nonsense.

Great art and great literature let’s people try to answer or at least ask the really important questions. For example, “why do I want to be attractive to an employer?” “what does an employer find attractive?” Reading Hamlet to be personally very useful because it gives you an appreciation of irony and of tragedy which is really useful for day to day official social interactions. How is Byzantine art useful to an employer? I don’t know, maybe an expert in Byzantine art can tell me, but one thing that I’ve found is that creative people are always on the look out for something new and different and you can often find something new in something old. As far as the Thirty Years War and Gibbon, it might not be that useful when you are at parties, but it is deadly serious that you know something about history when you go to vote.

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.

That says something really, really bad about literature and philosophy departments and not something bad about literature and philosophy. Academia nowadays actually discourages people from thinking big thoughts and coming up with great ideas.

As far as the usefulness of literary analysis. Prof. Fish points to an example where he analyzes a line an in old poem. Interesting. Now the ability to do that sort of analysis comes in to be *really* useful if you start using it on a 30 second television commercial or if you are writing a 30 second television commercial. Look at any campaign ad or ad for orange juice. It’s in effect a poem that wants to get you to feel something and once you feel that something, it makes you want to go out to do something. If you can analyze what it trying to make you feel and why, then you can make more intelligent decisions about whether you really do what to do that something.

Do humanities courses change lives and start movements? Does one teach with that purpose, and if one did could it be realized?

If the answers to these questions are (as I contend) “no” – one teaches the subject matter and any delayed effect of what happens in a classroom is contingent and cannot be aimed at – then the route of external justification of the humanities, of a justification that depends on the calculation of measurable results, is closed down.

That says something bad about humanities professors and not about humanities.

Assuming that if they had been schooled in the right texts (Paul Krugman rather than Milton Friedman, Cornel West rather than William Buckley) they would have devised better policies is a fantasy, and indeed, it is the same fantasy the neoconservatives buy into when they argue that if we were to introduce radical Muslims to the writings of Jefferson, Madison and J.S. Mill, they would learn to love freedom and stop wanting to destroy us. The truth is that a mastery of literary and philosophical texts and the acquisition of wisdom (in whatever form) are independent variables.

No. This isn’t true. I doubt that anyone who has read Aristotle, Thucycides, or Gibbons would have make the same mistakes that the neoconservatives made. Also if you are widely read, you would have read the Koran and the writings of Islamic jurists to understand the culture and the mindset of the middle east. As far as introducing radical Muslims to Jefferson, Madison, and Mill, I don’t know how they would react. Give them some of those texts and start having a dialogue. Find some suicide bomber, give him a copy of Jefferson, and ask “what do you think about this?” I’m pretty sure that the answer to that is going to be more useful than if you try drowning him.

I should point out that this is a shockingly simplistic notion of what it means to be educated. Because educated means *reacting* to texts, not merely passively absorbing them. It means being part of a conversation with the author even if the author has long since been dead. Someone who is educated makes what they read part of them, even if they disagree with it.  It’s not a matter of the “right texts” or the “wrong texts”.  It’s a matter of being exposed to a wide variety of contradictory information and trying to make some sense out of it.  Someone really can’t claim to have been educated in economics for example, unless they’ve tried to read both Adam Smith and Karl Marx (Marx is more fun to read the Smith).

1 Comment »

  1. The difference is between higher education, and the institutions of higher education.

    In my generation, those institutions seem mostly to be in the business of selling credentials to undergraduates, while promoting minute over-specialization in graduates. Neither business contributes much to the purposes of higher education.

    It’s a hard problem to fix. Graduates must over-specialize in order to pursue an academic career.

    Meanwhile, a steady “credentials inflation” has taken place in an increasingly competitive job market. So many people go to academic institutions needing to obtain credentials for their job market credentials bidding-war. The universities have tried to make the most of this burgeoning market.

    I don’t know how we can fix these problems with contemporary institutions of higher education.

    Comment by Roland — January 24, 2008 @ 12:39 am

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