Fish: Value of arts, humanities found in pleasure we take in them


Stanley Fish, a columnist for The New York Times and professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, speaks at Monday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

Stanley Fish, professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, read and analyzed George Herbert’s poem “The Forerunners” during his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater.

The poem, found in 1633’s The Temple, depicts a struggle with senility and the loss of the mastery of language. The poem reads: “True beautie dwells on high: ours is a flame/ But borrow’d thence to light us thither./ Beautie and beauteous words should go together.”

Fish, the second lecturer in Week Four’s topic on “A Case for the Arts,” is also a columnist for The New York Times. He used this poem in support of his argument for keeping liberal studies as college graduation requirements. Without the study of humanities, he said, cultural artifacts would be lost.

“I hope you agree with me that ‘The Forerunners’ is an amazing poem,” Fish said once he had finished a 20-minute reading and analysis. “I would even call it a supreme achievement of mind. It’s really good. But, our question today is, ‘What’s it good for?’”

He said it further begs the question of whether funding used to pay humanities professors is justified.

Fish said a popular argument for the humanities is that they inspire critical thinking. On that subject, Fish mentioned the writings of Victor Farrell, who said there’s no ground in arguing that humanities inspire good thinking any more than another subject.

As true as it is that college graduates make more money on average in a lifetime than those who stop at high school, Farrell wrote that this fact refers to all college educations, not specifically liberal arts.

Another argument that Farrell disputed is that liberal arts educations build oral and writing skills. He said the same skills can be learned from a vocational education or education earned from the workplace.

Finally, Farrell also argued against the assertion that, because most people these days will have several careers over their lifetimes, a liberal arts education will prepare students for later life.

He wrote of an imaginary man, John, who runs a bike shop, then works at Volume Communications, Inc. and finally becomes a sales executive. Farrell questioned how studying English literature, philosophy or French helps in those fields.

“But you’ve got to remember that Farrell is a defender and lover of the humanities,” Fish said, “and yet he runs through every argument for supporting them in the universities and finds each argument wanting.”

The question, Farrell wrote, is how to prove that studying the humanities is useful when the subject itself is not. Farrell said liberal arts colleges would need a large-scale, long-term public relations campaign — but based on the actions of those colleges in the past, that would prove unsuccessful. Fish agreed.

Fish said these ideas directly counter the ideas of Richard Brodhead and John Rowe, the co-chairs of the American Academy Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Brodhead, who also serves as president of Duke University, said businesses recognize the following from liberal arts educations: communication skills, cross-cultural understanding, history and an understanding of personal values and the social good.

Rowe, who also serves as chairman and executive officer of Exelon Corporation, said excellence in the sciences is “inextricably linked with the humanities.”

Fish said this claim is unsupportable and is thus unviable.

Fish said as long as the commission thinks like this, it will “produce nothing.”

“The demand for justification is always a demand that something be justified in terms not its own,” he said. “Nothing in the commission’s (goal) acknowledges that the arts and humanities might operate according to their own terms or that these terms might be the basis both of the value they have and of the pleasure we take in them.”

Indeed, he said, people enjoy the arts and humanities. There wouldn’t be theater, music, poetry readings, book clubs, dance festivals or art shows if that weren’t the case. The Chautauqua Institution itself, he said, is the perfect example of this point.

Still, Fish said, there’s a question of why there needs to be academic departments in universities dedicated to these subjects.

“So the question is, how do we justify not the existence of ‘The Forerunners,’ but the academic study of ‘The Forerunners’?” Fish said.

The poem, he said, doesn’t supply a life lesson to most people; it doesn’t inspire its readers into becoming responsible democratic citizens; it doesn’t enhance the life of the mind. The audience stirred at these assertions.

As these are common justifications of humanities education, Fish probed the audience for the answer. What justification can be provided?

He said the understanding of poems like “The Forerunners” can only be achieved with a background in the humanities. To keep alive the culture, those who study the culture must have a place in society and in the university.

“If the study of the arts and the humanities is to be justified,” Fish said, “it will be because it keeps alive and refurbishes glorious human artifacts that might well be lost or less available to future generations if they were no longer taught.”

Q: Who was your best teacher and why?

A: That’s an interesting question. I’d have to say my best teacher was a teacher I had in Classical High School in Providence, R.I., where I grew up. Classical High School, just as it sounds, is a high school built on the Boston Latin model, where we had four years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German and some adventurous souls — I was not one of them — also took Greek in addition to the other usual subjects. I had an English teacher by the name of Sarah Flanagan who simply inspired me to become interested in the kinds of questions and problems that came up in her class.

Q: Why do you forbid The New York Review of Books in your home?

A: Well, there’s something called the New York Intellectual World, which is a world that Tom Wolfe satirized in one of his novels and a world which has often been satirized in movies. It’s a lot of bright people, well-dressed, but well-dressed in a kind of respectably seedy way, standing around in an apartment either in Greenwich Village or on the Upper West Side and talking brightly about the plight of the poor, or of the horrible state of things in some foreign country, and then offering bromide solutions and philosophical disquisitions which usually begin with Hegel. I just hate the feel and smell of it. Is that enough?

Q: This question is referring to a specific university, but I think we should expand it beyond a particular place. What, if anything, could have been done to prevent the removal of foreign language programs from this university and what can we do to bring back these programs?

A: That must be our old friend, SUNY Albany, where it was announced brightly by the president that they’re going to ax, meaning get rid of, goodbye, “go birds of spring,” French, Italian, Russian, theater and classics. OK. What can be done? Well, the first thing that can be done, and I mean this quite seriously, is don’t hire a president like that. There is a movement, which is, I think, increasing in its acceleration, to look to business executives or industrial executives for senior positions in the academy. Now the reasons for this are superficially cogent. First of all, as the university and college world becomes more and more cash-strapped, it makes more sense to hire a CEO who is a CEO, who knows what it means to be a CEO. Another cogent reason given is that academics themselves are not trained in large-scale management, but I think that these advantages that a CEO from another field might bring the organization of a college or university are far outweighed by a simple fact: In colleges and universities, as in other institution structures, everything depends on what and who is at the top, because the entire atmosphere, the way of everyday feeling that pervades the institution, stems from the top. If you have at the top someone who is not himself or herself absolutely invested in the enterprise because he or she has taught in the enterprise, written about it, done work that has earned graduate degrees, I … think that if you have someone who doesn’t have that experience and yet has all of the business acumen in the world, it’s going to be a disaster, because when push comes to shove, and judgments have been made, that person will not have an intimate knowledge of what he or she is supposed to be judging.

Q: This is a teacher of humanities, who has a master’s degree from SUNY Albany, who wants to know: How do I encourage my career-driven 17-year-old students to love learning for the sake of knowledge instead of for a specific job?

A: Well, we had a discussion last evening before we went to bed — several people discussing education and teaching — and I made a point that I’ve often made, which is that the way in which you teach is a function of your personality. There are many methods of teaching that will produce the results, but not all those methods are available to every one of us, because our personalities are suited to some methods and not to others. You’ll not be surprised that my method could be described as a combination of shock treatment and saturation bombing. So that the first thing I tell my students, and this is not a recommendation — some of you could never do this, and I could never do some of the things that you can do — the first thing I tell my students, no matter what the class is, is I haven’t the slightest interest in any opinion you have ever had about anything. And I don’t want to hear them, although I will want to hear what you have to say of a relevant kind about the materials we study. That’s enough at the beginning, because students have often been taught or told or allowed to believe that the reason they’re in a college classroom is so that they can express themselves. So that’s one thing; they come in with a certain set of attitudes. Also, here’s something I recommend. I sound like — you know the Click and Clack brothers? They’re always saying at the end of the program, “This is NPR,” even though when so and so hears it … well, when I say this, my wife cringes in the same way. I say, I always like shame and humiliation as good pedagogical techniques at the beginning; get things started in the right direction. When I first became chairman of the English department at Duke, one of my colleagues, after about six weeks, said, “Are we going to have a meeting in which we fashion bylaws?” And I replied, “No bylaws. My laws.”

Q: Are Great Books programs the answers?

A: Great Books programs are part of an answer. I think Great Books programs have an appeal. I think Great Books programs work well in small colleges. I haven’t said very much about the difference between institutional education and institutional draw, but the difference is vast. If you have the small liberal arts college where students know each other and instructors know all of the students and students know all the instructors, the campus is quite small, then the Great Books education will often serve as the glue that holds the entire enterprise together. That kind of education also used to serve a social function. It used to provide what sociologists call social capital. If you want a Great Books education, then you entered society either in the business world or medical world or political world, and you were able to refer with familiarity and ease to Milton or Herbert or George Elliott or Homer or Virgil or Goethe or Tolstoy. You were then, in fact, carrying a piece of currency that stood you in good stead. I don’t think that’s any longer the case. I think if you find yourself in certain kinds of business and even political environments today, and start talking about Herbert’s “The Forerunners,” you will soon be the only person in the room.

Q: How much of this is going to be on the test?

A: I don’t give tests, but I require papers.

– Transcribed by Elora Tocci

There are 2 comments

  1. Stanley Fish and Rejecting the Call for Justification « QuestionsPresented

    […] The Chautauquan Daily has complete coverage of Fish’s lecture on understanding the role of the arts and of studying the arts in contemporary society. In particular, Fish is concerned with those in and out of higher education who seek to defend the liberal arts approach to education against its critics. In a very well-crafted lecture, Fish rejected the usual arguments of the defenders of humanities education: that it inspires critical thinking, builds oral and writing skills, prepares students for later life, fosters cross-cultural understanding, and generally makes for a better citizenry. […]

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