Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) October 13, 2010 What is wrong with Stanley Fish? Fish published an opinion piece titled "The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives" in the NEW YORK TIMES on October 11, 2010. The title of his piece refers to the official announcement by the president of SUNY-Albany that "the French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs were getting the axe."
Fish proceeds to discuss the issues involved in the announcement intelligently enough, even though one might criticize certain claims he makes. Then in the concluding paragraph, he tells us that "it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene."
I have no problem with the idea that university presidents and chancellors should proclaim such values as a way to influence influential constituencies such as legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents, and others. But what exactly should they be proclaiming? Fish does not undertake to proclaim such values himself in this piece. Nor does he refer us to the place where he himself might have proclaimed such values.
In his book SAVE THE WORLD ON YOUR OWN TIME (2008), Fish has famously debunked certain attitudes that can be found in higher education such as the admittedly big idea of promoting social justice. Because I myself am the product of Jesuit education, I am happy to report to Fish that the twenty-eight Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States have endorsed the goal of promoting social justice.
As is well known, Jesuit education started out historically as part of the larger educational movement that is known today as Renaissance humanism, which of course is rooted in classical humanism. However, not just Jesuit education derives from the educational movement known as Renaissance humanism all formal education in the history of the United States derives from it, as Martha Nussbaum correctly notes in her book NOT FOR PROFIT: WHY DEMOCRACY NEEDS THE HUMANITIES (2010). Incidentally, she has also drawn on the resources of classical humanism in her book CULTIVATING HUMANITY: A CLASSICAL DEFENSE OF REFORM IN LIBERAL EDUCATION (1997).
In the more individualistic times of recent centuries, Jesuit education aimed to promote the goal of educating students to be ethical individuals. It still does. However imperfect our efforts to educate students to be ethical individuals may be, do we Americans really want to abandon this educational goal for higher education?
Now, if you ask me, it is not surprising that the Jesuit educational tradition rooted in classical humanism would move to embrace the goal of social justice. Granted, we may not achieve social justice in the world or even in the United States in our lifetimes. Nevertheless, the goal is a defensible goal for humanity to strive for and for higher education to try to promote, however imperfectly that may be done. Granted, it is not easy to figure out ways in which individual courses might help students understand the goal. Nevertheless, it is arguably better to try to promote the goal than not to try, as Fish would have us do. As we say, better to try and fail than not to try.
But in his book Fish advances only two acceptable goals for higher educations: (1) teaching students about bodies of knowledge and traditions and (2) teaching students how to develop analytic skills. I have no problem with those two goals for higher education. But more than these two goals are needed to direct higher education, because these two goals alone would produce trickster analyzers with a veneer of learning.
But what are the larger purposes for learning about bodies of knowledge and traditions, and for developing analytic skills, Mr. Fish? If the goal of social justice strikes Fish as just so much bunk to be debunked, then perhaps the time has come to debunk the debunker.
The goal of social justice arguably provides an over-arching goal for expanding the goal of trying to develop ethical individuals. No doubt more than just a token ethics course is needed to help try to develop ethical individuals. Indeed, the entire thrust of liberal arts education is supposed to contribute to developing ethical individuals. In a similar but different way, the entire thrust of liberal arts education should contribute to promoting social justice.
But stripped of the over-arching goals of contributing to developing ethical individuals and to promoting social justice, liberal arts education flounders because it lacks over-arching goals as reasons for its existence and as reasons for students to make the effort to discipline themselves enough to study and learn difficult subject matters.