The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives

By STANLEY FISH

Excerpt from:  NY Times Opinionator Blog

Stanley Fish on education, law and society.

In a response to last week’s column on “Howl,” the movie about Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, Charlie from Binghamton asked, “What happened to public investment in the humanities and the belief that the humanities enhanced our culture, our society, our humanity?” And he speculated that it “will be a sad, sad day if and when we allow the humanities to collapse.”

What he didn’t know at the time is that it had already happened, on Oct. 1, when George M. Philip, president of SUNY Albany, announced that the French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs were getting the axe. For someone of my vintage the elimination of French was the shocker. In the 1960s and ’70s, French departments were the location of much of the intellectual energy. Faculty and students in other disciplines looked to French philosophers and critics for inspiration; the latest thing from Paris was instantly devoured and made the subject of conferences.

Spanish was then the outlier, a discipline considered stodgy and uninteresting. Now Spanish is the only safe department to be in. Russian’s stock has gone down, one presumes, because in recent years the focus of our political (and to some extent cultural) attention has shifted from Russia to China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq. Classics has been on the endangered species list for decades. As for theater, the first thing to go in a regime of bottom-line efficiency are the plays.

And indeed, if your criteria are productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction, it makes perfect sense to withdraw funds and material support from the humanities — which do not earn their keep and often draw the ire of a public suspicious of what humanities teachers do in the classroom — and leave standing programs that have a more obvious relationship to a state’s economic prosperity and produce results the man or woman in the street can recognize and appreciate. (What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, “What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?” Nothing.)

President Philip cites as one justification for his action the fact “that there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs.” Of course, in a bygone time seats in those programs’ classes would have been filled by students who were meeting quite specific distribution requirements; you remember, two advanced language courses, one course in American lit and another in British lit, and so on.

Those requirements have largely gone away. SUNY Albany does have general education requirements, but so many courses fulfill them — any one of dozens will meet your humanities requirement — that they are hardly a constraint at all, something the Web site acknowledges and even underlines with pride. This has happened in part because progressive academics have argued that traditional disciplinary departments were relics from the past kept artificially alive by outmoded requirements.

But keeping something you value alive by artificial, and even coercive, means (and distribution requirements are a form of coercion) is better than allowing them to die, if only because you may now die (get fired) with them, a fate that some visionary faculty members may now be suffering. I have always had trouble believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum — that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said — but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists. But the point seems to be moot. It’s too late to turn back the clock …

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