The University of Vermont

Musings from the Dean on Whether or Not
the Humanities Need Defending

I have had more than one occasion recently to feel that I needed to defend the humanities.

First, there were the recent blogs posted by Florida International University's Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor, Stanley Fish. Fish has had a distinguished career as a professor of English; he is Dean Emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago; has taught at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke; and is the author of a new book entitled Save the World On Your Own Time. Professor Fish is not questioning the value of humanistic texts; the question he poses is this: "....does the academic analysis of works of literature, philosophy and history have instrumental value?" He is talking about humanities departments, then, not about "poets and philosophers and the effects they do or do not have in the world and or on those who read them."

Then, there is the book I'm currently savoring: Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero. Fish does admit to having "wow" moments when reading great writing. Ondaatje's writing provides the reader with a multitude of those moments. The book makes me think that he must have had some wonderful humanities professors who taught him something about how to craft those jaw-dropping descriptions of context and character and those thrilling turns of phrase. But, perhaps not; perhaps he absorbed his insights into how writers do what they do from his own reading. Even if this is the case, some sort of study of texts characteristic of that done in humanities departments has to have occurred if ever so subliminally. Moreover, humanities departments have made this knowledge widely available, certainly more widely available than it would otherwise be. It is not that I think that it is craft alone that enables Ondaatje to produce such a beautiful piece of writing, but certainly analysis of works of literature has fostered the mastery of technique his work displays.

There was also election night: I was brought to tears by Barack Obama's speech. I'm sure that part of that response was the incredibly moving spectacle of the diverse slice of humanity affirming its faith in the country that infused Grant Park at around 11:00 p.m. EST; the fact that I knew my own daughter was there in the crowd; my fraught time as a resident of Hyde Park; or the vivid memories someone of my generation has of other, painful events that took place on that site. However, a critical part of the historical moment I was experiencing was the work of a skilled rhetorician. Does such rhetorical skill spring from the speaker without models? Does it rush forth from Obama's lips without an understanding of how to use alliteration and repetition effectively, for example, to connect, to convey, to motivate, to move and humanize?

Finally, as the state of Vermont by necessity shaves its contribution to the UVM budget and we administrators fret about the ability of our out-of-state students to afford to travel to Vermont for their educations rather than staying closer to home, we meet to consider what we can and should prune and how we can offer what we do as efficiently as possible without a reduction in quality. In the past, I have often had people say, usually at least with an appropriate measure of temerity, "How many kids take Greek, anyway?" I'm bracing myself.

So what is the value of the work of academic humanities departments, the parsing, judging and seeking after truth and beauty that take place therein and is an important part of what their courses of study aim to teach? Fish has, I think, constructed a "straw person" in his anger over the claims of language departments, in particular, to be able to deconstruct texts and thus deconstruct society's social ills. It is, then, only a short hop, skip and jump to claims of political and social relevancy. It is these leaps that really set him off. But why? I'm not sure I know, but there does seem to be an element of unfounded fear afoot, a desire to keep these upstarts in their place.

As a sociologist, who thinks that it is her own discipline that has a monopoly on fashioning progressive social change, I, of course, resent in occasional fits of pique the "unschooled" intrusion of the humanities onto social science turf. But if I let myself, I have "wow" moments even here. I am dazzled and intrigued by the very possibilities I resist entertaining. The initial negative impulse is the impulse of a dinosaur, a dinosaur with no sense of history, a dinosaur that should perhaps be extinct because the humanities move amoeba-like through time, coughing up new areas of study, illuminating the taken-for-granted, infiltrating other disciplines, stealing ideas and techniques they have no claim to, folding back upon themselves in meditative critique. The humanities mirror, inform, and enrich the human quest for meaning and foster the mastery of a particular array of ever-evolving techniques in service of this quest. True, the humanities have what sociologists call "functional equivalents" and aren't necessarily university-bounded. That said, it is clear to me that absent the humanities, we would be brutes.

This is because the humanities are about thought and the power of thought; they are about exploring without fear new ways of thinking; they are about learning about the relationship between form, content and relationship—they unsurprisingly plumb what it is to be human. They make both culture and the humans who create it objects to themselves and in doing so, they produce lives worth living. They are not the only venues within which this happens, but they are unique in the way that they offer these opportunities. So, on some level, I agree with Fish; the humanities are what they are; they don't need any other justification. However, they are more than Fish thinks they are, too. What they treat is not static, nor are their methods. Their focus may be of concern to some at a particular moment in history and, of course, that focus may be wrongheaded. But so what? The evidence of the intrinsic value of humanistic endeavor is everywhere, in both the arcane and the purportedly "cutting edge" analysis that is going on on this very campus as I write. Fish argues that because they have no utility, they are hard to defend in the midst of fiscal belt-tightening; I would argue that this is when the risk of brutishness is most acute; this is when we need the humanities more than ever.

Finally, let me add an interesting postscript in re utility. Princeton has recently published data on the earning power of its 2008 grads, 68.5% of whom have entered the workforce directly upon graduation. See http://paw.princeton.edu/issues/2008/10/22/pages/8383/index.xml. The classicists, as you will see, come in third, right after the computer science and electrical engineering majors. Starting salary for one of those kids who knows Greek: $68,500!

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