Thursday, January 22, 2009

Last professor?

Quite a few people have recommended Stanley Fish's post, The Last Professor, whose grim thesis is that humanities in US universities are about to become extinct. There is some empirical evidence for this thesis, and Fish cites statistics about the decline in the number of full time faculty members, and a rise in adjuncts. What is even more grim is Fish's characterization of the enterprise of humanities: "determined inutility."

Let me just say that I found Mark Liberman's response to be much better:

Determined inutility is one thing — Prof. Fish is free to choose that path if he wants to — but determined ignorance of history is something else again.

It's odd for a scholar to throw around phrases like "today's educational landscape" as if contemporary economic and cultural forces were laying siege to institutions that were founded and managed as ivory towers committed to impractical scholarship. But the truth is that American higher education has always explicitly aimed to mix practical training with pure intellectual and moral formation, and to pursue research with practical consequences as well as understanding abstracted from applications.

[... snip ...]

He quotes Michael Oakeshott: “There is an important difference between learning which is concerned with the degree of understanding necessary to practice a skill, and learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining.” This is true enough — and the distinction between skills and principles is important — but Fish goes on to equate "understanding and explaining" with with "the absence of a direct and designed relationship" to "measurable activities in the world". This is logically false and historically preposterous.

Researchers in the natural sciences and mathematics have always been motivated to a significant extent by the desire to affect as well as to understand "measurable activities in the world". This has also been true, traditionally, of social scientists, historians, and even philosophers. And in the humanities, many of the most famous and influential scholars of earlier centuries and decades have applied their scholarship to practical ends, and have thereby gained knowledge and skills that made their "pure" research better. Indeed, the whole point of Edward Said's Orientalism thesis, flawed as it was conceptually and factually, was that the humanities scholars of past centuries, whatever their ideology, were useful servants of empire.