12 January 2008

It's All in the Approach

It's amazing how touchy humanities people can be when you criticize their subject. The defense of the humanities is a battle still alive and raging, and one that seems vitally (in the sense of life-threateningly) important to those involved. In my advanced literary theory class, the professor spent half of the first class period frantically justifying why a literary education was superior, even though no one had asked such a question. He claimed literary study was superior to a basic technical education (the socialization of people to follow orders in low level jobs), or even a measley "professional" education (teaching people when to apply technical logic--doctors and lawyers, this apparently means you). The professor's point was that a real leadership consists of a liberal education, one that teaches people how to think but not what to think about. He pointed to the importance of a "classical" or liberal education, implying that the English department would give us this.

At this point, I laugh. How many people in an advanced theory course can really claim a liberal education? Hello, a liberal education is supposed to include the sciences as well as the humanities. I'd be willing to risk a pretty penny that barely 2 people in that class regard Biology 100 as anything less than an annoyance--me as a chemistry minor being one of them--much less have a enough working understanding of science to be regarded as scientifically literate. A liberal education is about being a Renaissance man, about being broad not deep--the antithesis of the current mode of university education. They aren't receiving anything like a liberal education, just an education in a discipline, as Stanley Fish says in his recent New York Times article.

Not that this is a bad thing--as Stanley Fish says, it's delightful to those who study it. They shouldn't feel the need to justify its use to other people. And if they do, they shouldn't attempt to do so through the guise of gaining "critical thinking," as if the humanities has a monopoly on that. The humanities will not save us.

The key to this realization: The kinds of virtues claimed through the humanities--"those intellectual and moral habits that together from [sic] the basis for living the best life one can" (Kronman qtd in Fish)--are not part of the subject material, but the approach. One could just as easily become critically and creatively minded in studying chemistry or politics or music as literature. These are not only in literature. In fact, if that were the reason we were studying literature, we would all be studying philosophy instead. What subject we choose to approach this critical knowledge is more of a hobby, as I've stated before. What's essential is the test, not the subject matter.


Jon Ogden said...

Ultimately, I think I agree with your stance. When Fish argues against the idea that humanities can make us better people, his argument falls short:

"It’s a pretty idea," he says, "but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so."

The issue is much more complex than he makes it out to be.

I think that being a good person depends first on making an honest effort to be good. That might sound obvious, but there are millions of people who simply want to be bad, and admit as much (many convicts, rapists, etc).

But even once a person has made the decision to be good, and is earnestly trying to do so, this is not enough.

Good people are those who find the proper balance of good things.

Fish is right:literature professors are not the best people in the world. Many in academia are close-minded, and I agree with your calling out the ridiculous notion that somehow students of literature are better than those who study other subjects. Nothing is so distasteful to me in academia than this blatant pride.

But that part of Fish's argument has a serious error: it neglects the casual reader.

I would argue that the humanities can save us *in conjunction with the other good things in life.*

Like your post introduced by the Breinholt lyric says, literature majors need to get out and *do* in order to be good people.

While I do not think that the humanities alone will save us, I believe that to do away altogether with the humanities, and I realize that this isn't what you are saying to do, would damn us.

And so I also disagree with Fish's conclusion: "To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever."

That is not the only honest answer. It is one dishonest answer. He doesn't address the idea that literature professors aren't the best people in the world because most of them read much literature that doesn't inspire them to live better lives. Nor does he address the fact that many become so narrow in their views that they lose sight of the proper balance of good things. Academicians often lean the way Dr. Duerden was leaning, with the notion that the humanities are "superiorest."

The truth is, the humanities have their use the same as buildings and computers and mathematics have their use. There may be different times when one focus of study is more important than another:I do not appreciate architects in the spring as much as I do now, when they have saved me from the cold.

Architecture saves us. Mathematics saves us. Computer studies saves us. Certainly the humanities save us. The collective good is the savior.

Janet said...

Nice post Liz.

I for one appreciate the dedication of students to specific fields. A doctor will operate on my eye and restore my sight on Thursday. An architect and many tradesmen have provided me with a warm place to live. My home is full of original fine art. I love to listen to beautiful music. Authors have filled my book shelves with over 1000 thought provoking and useful books on a variety of topics. I think that anyone who spends time trying to justify why a literary education or any other education is superior to another has issues with pride and gratitude or a weak understanding of the realities of life.

Certainly not all knowledge to "save" comes from schools or books. If I had to choose this week, I prefer the educations of the doctor, pharmacist, carpenter, electrician, plumber, carpet manufacturer, farmer and rancher... Next week after my eye has healed, I will rejoice in the education of the author for the first time in years.

The interesting thing is, once one leaves the world of academia, those who didn't have some breadth in their education prove to be a little boring and narrow minded. Thank heavens for general university requirements (GUR's).

I think that my favorite college class was a psychology class called Systems Behavior. It consisted of four months of concentrated study to show us how we are all interdependent. One could not come out of that class without a great appreciation for the universe and everything and everyone in it.

I think that the rich texture that exists in a person of any educational discipline comes as result of some exposure to a liberal arts education as a foundation before their specialization. Certainly there is a place for all of it.

Kelsy said...

This is exactly why I decided not to be an English major. I felt like I could still enjoy what I love about literature--getting capture in a good story or ideas--in addition to learning something I know very little about. Besides, how can you analyze life and humanity without experiencing it? I like the idea of doing new things all the time, not just thinking about them. And thank you for including the bit on being a Renaissance Man, because that's a better phrase than academic ADD.