Blog Post

SUNY Albany, Stanley Fish, and the Enemy Within

The President of SUNY Albany has just decided to close its programs in French, Italian, Classics, Russian, and Drama.  Here’s a great idea: let’s tell him he did the right thing!

Yes, that’s just what Stanley Fish decided to do, in his much-forwarded New York Times blog post.  He writes—I kid you not—that humanistic study serves only one end: allowing professors of literature to eat.  “I have always had trouble,” he says, “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.”

Is this supposed to help?  Let’s put it this way: if the most prominent humanists are publicly proclaiming their belief in the utter uselessness of what they do, what reason could a cash-strapped administrator possibly have for not shutting down their departments?

This is not the first time that Fish has told the world that what he does, and what we do, is completely pointless.  “To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’,” he writes here, “the only honest answer is none whatsoever.”  Maybe Fish doesn’t think people will take him seriously (or maybe he doesn’t care), but alas, some people have done just that.  Mark Liberman, a linguist at U Penn, picked up the line I just quoted and added: “Prof. Fish doesn't bring up the logically related question ‘how many faculty positions should be devoted to the humanities?’ But I will. And as he frames the issues, at least, the only honest answer is roughly one tenth of the current number.”

Fortunately—as many excellent Arcade posts, among other things, have shown—not all of us feel the same way our “friend” Stanley does.  But it’s time for all of us to get just as vocal as him.  Yes, it may be embarrassing for us to make positive claims for what we do (we’ve specialized for quite a while in making negative claims about more or less everything), but we may just have to accept a little embarrassment.  Perhaps it’s the price we’ll have to pay for heading off future Albanys.

What, then, can we tell university administrators and the world at large, beyond (as Fish suggests) pointing out their ignorance about 18th-century poetry?  Plenty.

(1) Yes, the humanities do enhance our culture.  (Fish: “it won’t do to invoke the pieties informing Charlie from Binghamton’s question — the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better.”)  In fact, it’s hard to know what culture is if it’s not things like Picassos and Pink Floyd albums and Toni Morrison novels.  Not to mention the people, like Henry Louis Gates and Michael Fried and Helen Vendler (or for that matter Sister Wendy or Benard Pivot or the makers of Art21), who help us to love those works even more.  This may not be an exciting thing for us humanists to say to each other, but it’s straightforwardly true.

(2) Yes, some of those books that people teach do contain “the best that has been thought and said.”  It should be remembered here that Fish has a very hard time distinguishing between the humanities in general and literary study in particular.  But the rest of us, I think, understand that the humanities also include, among other disciplines, that of philosophy.  Who wants to say that W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, to take just one example, is not among “the best that has been thought and said”?  I’m not in any way arguing for a core curriculum (it’s part of Fish’s polarizing thinking that you’re either a hip value-denier or a pathetic canon-defender; let’s resist that false dichotomy).  I’m just saying that people who teach DuBois (and Lao-Tsu, and Nietzsche, and de Beauvoir...), in whatever context, are doing everyone a favor.

(3) Yes, amazingly, the humanities do contribute to the economic health of the state.  (Fish: “it won’t do to argue that the humanities contribute to economic health of the state... because nobody really buys that argument.”)  Don’t get me wrong, I would hate to imply that the humanities need an economic reason.  But, well, if you want one, here it is.  Employers, it turns out, actually like philosophy BAs.  Sidney Harman, chairman of audio equipment company Harman International, says “Get me some poets as managers.  Poets are our original systems thinkers.”  (Mind Your Own Business, p.10)  And Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Laboratory, says “many engineering deadlocks have been broken by people who are not engineers at all...  The ability to make big leaps of thought,” he explains, “usually... resides in people with very wide backgrounds, multidisciplinary minds and a broad spectrum of experiences.” (qtd. in Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind, 132.)  These are not humanists.  These are business people.

(4) What is more, the humanities expose us to—and, very often, cause us to fall in love with—other cultures, both within our country and outside it.  Is it embarrassing to say this out loud?  Certainly.  Does it need to be said?  Apparently so.

(5) And then there's the fact that exposure to the humanities changes us, enriches us, expands our imagination, clarifies our thinking, gives new depths to our being.  Yes, even the literary humanities manage this.  Fish appears to believe—stunningly!—that great literary works could help us only if they provided examples for emulation in the form of heroic characters.  Has he not read his Bakhtin?  Has he not read, well, anything?

There’s much, much more to be said; please help me in saying it.  We need every voice we’ve got.

Joshua Landy's picture
Joshua Landy is the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, where he co-directs the Initiative in Philosophy and Literature. His books include Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust (Oxford, 2004), How to Do Things With Fictions (Oxford, 2012), and (as coeditor) The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (Stanford, 2009).