Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Are the Humanities a Subset?

I always enjoy the sharp with and careful reasoning that can be found in many of Stanley Fish's columns. His most recent is no exception and clears up a misunderstanding I had with his previous offering. You see, Dr. Fish was describing how the Humanities have been tantalizing targets for University Administrators who have sought to reduce their costs as the result of vanishing public funding for Universities. He felt that on pure economic grounds, Humanities are not justifiable. Does arcane analysis of literature add nothing to the public's enjoyment of said literature? If not, then perhaps there is no direct societal value. Do humanities programs produce goods of value, or graduates who go on to be highly compensated? If not, then perhaps there is no direct economic benefit. Fair enough. However, Dr. Fish seems to imply that the case for the humanities should be argued based entirely on tradition, as the following quote emphasizes.

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.

-Dr. Stanley Fish, (New York Times)

What remained unsaid, and has been added in the most recent column, is that the analysis of humanists is not in terms of direct value, but of added value:

Instead ask what contribution can a knowledge of the Russian language and Russian culture make to our efforts in Far Eastern studies to understand what is going on in China and Japan (the answer is, a big contribution). Ask would it be helpful for students in chemistry to know French or students in architecture and engineering to know the classics (you bet it would).

Now, Fish eschews this added value argument, but this could be a winning stroke for the humanities. Perhaps they are a little bit like BASF whose ads used to proclaim "we don't make a lot of the things you buy, we make a lot of the things you buy better." In this sense, the Humanities are a subset of the larger university, adding value to the activities of all other groups and to the students and researchers so produced. In fact, by implication, it might be the humanities that make the University and differentiate it from a directly economically justified entity, such as a trade college.

Moreover, there is the role of University Presidents. In many cases, these are appointed by state legislatures which raises an interesting question: is the chief administrator simply a soldier carrying out the wishes of elected representatives? Or should the president be an advocate for the University community? One of Fish's major beefs seems to have been that the president who sought to cancel languages at SUNY leaned towards the former instead of the latter:

That’s O.K. It’s not their job to value the humanities or even to understand them. But it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.

It's an interesting perspective, coming from the other side of the academic business from my own. Over here, we often brag about the amount of money we bring in and specializations live or die by how economically viable they are for the university. However, if you move back a single step, you could make similar arguments for my own business of planetary science as are often made about the "unproductive" humanities. After all, from the university's perspective we are highly viable because we are able to obtain NASA/CSA/NSERC grants. But when you think about why those grants are available in the first place, you come back to the problem faced by Dr. Fish. After all, putting aside the quest for knowledge and distant benefits, what does exploring the solar system do for humanity in the right here and now? (aside from inspiring many young scientists and engineers to enter the field who otherwise would not have done so; many of whom "leak out" of the profession and go on to pursue directly viable enterprises)

I can also sympathize on Dr. Fish's point of synergies. For instance, when we have a group come by the observatory on public nights, we do our best to connect them with what they are seeing. That means not only do we tell them why the stars look the way they do, how they were formed and how far away they are; but we also tell them about constellations and the greek, latin and arabic etymologies of their names. That kind of detailed cultural information which enhances the experience doesn't spring forth from planetary science or astronomy. Instead, it is the humanities that provides the connecting details that allows us to prove the economic and cultural worth of our field to others. Food for thought for those who would break up the concept of the University.

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