News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, October 18, 2010

An obituary for the humanities

Stanley Fish, a multi-disciplined professor who has held positions with the most prestigious universities in the U.S., has written in effect an obituary for the humanities.  That obituary has been in the writing for some decades.  The death has been slow and anything but painless.

Fish responds to an announcement that the SUNY campus in Albany is terminating its French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater majors.  His piece does not cover humanities curricula that have been eliminated in the past.  He thinks the elimination of the humanities is too bad, but he really makes no case for their value, other than that they give some intellectual types jobs.  In fact, he dismisses the idea that the humanities contribute to the vitality and richness of human culture as a mere piety, which no longer has any relevance.

The idea that the humanities were becoming obsolete in academia was first addressed in my hearing in the early 1970s.  Ross Paulson, a Harvard-trained historian, warned the faculty  senate at the institution I worked for at the time that vocationalism was a threat to the quality and integrity of higher education.  The idea that a college degree should largely prepare students for jobs was often raised.  The  college believed that the education it offered should certainly qualify students for  specific vocations, but should also prepare them for viable and productive intellectual and cultural lives.  The philosophy of the institution, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, was that a competent student had background in how culture developed and works, and a knowledge of the many cultures that  have been established.  The institution was strongly committed to the liberal arts, so that a degree from it signified that the students knew the language and literature of their own  tradition, knew at least one foreign language, knew the reaches of history and social sciences, understood the sciences,  and all this in addition to their vocational preparation.

In the 1970s, the threat to the liberal arts was met by expanding them.  I instituted courses in Native American literature and culture. In addition to the traditional literary survey courses in British and American literature, we devised courses that reflected  the cultural complexity of our nation.  I taught an introductory course, for example, in the immigrant, the Native American, and the African American.  The civil rights movement was in full swing, and students were very hungry for information and perspectives that helped them understand the world in which they lived.

When I came to South Dakota, however, NSU had just downgraded its foreign language offerings so that one could not major in the languages.  Since then, the college has gone back and forth over its foreign language requirements and offerings.  For a while, it offered Mandarin and also Russian.  A puzzle to me and many of its sister institutions is that a degree offered in international business does not involve the study of foreign languages and cultures.  I find it puzzling because the man who lived next door to me back in Illinois, who knew Spanish like a native speaker,  was  a Latin America expert for Deere & Co.  The company had such specialists who knew the language and culture of any of the countries where it did business.  It thought that having representatives with such knowledge was an essential part of doing business. 

At my former college, we had a history professor who was a specialist in Russia, and he, too, knew the language thoroughly.  He did not last long, because he was hired away by a corporation that did business with the then-Soviet Union, and it desperately wanted his expertise, so that it had information it could rely upon for its important decisions and negotiations. 

We have perennial problems with being at the mercy of hired interpreters in countries the U.S. is involved with.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the biggest strategic problems is finding someone who knows the languages of those countries and can provide reliable, trustworthy translations and readings of situations.   The Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy caught us off guard because we had no one on the Iran desk in the State Department who knew enough about the culture and language to detect the opposition to America that was growing.  However, there are people from opposing interests who know well American language and thought and use their knowledge against us.   Our intelligence operations have been consistently deficient because we are dependent upon perfidious local nationals to feed us intelligence about other countries and cultures.  We do not train people who can make informed observations and direct analysis of the information they collect from the standpoint of  American nationals. 

Knowledge of other cultures is not the only place that reflects our failures in the humanities.  While there is much furor about America's education lagging behind in math and science, for some reason the reports tend to gloss over our lagging reading scores.  Reading tests, which examine knowledge base and comprehension as well as the conventions of grammar, reflect the experience students have in their general command of language, including speaking and writing.  The magnitude of our national deficiencies in language is demonstrated in our media, especially on the Internet. While many blog posts demonstrate basic incompetence in rhetorical skills, the comment sections are where the deficiencies in thought and expression are overwhelmingly evident.  Often the comments fix on a phrase, a clause, or one sentence in a paragraph, not able to define the context for a sentence or the qualifiers that surround it.

The floundering ignorance that pervades America has produced an attitude in which the ignorant take great pride in their deficiencies, and regard those with actual knowledge and skill as elitist.  The phenomena of  the likes of Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell, and Rand Paul being touted as leadership is symptomatic of how education has come to be regarded.  All the attempts to reform education are frustrated by attitudes that revere and promote ignorance as a way of life.

When  higher education institutions divest themselves of humanities programs but allow themselves to be the platforms for the partisan hackery that makes up our political dialogue, we have an indication of the deterioration that is the real cause of the failures of education to keep our country competitive.  The decline of the humanities in American education is offset by intensifying them in other lands.

A few years ago, a best-selling book was Readng Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.   The book is a narrative of how a woman university professor and some of her students in Iran gathered at her home weekly to discuss key American books, such as Lolita and The Great Gatsby.    Their weekly study sessions were a refuge from the oppression, particularly against women, of the mullahs and their followers.  They were also an inspiration and a resource for enduring and resisting the oppression.  I found Lolita, the Vladimir Nabokov novel about a pedophile, a surprising choice out of the American canon for study, but I did not read from the perspective of a suppressed and discriminated-against person living under a violently hostile regime.  Professor Nafisi's account probed a dimension of the book that would not be apparent to most Americans.

The Iranian women's study of American works was not uncritical.  They examined the aspects of American life that are less-than-admirable, but their main focus was on the intellectual traditions out of which America's liberty and opportunity were forged.  In the American humanities, they found not only hope but their opportunity to survive and surmount oppression. Lolita provided them with a resource and frame of reference for critical and penetrating thought through which they could define their own situations and devise courses of action.  Professor Nafisi eventually came to America. 

America's decline and diminishment in the humanities is part of an anti-intellectual movement that has  invaded our higher education institutions.While America is getting somewhat desperate to educate scientists and technologists in order to keep the nation competitive, it at the same time eschews the arts and humanities as preoccupations of an elite.  In effect, people want to sever the left lobe of the national brain, which controls verbal and analytical functions, from the right, which is the center for sensational and emotive perceptions. The humanities are the center of an important cognitive function of the human community.

No country has its formation recorded as thoroughly and deeply as the U.S.  Courses in American literature include not just the fiction, poetry, and drama, as is popularly supposed.  The surveys of early American literature include the diaries and correspondence of the nation's founding, the critical essays such as the Federalist Papers, the national documents, and the discourse that took place during its founding.  Early American literature is not necessarily the favorite of general students, because they prefer to deal with the more imaginative aspects, but it is an extensive record of the hows and whys and mental disciplines involved in the country's formation.   It is a record of the essential role played by the art of rhetoric in making political decisions, and some whose educations were self-directed, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were the most skillful practitioners. 

The degree to which the skills and values of rhetoric are in a state of disuse is no where more emphatically and painfully evident than in what passes for political discourse today.  It is rare to come across a communication that contains a basic rhetorical principle.  Rather, the model for discourse in today's political arena is war propaganda, which is designed to agitate hatred and other mindless passions. 

While I think the deterioration of the humanities reflects a faltering nation, I make no case for their rehabilitation.  Nations rise, and nations fall according to the viability of their culture.  When a culture loses access to the resources that have created it, it is far into dysfunction.

Like the women in Tehran, people who value the intellectual foundations of their nation and its culture will continue to study and discuss.  Many times I have been asked to lead groups that wanted to undertake a special line of study and investigation.  

When America was formed, it did so quite consciously from the best that was thought, spoken, and written.  Its contributions to the humanities have been studied and used as models for new and reforming nations worldwide.

And it may be time for those who value the humane and benevolent to think about a new nation.

For more discussion of the state and value of the humanities, go to this link to The New York Times.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States