One longs for the moral clarity of a swift kick in the rear.
While enjoying the fact that my life can be defined by few places, the mrt, the office, home and some place of retail — i can’t help missing school and the infinite rooms that it contained. and finally, some lucidity.
The Burden of the Humanities
by Wilfred M. McClay
Lamentations about the sad state of the humanities in modern America have a familiar, indeed almost ritualistic, quality about them. The humanities are among those unquestionably nice endeavors, like animal shelters and tree-planting projects, about which nice people invariably say nice things. But there gets to be something vaguely annoying about all this cloying uplift. One longs for the moral clarity of a swift kick in the rear.
Enter the eminent literary scholar Stanley Fish, author of a regular blog for The New York Times, who addressed the subject with a kicky piece entitled “Will the Humanities Save Us?” (Jan. 6, 2008). Where there is Fish there will always be bait, for nothing pleases this contrarian professor more than double-crossing his readers’ expectations and enticing them into a heated debate, and he did not disappoint.
He took as his starting point Anthony Kronman’s passionate and high-minded book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (2007), in which Kronman argues that higher education has lost its soul, and can only recover it by re-emphasizing the building of character through the study of great literary and philosophical texts. Fish was having none of such “pretty ideas.” There is “no evidence,” he sniffed, that such study has the effect of “ennobling” us or spurring us on to noble actions. If it did, then the finest people on earth would be humanities professors, a contention for which the evidence is, alas, mostly on the other side.
Teachers of literature and philosophy possess specialized knowledge, Fish asserted, but they do not have a ministry. The humanities can’t save us, and in fact they don’t really “do” anything, other than give pleasure to “those who enjoy them.” Those of us involved with the humanities should reconcile ourselves to the futility of it all, and embrace our uselessness as a badge of honor. At least that way we can claim that we are engaged in “an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good.”
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