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What he said.

Stanley Fish is right. UD has read the same report about the crisis in the humanities that he has, and Fish nails it.

[L]aden with bland commonplaces and recommendations that could bear fruit only in a Utopia, [the report] will be dutifully noted by pious commentators and then live a quiet life on the shelf for which it was destined.

The report has indeed prompted plenty of humanities huzzahs, like this one from David Brooks, in which he quotes from an embarrassing letter written by a history professor at the University of Chicago…

Why embarrassing? Because it’s a completely stereotypical professor-complaint letter in which the professor pats himself on the back for his intellectual and emotional acuity, and bitches that his students (people who are between eighteen and twenty-one years old) don’t share his capacity for depth.

I feel like screaming suddenly: ‘Oh, God, my dear student, why CANNOT you see that this matter is a real, real matter, often a matter of the very being, for the person, for the historical men and women you are looking at — or are supposed to be looking at!’ … [W]hen I have spent an hour or more, pouring all my enthusiasm and sensitivities into an effort to tell these stories in the fullness in which I see and experience them, I feel drained and exhausted…

Yes, why can’t these recent high school graduates at the University of Chicago see and feel the very being of my stories? I pour my sensitivity out at them and then just feel drained and exhausted at the futility of my efforts! Oh, God, my dear student…

This is condescending, self-aggrandizing, crap. Brooks won’t go to the trouble of making the case for an historically deep education, so he quotes this heavy breathing and hopes we’ll nod our heads – the youth today! So soulless!


Everyone’s ready to agree that the humanities are in crisis (even if the picture isn’t all that clear), and the authors of the report are happy to stoke that crisis with language about the very security of the nation being thereby imperiled. But the language of the report is as empty as that professor’s letter. Fish notes:

[T]he key words — “framework,” “context,” “complex,” “meaningfully,” “understanding,” “diverse,” “sensitivity,” “perspectives” — are spectacularly empty; just where specificity is needed, sonorous abstraction blunts the edge of what is being asserted, rendering it unexceptionable (no one’s against understanding, complexity and meaningfulness) and without bite.

Grand emotions and grand abstractions attach themselves to talk of the humanities with the implication always that this form of study will make us better people and the world a better place. Like Fish, I see the humanities as “a cloistered and separate area in which inquiry is engaged in for its own sake and not because it yields useful results.” Reading novels like Lolita and The Tropic of Cancer and The Elementary Particles will have God knows what impact on your personal morality and your engagement as a citizen. These are funny, nihilistic, cynical works, and I’d hate to have to be the one to determine their moral or character-building potential. As Georg Lukacs long ago pointed out about Kafka (and what serious education in the humanities is without Kafka?), great writers of our time have a tendency to maunder on inconclusively about the hopelessly alienated consciousness; or they sketch a world with very little collective action in it… Writers like Don DeLillo, America’s greatest living novelist, routinely get called bad citizens.

No, the humanities aren’t evil; and yes, they can help you think about everything. But as Fish points out, they don’t mix well with our current outcomes-based mania, and it’s really not plausible to scare people (as this latest humanities report tries to do) with the degradation to the republic attendant upon insufficient care for them.


UD thanks David.

Margaret Soltan, June 25, 2013 9:25AM
Posted in: defenses of liberal education

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8 Responses to “What he said.”

  1. david foster Says:

    “framework,” “context,” “complex,” “meaningfully,” “understanding,” “diverse,” “sensitivity,” “perspectives”

    One of the tests of a good Humanities program might be that its graduates do not write or speak this way.

    See my post The Age of Blather:


  2. MattF Says:

    Yeah, what’s this ‘aesthetic experience’ business good for, anyhow.

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    MattF: It’s hard to define ‘aesthetic experience,’ and I think it can be good, bad, or indifferent in terms of its effects. There’s no question ae can be for many people extremely intense – in some cases life-changing (it’s common for people who have had religious conversions to describe their conversion as somehow triggered by an ae; or ae is often described as strengthening religious convictions) – but we have to do something with the fact that (Nazis/Wagner) ae of a very profound sort can accompany moral degeneracy.

  4. MattF Says:

    I agree that learning (and teaching) about art could be morally disorienting– Beauty is not Truth, after all. But this is an argument and rationale -for- good teaching in the humanities. If you’ve just had your first aesthetic experience, you’re probably in need of a bit of adult advice, at least.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    MattF: Agreed.

  6. Jack/OH Says:

    A non-prof, I don’t have any skin in this. david foster, thanks for the link. I may have learned something new. “Blatherification”, etc. My personal feeling is there’s a lot of evil that slides through the word cloud of high-minded abstractions, bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, ideological word-whipping, and so on.

    Somebody was interested in the humanities under the strenuous conditions of the American frontier. In my part of Ohio and nearby Western Pennsylvania, trading posts around 1800 run by Eastern land agents sold books in addition to hardware and soft goods. Memoirs, biographies, histories, essay and aphorism collections, pamphlets, etc. The buyers likely had, at best, spotty formal education. The actual books that were sold can be readily seen in a few small local museums.

  7. david foster Says:

    Jack…”there’s a lot of evil that slides through the word cloud of high-minded abstractions, bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, ideological word-whipping, and so on.”

    George Orwell made exactly this argument. I’ll see if I can find the passage…ah, here it is:


  8. Jack/OH Says:

    Yeah, I think Theodore Lowi says roughly the same thing about some legislation in “The End of Liberalism”. My thought wasn’t original.

    FWIW-I think it remarkable that folks were buying books with no utilitarian value when they were sorely preoccupied building mud-daubed cabins on the early American frontier. I don’t know what it means.

    Some conservative types regard the teaching of humanities as the universities’ unique selling proposition, something that can’t be duplicated by vocational training or OJT.

    Thanks for the link, david foster.

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