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Humanities Under Fire May 24, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Philosophy.
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The Humanities—literature, the arts, history, and philosophy—are in deep trouble. As budget cuts percolate through our educational system, these disciplines will be the first to be down-sized because they seem to produce little tangible benefit.

And Stephen Mexal takes literature professor Stanley Fish to task for encouraging this trend.

Over the past year or so, Stanley Fish has occasionally devoted his New York Times blog to the notion that, as he put it recently, higher education is “distinguished by the absence” of a relationship between its activities and any “measurable effects in the world.” He has singled out the humanities for lacking what he called “instrumental value,” writing that “the value of the humanities cannot be validated by some measure external” to the peculiar obsessions of scholars. The humanities, Fish claimed, do not have an extrinsic utility—an instrumental value—and therefore cannot increase economic productivity, fashion an informed citizenry, sharpen moral perceptions, or reduce prejudice and discrimination. […]

This sentiment reached its logical apex last year in an article in The New York Times titled, “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” […]

So when Fish claimed that the benefits of humanities research were limited to the researcher or the classroom, and that the public should therefore not have to “subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment,” he was drill-baby-drilling into the zeitgeist quite nicely.

As Mexal points out, the issue is not whether the arts, history, or literature (or philosophy) are useful—they obviously are. The issue is whether academic research into these areas is useful. What is the utility or academic analyses of art, philosophy, literature, or history?

Mexal’s answer is that the value of research in the humanities is neither immediate nor predictable. But he cites a variety of examples in which literary, historical, and philosophical works led directly to new developments in fields such as computer programming, national intelligence, and counter-intelligence.

What unites those stories is not that they exemplify times when humanities research has had instrumental value, but rather times when it has had unintended instrumental value. Those scholars did not intend, nor could they have anticipated, the applied value of their work. Yet that’s not to say the application of their work was the point of their work. After all, scholars weren’t studying Shakespeare with an eye toward establishing the CIA. Instead, research in the humanities, like research in all disciplines, is valuable precisely because we never know where new knowledge will lead us.

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