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Crisis in the Humanities October 13, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Philosophy.
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As the recession cuts into budget outlays for higher education, not only in the U.S. but across Europe as well, it appears that the humanities are taking the biggest hit.

Philosophy programs and language departments have been shut down in a variety of states as well as in the U.K, and Humanities departments are being forced to prove they contribute to the bottom line in order to justify their existence.

In light of these developments, the article by Stanley Fish in the NY Times earlier this week was troubling.

And indeed, if your criteria are productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction, it makes perfect sense to withdraw funds and material support from the humanities — which do not earn their keep…

And it won’t do, in the age of entrepreneurial academics, zero-based budgeting and “every tub on its own bottom,” to ask computer science or biology or the medical school to fork over some of their funds so that the revenue-poor classics department can be sustained.

Stanley Fish is a literary critic, Professor of Humanities and Law, and a former Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Illinois. One would think he would be sympathetic to the plight of the Humanities.

But with friends like this who needs enemies?

Christopher Newfield’s ongoing research on university funding comes to radically different conclusions:

Further budget research needs to be done, and far more budgetary data need to be disclosed and discussed. In the meantime, I propose these conclusions from my case study. The humanities and social sciences are major donors to science and engineering budgets. Major dogmas about university research turn out to be wrong: science and engineering research costs money, and humanities and social sciences teaching subsidizes it. Furthermore, humanities and social sciences students receive a cheap education—that is, they get back less than they put in.

Making matters worse, university officials have historically perpetuated the myth that the science and engineering fields are the generous subsidizers of the “soft” humanitiesand social science fields.

This concealment of the humanities’ contributionto the progress of science fed the vicious cycle of the culture wars: underfunded humanities fields cannot buy respectability through the media,think tanks, or prominent science agencies, a limitation that gives free reinto assertions that the humanities produce only pseudo-knowledge. This belief has lowered the humanities’ status, which in turn has justified flator declining funding, which further lowers the humanities’ status, whichencourages further cuts.

More generally, the overall financial stability of higher education—especially public higher education—has been undermined by an increasingly dysfunctional postwar research-funding model that depends on subsidies from teaching revenues that are being cut from state budgets and added to student costs. Finally, the hidden subsidy—in which high-enrollment, high-teaching-load fields in the humanities andsocial sciences help pay for advanced scientific research—is the primary reason why the humanities are perpetually poor.

In offering this analysis of budgetary myths and inequities, I am notseeking to foment a class war between the arts and sciences. I admire and study the sciences and their sociocultural impacts and think they, as well as the arts, need even more funding than they have. Given the funding crisis for all higher education, now would be the worst possible time to set upa zero-sum competition between different sides of campus, and I instead advocate cooperation and collaboration across all our disciplines.My analysis is intended to encourage truth in budgeting.

I’m no expert on college financing but many people, such as Andrew Hacker, have argued that in our system of higher education, undergraduate teaching subsidizes research. We overcharge students for tuition and fees and underpay faculty by hiring mostly adjuncts, and that money goes to pay for endowments, new technology, intercollegiate sports, expensive student centers, and graduate student education, especially in engineering and the sciences, which ends up benefiting big business.

Of course, given that it is big business that ends up benefiting from this, it is not a surprise that this scam is not well publicized.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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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.

(more…)

Empathy and Judges May 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy, politics.
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When Obama first discussed his thinking about the Supreme Court nomination to replace Justice Souter, he mentioned empathy as a qualification. And that set off a firestorm of criticism from Conservatives. Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele howled, “Crazy nonsense empathetic! I’ll give you empathy. Empathize right on your behind!”

In more temperate tones, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah warned that if a judge were to show empathy, “politics, preferences, personal preferences and feelings might take the place of being impartial and deciding cases based upon the law, not upon politics.”

But conservatives misunderstand empathy and legal judgment.

Empathy refers to our capacity to feel what others feel, to know what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes—and it is absolutely essential to sound legal judgment.

As I pointed out yesterday, judges have to interpret the law and apply the law to the facts that constitute the case on which they are ruling. Supreme Court justices are making decisions that will set policy and legal standards for the entire nation. So their decisions have consequences. But most judges are wealthy, well-educated elites, insulated from the struggles less privileged people must endure. And their occupation gives them a unique outlook on the world not widely shared by people outside the legal profession. If their conception of the impact of their rulings is bounded by the cloistered, privileged parameters of their own lives, the result will not only be bad law, it will be law that is partial to their social and economic class. It is simply a myth that there is some standpoint, from which a judge can rule, shorn of values and divorced from the circumstances of life. The belief that there is such a standpoint is itself an ideology and a pernicious one at that.

So how can judges rule impartially? Through empathy—our ability to feel what others feel, the moral capacity that conservatives are so quick to ridicule

As Obama points out in The Audacity of Hope: “Empathy … calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision.”

Empathy is a necessary condition of impartiality—at least the kind of impartiality that humans (as opposed to machines) are capable of—because empathy makes us imagine, and thus come to know, how our actions affect others.

Stanley Fish, in commenting on this flap over empathy in the New York Times, is  alive to the role of values in applying the law but also seems to misunderstand the role of empathy. He writes:

“Rather than reasoning from legal principles to results, an Obama judge will begin with the result he or she desires and then figure out how to get there by what only looks like legal reasoning.

This is the answer to Dahlia Lithwick’s question, what’s wrong with empathy? It may be a fine quality to have but, say the anti-empathists, it’s not law, and if it is made law’s content, law will have lost its integrity and become an extension of politics. [Ed. Lithwick’s article is here]

Obama’s champions will reply, that’s what law always has been, and with Obama’s election there is at least a chance that the politics law enacts will favor the dispossessed rather than the powerful and the affluent.”

Fish seems to think a judge is on the horns of a dilemma—either she feels empathy and thus allows her preconceived moral ideology to govern her understanding of the law, or she coldly applies the law as written and thus enables her privileged position as advocate for the ruling class to be smuggled in disguised as objectivity.

But there need not be such a dilemma. Responsible judges begin with the law as written, constrained by precedent and legislative history. But then they ask whether the law so interpreted has the effect intended by lawmakers.

One needs empathy to answer this question. Empathy is not a conduit through which we splatter our preferences on an otherwise autonomous law. Empathy helps us discover the facts—it is fundamentally epistemological, not ideological.

 Cross-posted at Reviving the Left.