Monday, January 19, 2009

Endangered professoriate?

In a recent New York Times, Stanley Fish wrote a column called “The Last Professor”. It was prompted in part by a new book . “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities”. The general theme of the book and Fish’s column is that the traditional model of a university populated by a tenured or tenure-track faculty teaching humanities and other subjects that may not connect directly with the economic world outside the campus is –indeed, has been – on the way out, and the trend will continue. Donoghue paints a grim picture of a stark contrast between those who espouse a life of the mind apart from practical, economic considerations and those for whom the humanities are a preoccupation of an effete and largely dispensable group.

But it seems to me that things are more nuanced than Donoghue’s bleak ruminations would suggest. He mentions Andrew Carnegie as an example of someone with no patience for “dead languages” and presumably other forms of learning that stand apart from practical use. Yet in 1902 Carnegie founded the Carnegie Institution, dedicated to scientific discovery “in the broadest and most liberal manner.” The philosophy was and is to devote the institution’s resources to “exceptional” individuals so that they can explore the most intriguing scientific questions in an atmosphere of complete freedom. Yes, it is true that the Institution had no place for humanists. However, that same Andrew Carnegie built more than 2500 libraries around the world, dedicated to self-improvement through learning.

Fish’s interesting post generated 163 comments before further posting was cut off. A good many were from anguished younger scholars pursuing studies in the humanities, sorrowful that their dreams of becoming a professor in some nice academic setting would never be realized. I sympathize with their concerns, but society does not owe anyone a living just because they have a passion for some field of activity. Americans have historically been very practical-minded with respect to institutions of higher education. This was especially true of the public universities that came into existence in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Those institutions were justified by their promise to provide skills that would answer to the needs of society. Basic, long-term research and humanistic scholarship were introduced over many objections, and only gradually took hold. The argument is made that study of the humanities can be rewarding for those who invest in it. However, the benefits of the study of history, philosophy and literature: a capacity for analytic reasoning, the ability to assimilate and organize information, and to express oneself lucidly and with some degree of grace, are too often not made evident to those who study the humanities. As higher education has become an accepted rite of passage for an increasing fraction of the nation’s young, it is perhaps not so surprising that the emphasis should shift more toward the most obvious social returns on society’s investment in that education.

Fish begins his column with this quote: “In previous columns and in a recent book I have argued that higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.” With all due respect, I think this notion leads us in the wrong direction. All humanistic studies implicate the world outside ourselves. It is the task of education to show the student what those implications are, how they bear upon everyday life. This requirement is as true for the sciences as it is for the humanities. A chemistry class that consists mainly in drilling on more or less rote methods for solving problems and memorizing facts and figures, as opposed to emphasizing the methods used in science to learn about the world, and the larger social implications of the current state of knowledge of chemistry, is no more “practical” than a poetry course that fails to dig beneath the poets’ words.

Donoghue provides many facts and figures to support his thesis, and I will not venture to contest them. A related source of information on this subject is the Humanities Indicators, a publication of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. There is a lot to be said on this topic, but this is enough for now.

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