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Monday, November 8, 2010

What Good Are the Arts and Humanities?

No good whatsoever.

Or so argues Stanley Fish in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. In his piece Fish takes up the arguments of Anthony Kronman in his new book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Albeit in secularist terms, Kronman makes a plea for the arts and humanities that emphasizes their ennobling capabilities. In former and better times, writes Kronman, “a college was above all a place for the training of character, for the nurturing of those intellectual and moral habits that together form the basis for living the best life one can.”

But for Kronman, those days are long gone. What brought on their demise is a “careerism that distracts from life as a whole” and a “blind acceptance of science and technology" that disguises and denies our human condition.

So we must revivify the humanities if we are to “meet the need for meaning in an age of vast but pointless powers,” for only the humanities can help us recover the urgency of “the question of what living is for.”

But Fish asks: do the arts and humanities really ennoble? And is it even their business to “save” us? To both questions, Fish answers no.

Fish protests that the study of the arts and humanities, even when focused on the larger question of the “meaning of life,” necessarily improves us intellectually and morally. If they did so improve us, Fish contends,

the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged.

True enough, if today’s academy is the chief witness to the intellectually and morally transformative power of the arts and humanities, then the arts and humanities are in big trouble. Fish believes that there is a good in the arts and humanities, but not a good in the sense of something “useful” or “ennobling.” For Fish, the arts and humanities are simply their own good. But their intrinsic goodness, as he sees it, is technical know-how. For students of literature, this amounts to analyzing literary effects. For students of philosophy, this amounts to the ability to assess arguments for the foundations of knowledge.

It is this reduction of the arts and humanities to technical know-how that is precisely the problem, not only with higher education, but with education at all levels in our culture. Inasmuch as the arts and humanities have been turned into one more kind of technical knowledge, so their place in education, and in our lives as a whole, has become more questionable.

This is a point that has been made quite forcibly by the Canadian political theorist George Grant. In his little essay, “Research in the Humanities,” Grant says: “Previous scholarship was a waiting upon the past so that we might find in it truths which might help us to think and live in the present. Research scholarship in humanities cannot thus wait upon the past, because it represents the past to itself from a position of its own command. From that position of command you can learn about the past; you cannot learn from the past….The strange event is this: the more the humanities have gained wealth and prestige by taking on the language and methods of the progressive sciences, the less significance they have in the society they inhabit.”

It is not that the arts and humanities lack an intrinsic inability to ennoble us. It is that the predominant system of education has come to prize “disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged” over wisdom—which is to say, a way of living in the light of truth.
The arts and humanities will fail to recover their pivotal role in our culture until we once again understand that the first (and last) question in education is the one voiced by Socrates in the Republic: “it is not just any question we are considering, but how one should live.”

1 comment:

  1. Are there any institutions of higher education out there that properly understand "a way of living in the light of truth" and if so which ones? It seems that the system is largely broken, when BA degrees are granted for things like "hospitality management" or "cosmetology".