Crisis of the Humanities II

Stanley Fish has two Opinionator columns on the “crisis of the humanities.” In Crisis of the Humanities II he argues that the position that some humanities departments are subsidizing STEM areas because we teach so many students cheaply only applies at the colleges that charge high tuition fees. He goes on to write about how we should make the argument for the humanities,

When it comes to justifying the humanities, the wrong questions are what benefits do you provide for society (I’m not denying there are some) and are you cost-effective. The right question is how do you — that is, your program of research and teaching — fit into what we are supposed to be doing as a university. “As a university” is the key phrase, for it recognizes the university as an integral unity with its own history, projects and goals; goals that at times intersect with the more general goals of the culture at large, and at times don’t; but whether they do or don’t shouldn’t be the basis of deciding whether a program deserves a place in the university.

He believes it is the job of senior administrators to argue for the university as university (as opposed to trade-school). He doesn’t think it is worth trying to convince the public or legislators of the utility of the humanities, instead he believes they need to be convinced of the value of an “institution that takes its place in a tradition dating back centuries.”

Frankly, I’m not sure that this approach will work. The sciences, especially the health sciences, have successfully advocated for the usefulness of pure research. Is there any evidence that legislators respond to the argument that we should fund the humanities in universities because they have been around for a while.

That said, there is no reason we have to restrict ourselves to one argument or one tactic. Too often we do no advocacy at all because we spend our time disagreeing about what can be said about the humanities. We are, after all, trained to be critical of the sorts of simplifications necessary to advocate for the humanities. Why not make a virtue of the disagreements in the humanities about the value of the humanities? Can we turn the differences into an example of why the humanities should continue to get support?

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