Stanley Fish: “The Value of Higher Education Made Literal”

In The New York Times Opinionator Blog for December 13, 2010, Stanley Fish, the well-known professor of humanities and law and public commentator, criticizes the cuts to higher education in the U.K. They are being sold on the idea of giving more “choice” to students, he says, but—not trusting student choice—they insure that the forced choice will be fort students to “invest” their suddenly much more expensive tuition in science and technology education in preference to the humanities. The tone of Fish’s statement is critical and ironic, but more gently so than in some of his famous past public opinion pieces. Not quite a full-on jeremiad or satire, its tone might be likened to Dr. Johnson’s poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” in which—criticism and irony at human folly notwithstanding—a certain elegiac pathos for the human condition shows through. In the case of Fish, it is pathos for the values of the humanities that shows through the irony. Speaking of the Browne Report on “Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in England” that provides the rationale for the cuts, Fish concludes:

Stanley FishThe authors congratulate themselves: “We have never lost sight of the value of learning to students, nor the significant contribution of higher education to the quality of life in a civilized society.” A first response to this declaration might be to describe it as either a lie or a joke. There is no recognition in the report at all of the value of learning; quality is a measure nowhere referenced; civilization, as far as one can see, will have to take care of itself .

But at second thought this paean of self-praise is merited once we remember that that the report’s relentless monetization of everything in sight has redefined its every word: value now means return on the dollar; quality of life now means the number of cars or houses you can buy; a civilized society is a society where the material goods a society offers can be enjoyed by more people.

One must admit that this view of value and the good life has a definite appeal. It will resonate with many not only in England but here in the United States. And to the extent it does, the privatization of higher education will advance apace and the days when a working-class Brit or (in my case) an immigrant’s son can wander into the groves of academe and emerge a political theorist or a Miltonist will recede into history and legend. (Read Fish’s full statement)

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