Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fish on Humanities and Cowardice

Stanley Fish has an interesting column in today's New York Times about the decline of the humanities generally in higher education and, more specifically, the mendacity and cowardice of some academic administrators who only pretend to care about them. I'm not as skeptical as Fish about the legitimacy of arguments claiming that the humanities are important to the development of productive, well-rounded citizens. I do, however, agree with him whole-heartedly about the the necessity for academic administrators to fight the trend by explaining and defending the "core enterprise" of higher education.They should, in Fish's words
aggressively explain — taking the bull by the horns, rejecting the demand (always a loser) to economically justify the liberal arts, refusing to allow myths (about lazy, pampered faculty who work two hours a week and undermine religion and the American way) to go unchallenged, and if necessary flagging the pretensions and hypocrisy of men and women who want to exercise control over higher education in the absence of any real knowledge of the matters on which they so confidently pronounce.
Unfortunately, among those ignorant men and women are some of the very university administrators who should be fighting back. Fish picks out for special ire President George M. Philip of SUNY Albany, who at the beginning of this month announced the termination of programs in French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater. President Philip, who has neither a PhD nor much in the way of teaching or research experience, cancelled the programs following a university "town hall" meeting announced at the last minute for a Friday afternoon, when few faculty members would be present. Of course, President Philip blames the decline in state funding as the reason for the cuts. He is justified in doing so. But as Fish goes on to explain, it's not the job of politicians "to value the humanities or even to understand them."
But it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene. President Philip cries crocodile tears. Real tears are in order.

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