January 10, 2008

Stanley Fish is a strange bird. After spending most of his career wrecking the humanities programs at eminent schools like Duke—with results that are visible, in the form of the unhinged ideologues on the faculty who lined up behind the “New Black Panthers” in their harassment campaign against the innocent lacrosse players falsely accused of rape—he has lately become a bit of a gadfly, pestering the academic Left for its most egregious excesses. He has traveled the country in a dog-and-pony show with the shallow neocon Dinesh D’Souza, who has made a career out of cobbling together into books derivative, provocative articles which would have served very nicely as editorials written by 18-year-olds in the Dartmouth Review. And lately, Fish has taken in his NY Times column to defending the liberal arts. Well, sort of. In his latest piece, he argues for the study of the humanities as good in themselves, as above any pragmatic justification in their presumptive effects on students, except as a source of “pleasure.”

All of which sounds very nice. It reminds one, vaguely, of the Aristotelian definition of a virtue as something which is good in itself, a practice undertaken for its own sake. It seems to point, in a vague post-humanist way, towards John Henry Newman’s description of a university as a place intended to create a magnanimous man. It runs its fingers across all these venerable harps, in a kind of intellectual glissando.  But in fact, Fish misses the point, and willfully so.

The point of a liberal arts education in a given cultural context is NOT simply to offer the students a more sophisticated form of “pleasure,” one better sorted to their higher-IQ, SAT-selected brains. There are cheaper and more effective ways to do that than, for instance, compelling 20-year-olds (as we do at the excellent liberal arts college where I teach) to study Latin and Greek. If students crave more interesting fare than Freakonomics, those smart enough to enjoy Charles Norris Cochrane’s extraordinary Christianity and Classical Culture can probably figure out how to use Amazon.com, Abebooks (for used titles) or Loome’s Theological Books.

No, the liberal arts have a wider, and more important purpose, than NPR’s “The Puzzler”—a major source of pleasure to smart people across the Anglosphere. They are intended—as Cicero and the whole anti-sophist rhetorical tradition after him asserted, through Augustine, Boethius, the Renaissance humanists and the Jesuit educators—to craft responsible citizens. They are meant, in fact, to form leaders. Leaders of a specific culture with particular values—in the West, western values. In China, Confucian education had a parallel purpose for that high culture. In any civilization worthy of the name, advanced education that goes beyond the merely technocratic is meant to YOKE the pursuit of higher pleasures to the deepening of the soul, the broadening of the intellect, the capacity for empathy and self-sacrifice—AND the defense of the particular civilization which has developed this corpus of “Great Books” and “Great Ideas.” Not to sound like a Marxist, but without the economic, religious, political, and (usually) demographic substrate on which these other achievements are built, none of them are possible. Education which neglects to explain, and make it possible on some level to both critique AND defend the institutions which made that civilization possible is suited only for irresponsible dilettantes. It was such “enlightened” education—which spread widely after the suppression of the Jesuits—that corrupted the French elites, prepared the way for the Jacobins. The denatured liberal humanism of the 1940s and 50s—so aptly critiqued in David Gress’ brilliant From Plato to NATO—laid the groundwork for the deranged campus violence of the 1960s, and the tenured radicalism which followed it.

The liberal arts are the techne which make possible the life of a free man in a particular society. If they undermine that society, or even fail to firm it up, they eat up the moral capital on which they depend. The ideological fads which men like Fish helped to spawn have alienated students from taking classes in literature, art, even foreign languages (they can be politicized, too—I had to read feminist pamphlets in Italian back at Yale in 1982). The departments which have been filled with tenured feminists, endowed deconstructionists, erudite explicators of video games, will simply be shunned by sane, healthy students… and eventually defunded by administrators. “Queer Theory” explorations of Shakespeare will be replaced by mandatory courses in business and technical writing, and plenty of ESL classes aimed at H1-B visa engineers from India. And our culture will be all the healthier for it.

Those of us who persevere at schools which have resisted the moral rot can go on teaching those who will learn. Students whose parents can only afford state schools can read the Great Books on their own, and form Meet Up groups to discuss them. They won’t benefit as they would have from encountering learned scholars of these works, or engaging them in a lived community on a campus—and that is a tragedy. But those who have studied the liberal arts are quite familiar with the genre.


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