Saturday, March 19, 2016
"The paradox is that the stronger the case made for the utility of the humanities, the weaker the case for their support."
I return to concerns closer to home: higher education generally and academic freedom specifically. These columns are written under the shadow of the (perennial) “crisis of the humanities,” a crisis to which humanists have responded by mounting ever more elaborate (and unconvincing) justifications of the humanities as a practice that will save democracy, if not the world. These justifications, wittingly or unwittingly, have the effect of implying that the humanities have nothing to say for themselves, that any defense of them can only be instrumental. An instrumental defense of the humanities is a defense that rests everything on the humanities’ usefulness to some other project—a robust economy, the realization of democratic principles, a peaceful world. The question posed to the humanities is “What are you good for?,” and the answer is assumed to issue from a measure of “good” that the humanities do not contain. The answer given in the columns reprinted here is that the humanities are good for nothing, for that is the only answer that preserves the humanities’ distinctiveness.If humanistic work is valued because of what it does politically or economically or therapeutically, it becomes an appendage to these other projects, and in a pinch it will always be marginalized and perhaps discarded when its instrumental payoff fails to arrive, as it always will. The paradox is that the stronger the case made for the utility of the humanities, the weaker the case for their support. In order to be truly healthy, at least in an internal way, the humanities must be entirely disassociated from the larger world of political/ social/ economic consequences, must, that is, be appreciated for their own sake and for no other reason. Although the phrase “ivory tower” is often used in derision, it is one that humanists should embrace, for it is only by embracing it that the humanities, and liberal arts education in general, can be distinguished from the forces that are always poised to turn them to foreign purposes, to purposes not their own. The distinctiveness of the humanities and liberal arts education rests on their inutility, on their fostering a mode of thought that does not lead (at least by design) to the “practical” solution of real-world problems but to a deeper understanding of why they are problems in the first place and why they may never be resolved. That distinctiveness is compromised whenever the liberal arts dance to the tunes of politics, economics, citizen-making, or anything else. Moreover, it is only in the context of an enforced purity of motive—we do contemplative analysis; that’s our job, and we don’t do anyone else’s— that a defensible account of academic freedom can be formulated. If the work of the liberal arts is narrowly conceived as the search for knowledge, the freedom to pursue that work in a manner unimpeded by external constituencies that want inquiry to reach predetermined conclusions is an obvious and necessary good.
Stanley Fish (2015).
Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education (p. xvii).
Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Saturday, March 12, 2016
A brand new edition of Common-place, the journal of early American history, is now laptop, tablet, and mobile phone ready for you at common-place.org.
In this issue, Hilary Wyss presents a moving account of the importance of letter writing in eighteenth century Native American communities as revealed through the digital archives of the Yale Indian Papers Project and Dartmouth’s Occom Circle collection.
John Saillant details the largely unknown story of the generation of attacks by whites on Charleston’s black Methodists and their churches that preceded the much better known razing of an independent black meeting house attended by Denmark Vesey in 1822.
Jordan Stein, in an interesting reflection on the application of the trope “Black Lives Matter” to the study of early America, analyzes a 1760 broadsheet by the poet Jupiter Hammon to ask whether an overdetermined emphasis on enslavement obscures other essentially important aspects of early American black lives.
Elsewhere in Common-place, there’s a roundtable discussion of the implications that follow from Common-place’s recent publication of Forest Leaves, the newly discovered work of abolitionist, suffragist, poet and author Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
Konstantin Dierks demonstrates his use of GIS and a host of other data to literally map the surprisingly early development of American globalization. Christina Michelon provides a literally touching account of the history of Valentine’s cards. Pierre Gervais shows how one easily overlooked sentence in a Pennsylvania flour broker’s 1786 correspondence revealed a widespread, organized, and successful effort to manipulate and control access to early American regional markets. Cybele Gontar tells the story of the sole surviving broadside document marking the closing of the Port of New Orleans to American shipping by Spain in 1798. Poet Austin Segrest, a descendant of an Old South family, rediscovers, and then channels poetically, the memoirs of his New England Puritan forebear Roger Clapp. Finally, we raise a glass to Michelle Orihel, who tells us how she uses the eighteenth century ritual of toasting to bring the politics of the 1790s to life in her classroom.
All this and more, is waiting for you and your laptop, tablet, or mobile phone at www.common-place.org now.