A friend, perhaps a co-conspirator, turned me on to an interesting blog written by a Stanely Fish at the NY Times that suggest that the humanities are useless in our world and that they are essentially (in a philosophical sense) useless as they seek not to validate themselves. This is one of the top things that could produce a truly "honest" if not agitated response from me. Here goes...
Contrary to Fish I think that the humanities are one of the only good things left in the world, indeed one of the few things that I see as hopeful, something so hopeful that I plan to devote my life to the uselessness of the humanities. It is easy, (naive?), to see the humanities are existing in their own little world, having locked themselves within the imposing confines of the ivory tower. Indeed, we bicker among ourselves about trivialities, insignificant details of theory, translation and interpretation. Much of our highly theoretical discussion is lost upon the "lay" people mingling at the gates of our towers. But is this not also so for medical jargon, legalese and the highly specific lingo of biochemists and the like? Perhaps our most fatal flaw is that our subject matter tends to me flaky at best, things uninteresting and often highly dependent on intimate familiarity with ivory debate. I have even described my ethnography as "basically a really long diary entry."
Fish makes three main arguments in his entry: 1, that the best chance of relevancy that the humanities has in its abilities to open minds and impart noble lessons and ideas to its participants. 2, that this is utterly false because professors and students of the humanities are often not the epitome of do-gooders. 3, that the humanities do not have inherent in their studies a need to relate or legitimize against other worldly pursuit and therefore have no relevance in their very definition.
I'll save the first point for last. Regarding points 2 and 3, I suggest that perhaps scholars within the humanities have been driven to their sorry state by a need to compete in a money-hungry and humanitarily empty world that rewards competency, specialization and production in lieu of the subtle noble lessons and wisdoms that drew those scholars to pursue the humanities. As a college student I know that the majority of the student population relates to their field of study with regards to their expected salaries upon graduation. We in the humanities tend to focus elsewhere because of the dismal discussion that would ensue upon discussion of our future after graduation in such terms. The humanities have been squeezed into a world that resists their core ideals. They have become jobs, professions. My very survival as an organic being is tied to my ability to compete in a job market, one that is very small for the humanities. I have already begun to specialize in radical ways, to get caught up in frivolous debate (my decisions within which will likely make or break my career). Perhaps scholars in the humanities are bitter, prime examples of the destruction wrought by a world that has all but forgotten is human side. For A Deity's sake, there is actual ardent debate in this country about the benefits and downfalls of using torture, rather specific types of torture. (Torture that is too tortuous?) Yet we have sought legitimization and for what reasons? What do the humanities offer?
Contrary to Fish again I think that the humanities do offer the ability and time to gain noble wisdom and humanitarian (in a humanist sense, not a Peace Corp sense) lessons. There is far more to offer than just insight into perhaps being, if not a better person, than a more insightful one. I think that that the humanities will be the only thing to save the world, that if not in my time then in the time of my future students, the most respected and relevant positions will be within the humanities. Reliance on science and medicine and business will result in the dismal and dark machine-ridden worlds once described by the likes of H.G. Wells, Asimov, Vonnegut and others. Worlds where human worth is fading as our inefficiencies are exposed. War will reign as resources grow scarce and political decisions are based on a bloody, perhaps nuclear, war for hegemony. Social darwinism will re-emerge. Riots will rage and the rich hide in their own steel towers as the power of medicine falls in the light of pandemic flu and radiation poisoning.
The humanities offer what is already inherent in their name. The human element. A connection to ourselves and the abstract. We offer a break in the rapidity of the day, a chance to reflect, a chance to blog. We recognize the beauty of the human condition, of the great works and varieties of humans. This is an abstract thing, it is terribly difficult to describe the humanitarian message in our language. The humanities offer ourselves, not the selves of scholars, but the self within each and everyone of us; something that has been turned over to the likes of medicine and business. We often associate ourselves with our healths. And truly, how many devote their lives to profit, having been told since childhood that arts and crafts are girly, that music is for nerds, having excelled based on tests that reward scientific and math centered thinking. Like it or not, Fish, were it not for the humanities the world would be a sad place; naught but concrete structures, Fox News, a starving working class and ethnic war. We hold the very essence of the human within our frivolous debate and abstract speak. Likely, we will continue to exist as useless, merely a vessel, but projects like Human Terrain System are already showing the bleak brick wall that is hit without the humanities.
We certainly don't fit in a statistic and we certainly don't force our message down the throats of developing minds like business, science and the like, but our importance is not to be seen as futile and fruity in a world run by the ever false and misleading "fact," facts which are as much products of individuals as are the works of DaVinci. Such talk, as Fish's, shakes me to my very core as I see humanity slipping from the world. If I must, I charge myself with raising and unholy army and waging a humanitarian war on capitalism, democracy and conservatism! And as we march gloriously upon the smitten ruins of our first victory we shall sound our Horn of Culture and cry, "For LJ!"
5 weeks ago