Sunday, February 15, 2009

Stanley Goes to the Fish Market

I read Stanley Fish's blog in the New York Times pretty regularly, and he recently published a piece called The Last Professor. The post questions the survivability of the humanities in the academe, and refers to a recent book by one of Fish's students, Frank Donoghue, who has a new book entitled “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities.”

Fish argues for "higher education as an enterprise characterized by a determined inutility" ... I refer to a similar concept in the phrase "the tyranny of relevance." Fish writes (and I have conflated two paragraphs for clarity's sake):

This view of higher education as an enterprise characterized by a determined inutility has often been challenged, and the debates between its proponents and those who argue for a more engaged university experience are lively and apparently perennial. The question such debates avoid is whether the [ideal of Michael Oakeshott that "there is an important difference between learning which is concerned with the degree of understanding necessary to practice a skill, and learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining"] (celebrated before him by Aristotle, Kant and Max Weber, among others) can really flourish in today’s educational landscape. It may be fun to argue its merits (as I have done), but that argument may be merely academic – in the pejorative sense of the word – if it has no support in the real world from which it rhetorically distances itself. In today’s climate, does it have a chance?

Both Fish and Donoghue say "no" ... regardless of the merits, scholarship as an end in itself untethered to an explicit and argued social utility cannot and will not survive.

There is plenty of evidence to back up their skepticism, not the least of which is that students increasingly look to post-secondary education with career in primary mind. The last flush of inutilitarian idealism might have been the 70s when people like me took classes in Chinese language whose principle was that the memorization of Tang dynasty poetry could lead to fluency. The result of that is that I can recite imperfectly two lines of a famous poem and I can scratch out around 25 characters.

I believe, and I am in agreement with Fish here, that scholarship is justified about anything that is knowable or anything about which we still do not know everything. That covers pretty much any subject. To require an explicit tie between knowability and utility predisposes the scholar's work with reference not to the object studied but to a present paradigm that may have nothing to do with the object. This was precisely the tyranny-of-relevance error of the whole theory digression that bedeviled literary studies for a couple of decades ... I am happy to aver that the grip of airless theory seems to be loosening.

Having said that ... that study itself is sufficient argument for scholarship ... methinks Professor Fish got lost in the marketplace. Because as with everything, the pure argument, the single source of truth, is always wrong at least because it is incomplete but more so because it closes the door to the fuller explication of the underlying dialectic. You see, scholarship has never been free of the tyranny of relevance in any meaningful overarching sense. Certainly one has professor x who spent three decades deciphering runes while his colleagues snickered at his tawdry clothes and poor hygiene. But even professor x lived in an institution situated within a society, an institution subject to rulership, economics, pressures, and social changes.

Complexity is what interests me, and reductive-to-the-single-point arguments run out of steam. I can stamp my foot all I want about pure scholarship ... I could rage on about the undeniable fact that most professors produce precious little of memorable quality ... and I could feel good about it. But it would not get me closer to understanding the dynamics that are rendering scholarship in the current era.

I think you need to start with the counterposing pure scholarship and social context. They are never separate, though social context pays vastly less attention to pure scholarship than the other way around, certainly. The fascination is in the complexity of that relationship. I wrote a few days ago about a forum on the term "Islamism" and I hope that I prefigured a couple of these points there. Emmerson, the scholar talking about Islamism took the term out of its robust and fractious social context and laid it before us as something to be studied. I think that Emmerson lost a chance to change scholarship by insisting on writing a book about this term instead of creating a living monument on the web. But that demonstrates precisely the struggle between the pure scholarship of wresting the term from its context and looking it as a captured wave (not a fixed or reified object) and the social context that wants some feedback from the pointy-heads who do this kind of stuff.

Emmerson lives in a rarified world, the world of the endowed scholar who just thinks and writes. Great work if you can get it. I think that world has a responsibility to knowability, even when the objects it might choose to study are not relevant, or what is more significant posed-as-relevant, to come current issue or problem. In other words, we can demand of endowed scholars that they do something, and then we can tell them that we are free to make of what of what they do what we want. They can't own it or keep it back. Again, that is a dialectic.

The key to saving the humanities is to inhabit both terms of that dialectic.

At MRU, the major research university where I pile seashells on the beach in exchange for loaves and fishes, I have argued on numerous occasions ... and you must realize that I have no formal standing to make this argument ... that the humanities departments need to seize the idea of the double major. I like this one: French and Civil Engineering. Or, Classics and Urban Studies. Or, Art History and Mechanical Engineering. Or, History and Earth Systems.

Yes, there is a grave danger here that the humanities find themselves tied to a stated and required relevance. But, so long as one keeps this slippery slope in mind, such formally combined majors enable the humanities to inject into the real world the perspective of pure scholarship. More significantly from the social context point of view, they can round up some students and increase their own footprint.

So, the French and Civil Engineering works in Africa for the United Nations, the Classics and Urban Studies student intertwines classical ideas of open space and citizenship with modern transportation systems, the Art History and Mechanical Engineering student retains the notion of beauty as he proposes a bridge on a freeway, and the History and Earth Systems student comes to this most complex of human issues with an understanding that we have ripped our environments to shreds since we first walked the earth.

The humanities can surrender the social context parts of the double major to the science and engineering departments, and thereby liberate itself to its own genius, to whit the inutilitarian search for the knowable.

I propose this example by way of outlining a path for the humanities to engage with the world that threatens it even as it operates to save its most previous perquisite ... the ability of scholars to define for themselves what is worth studying. Moaning that the world has no room for us, well, that is an ancient complaint that has an odor not of striving and research but of coffee and upholstery.

A few further notes on complexity and military history

Last night at a dinner of five pointy-heads, my excellent friend Ian and I sparred about the Dresden bombing and that spun into Hiroshima and the Japanese surrender. Dresden is in the news these days because February 13 was the 64th anniversary, and the day often presages neo-Nazi marches about war crimes committed against Germany. There is a nice piece in the English Der Spiegel here in which Frederick Taylor, a British historian who has written extensively on Dresden, is interviewed. (I suspect he is the son of the noted left-wing British historian, AJP Taylor but I could not find any proof of that).

Taylor rejects the view that Dresden was chosen only because it was an architectural jewel and as part of a singular effort to destroy Germany by destroying civilian morale; he argues that these were certainly factors, but that it was also a significant military target. One can quibble, and we certainly now know that the carpet bombing strategy was not a significant factor in the defeat of Germany. But I find a reduction of the bombing of Dresden to war crime to be a kind of moral cubbyhole that exempts the viewer from the full range of dialectics at play in the moment. In other words, once we assign the single factor and require that all argument start there, we lose the ability to understand how things actually happen, how strategies in the high sense devolve into tactics on the ground, if I can make a macabre pun. But complexity of argument can readily come back to its starting point, and Taylor, the champion of a complex argument about Dresden does precisely that. The aforementioned interviews ends thus:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think it was justifiable?

Taylor: Personally, though I can trace the logic of it, I have serious doubts. It is a ghastly example of how war depletes the moral reserves even of democratic nations. Goetz Bergander, who survived the bombing of his native city as an 18-year-old and has written widely about its destruction, has described the bombing in his characteristically forgiving way as "outsize." It was certainly all of that.

I think a similar moral cubbyhole has long obscured clarity in argument, especially among liberals, about the events that ended the Pacific War in 1945. It has been argued that the Japanese were ready to surrender, but either we needed to give them time or we needed to figure some way not to force unconditional surrender. There is no evidence that I know that supports this other than assertion. Significantly ... and this is a grave error in anyone seeking to understand military history ... no credit in this view is given to the implications of the fog of war. What the Americans knew was that resistance had not stopped and that large numbers of troops were being amassed in the South in preparation to resist the assumed invasion. That the Russians had entered the war likely had more impact on the Americans than the Japanese military leadership much of which was committed to a fight to the death of the last Japanese; why would they care whether that final plucked life was given up to a Russian or an American?

But once we credit a notion that the Japanese were ready to surrender before Hiroshima, or that they really surrendered after Hiroshima because they were afraid of the Russians and not the bomb, we avoid a grindingly difficult moral argument: did the A-bombs result in a net of fewer deaths; and, if so, were they thereby justifiable?

That is the moral crux of the end of Japanese war, and it should not be avoided.

A last note:

I have meant to write about this for a few days, so I append it here. There was a touching article in the New York Times entitled "My Sister's Keeper". It concerns aging colonies of lesbian separatists who have kept the faith, as it were, with that peculiar 70s ideology. I want to note that the lesbian separatists did damage to the gay movement, and they are not heroes of mine even if they have lived their lives courageously as they saw fit and so desired. The gay movement of the 70s was overwhelmingly male not because we rejected women but because women rejected us. They had lots of excuses ... all men are rapists, the gay boys have too much sex, we expected the women to make the coffee while we did the movement ... but only one argument is real. Feminism of the 70s was homophobic in a dominant sense, that is in its majority and in its actions. Lesbians active in the women's movement felt they had to hide or at least downplay their homosexuality. The separatists, while hardly hiding from feminism, hid from the world and proclaimed that isolation as liberation. They contributed nothing to our present freedom, and their absence weakened us both in the short term and in the long term. I wish them well in their retirement, but the record tells the tale.

Photos by Arod. The owl is from a window on Divisadero Street; the lion is from a Board of Education building on Van Ness; the window reflection shot is just off Market near Gough; the statue is from Golden Gate Park; the finger is from Hayes Street (I think) near Masonic; all are from San Francisco.

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