Monday, January 07, 2008

How useful are the humanities? - With Update Below

According to Stanley Fish in his essay "Will the humanities save us?" from this morning's New York Times, the answer - very much oversimplified (better read his essay to get the full argument) - is that the humanities are in fact not very useful - depending of course on how one defines "useful." The 292 people who responded by 3 p.m. take various positions on his essay, most, it seems, disagreeing.

This immediately brings to mind an essay by Dana Gioia (of the National Endowment for the Arts), called "Why Literature Matters" from the Boston Globe, 2 years ago. Gioia's position is not so much the "art for art's sake" but rather that "Good books help make a civil society". This is a different argument from the "well rounded" or "provides cultural capital so you can get a job" argument. And maybe at this point in our civic discourse - with election rhetoric around on all sides - what we really need is a civil society.

According to Patrick Moe, the 293rd commenter on Professor Fish's essay,
To say that there is no social (or, god forbid, business) utility in courses that teach students to write, speak, and analyze better is patently false. These courses expose students to different perspectives on the world, different lenses though which to analyze and critique that world, and to question the hegemonic and normalizing forces that are taken for granted within other disciplines. At their heart the Humanities teach reason in all its different forms.
Certainly it is reason and argument that I am about to teach tomorrow in my writing class, clear thinking for a civil society, for civic discourse. So I hope - and believe - that Mr. Moe is right.

UPDATE: Wed Jan 9 --
I want to mention that my source for Fish's article was Michael, who has a great post on the topic now.