Have you got a Bachelor of Arts diploma – in English, History, maybe Psychology – moldering in the back of your closet? Are you kicking yourself for not having studied something more applicable to the job market, like Computer Science? Never fear, says Stanley Fish: liberal arts education needs no justification. Indeed, he believes that humanities courses should be given to science majors, “not by way of offer, but by way of requirement.”
Fish, a Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law and a well-known New York Times blogger, knows that humanities departments across the country are in crisis, and he found the audience at Chautauqua on July 19 sympathetic to his call to save the liberal arts.
Today Fish finds more and more universities asking their humanities professors to justify their curricula. But all justifications, says Fish, are defensive and weak by nature, and inapplicable to a field like humanities.
In his research on the latest debate over the plight of arts and humanities education in our universities, Fish finds writers like Victor Ferrall on one side. Ferrall says that the more liberally educated students a society has, the stronger it will be. In addition, the more liberally educated an individual is, the stronger they will be in their personal and professional lives.
To Fish, this justification doesn’t sit very well. It feels, to him, like his mother insisting that he eat his vegetables at the dinner table. “Trust me, it’s good for you,” he can hear her saying, even though the rationale might not be clear.
Fish quoted Ferrall to illuminate the opposing view: “The handful of voices supporting the liberal arts are… being drowned out by the economic forces driving colleges to vocationalism, and by the rising chorus of advocates for the abandonment of the liberal arts.” To Ferrall, this is a disaster, but to others in the education field, it’s a boon. To them, higher education should be about supporting students’ needs and giving them value for their money. It should be about helping them get a job, not shoving silly archaic texts down their throats. And this view is gaining traction.
So, he asked, what exactly will be lost if a future without liberal arts education comes to pass?
To illustrate, he read from George Herbert’s poem, “The Forerunners.” After a poignant and thought-provoking analysis, he said, “I hope you agree with me that ‘The Forerunners’ is an amazing poem. I would even call it a supreme achievement of mind. It’s really good. But… what’s it good for?”
Arguments could be made, Fish admitted, for studying the arts, but they would be “strained and unpersuasive.” So what’s the alternative?
The demand for justification of the study of arts, Fish insisted, is a demand in terms not its own. The pleasure in studying liberal arts is a learned pleasure, and one must study literary conventions, genres, history, and more before being able to fully enjoy the power of a poem like “The Forerunners.”
“If the study of the arts and the humanities is to be justified,” Fish said, “it will be because it keeps alive and refurbishes glorious human artifacts that might well be lost or less available to future generations if they were no longer taught.”