Yesterday I attended a talk by the renowned/infamous literary theorist Stanley Fish. Fish’s talk was entitled “What are the Humanities Worth?” He began exploring this question by referencing Louis Menand’s article “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.”
Menand poses a similar question, often asked by students: “Why do I have to read this?” Menand’s initial response is “Because this is the sort of book students in college read.” Menand feels this response is inadequate, but according to Stanley Fish, this is exactly what we should be telling students: “Just because.” What are the humanities worth? Don’t ask that question, Stanley Fish replies. (But you just did, Mr. Fish!!)
The auditorium was packed with students, and as I looked around, it was clear that many of them a) had no idea what he was talking about, or b) were unconvinced by his assertion that the poem “The Fore-runners” by George Herbert is its own justification and that we shouldn’t need to say anything more about the issue.
My main problem with his (entertaining and erudite) talk was this: he started by referencing Menand, who wants to determine why we should REQUIRE STUDENTS to study certain things. He ended by explaining why the study of the humanities should continue to exist and why colleges and universities should continue to fund those studies. (Sort of: his talk was also a sort of rail against the whole enterprise of “justification,” a position I also take issue with: more on this in a moment.) These are not the same question. Sure, the study of, say, literature, has all sorts of value that can’t be quantified, but Menand isn’t asking about that. He’s asking a question that I often ask. Why should every single student who enters a given institution, regardless of his/her personal goals, be required to study literary analysis, philosophy, etc.?
Fish’s premise in his talk was that “justification” entails explaining the monetary benefit of something, and he scorned the attitude that the purpose of an education is to qualify oneself for a good job. This is all very well for Mr. Stanley Fish, who outlined his own career trajectory nicely during the Q&A: he finished his doctorate in the ’60s, was immediately hired as an academic, and has been in a comfortable tenured job ever since, in addition to having the passion and skills required to be a world-famous cultural critic. For my average student, who has limited literacy, whose parents may well be scrabbling to make a living after their recent arrival from another country, and who doesn’t particularly like school but knows that he/she has no hope in hell of earning a decent wage without at least a college degree, the problem with viewing an education as part of a career path may be less obvious.
I’m not sure such a student needs to be investing him/herself in the study of George Herbert. I’m not sure that a CEGEP education, as it is currently organized, is serving that student as well as it could. I agree that many students benefit from spending time with poetry, or the living conditions in medieval France, or the works of Aristotle. For some students, though, these studies are frustrating and impenetrable, and the upshot is that they leave these courses having learned little, and feeling relieved that they jumped through one more hoop on their way to the life and career they want.
I have an odd little educational fantasy that might not be fantasy at all – I’m surprised that it is not a more active reality.
What would happen if established corporations, industries etc. set up their own “universities”?
For example: say you graduate from high school and you are currently inclined to work as a telephone technician. To do so, you need to apply to “colleges” established by major telephone companies like Bell Canada. These colleges do not just involve technical training; they are created by teams of highly trained educational consultants, as well as corporate managers, who determine together what kind of community they want the company to be, what qualities employees should possess, and what kinds of study would encourage these qualities. Literature and philosophy courses, therefore, would have a focus that might seem clearly relevant to students, even if they would also expose students to larger ideas, like the broccoli your mom pureed into your delicious buttery mashed potatoes.
Credits from these colleges would be transferable and recognized by other companies. Let’s say you apply to study with every telephone company in the country and are accepted by all of them; you choose to study with Bell, but when you graduate, no jobs with Bell are available. Not just your education but your application history would be valuable information on your CV, and hiring practices would need to account for an applicant’s entire experience. If you complete some of your studies but decide that working with telephones is not for you, your application to study with a local plumbing company would need to include a personal reflection on what you’ve learned so far and why it makes you a good candidate to study and apprentice with them.
What are the problems with such a system? What are the benefits? When I look around at many of my students who are struggling to make ends meet, to fit in all their required courses, and to find the relevance in a lot of their class material, I ask myself what might provide them with greater motivation and therefore greater learning. Telling them, a la Stanley Fish, that they shouldn’t be looking for relevance, that they’re asking the wrong questions, is not going to cut it with most of them. Would it help if the goal was clear, and if it was really and truly the student’s own personal goal?
Image by Billy Frank Alexander