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Defending the Humanities

From: The Good Society
Volume 17, Number 2, 2008
pp. 76-80 | 10.1353/gso.0.0051

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It is easy to dismiss critiques of the state of the humanities in American higher education, if only because there have been so many of them for so long. It is now more than two decades since Allan Bloom published his The Closing of the American Mind and more than a century since Irving Babbitt's Literature and the American College. Since Bloom's bestseller, Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature (1990) John Ellis' Literature Lost (1997), and Anthony Kronman's Education's End (2007) have appeared.1 One might think that such overlapping critiques would strengthen the case presented, but when dire warnings are repeatedly sounded and no obvious disaster seems to occur, eventually the warnings themselves are discredited. The very titles of some of the works cited suggest that the struggle is over and only catastrophe can follow. Why then make any attempt and why bother, for that matter, reading the book itself? Babbitt, Bloom and the rest, whatever the titles of their books, have indeed made cogent arguments that need to be taken into account in considering the situation of the humanities in higher education, but the necessary discussion should begin, I suggest, by renouncing both extreme claims on behalf of the humanities and equally extreme claims of their irrelevance to the contemporary world.

The rhetorical effect of making extreme claims can be illustrated by a negative example, a New York Times column by that master rhetorician Stanley Fish. "Will the Humanities Save Us?" he asked in a 2008 column.2 Fish asks "is it the business of the humanities, or of any other area of academic study, to save us?" The obvious answer is no, of course the humanities will not "save us," whatever "saving us" might be taken to mean. Whatever salvation involves, it is surely something too big and too ultimate to be influenced very much by a few college courses. By framing a question about the usefulness of the humanities in such extreme terms, Fish makes it easy to answer his own question with a straightforward negative. His own extreme answer—"none whatsoever"—to the question of the use of the humanities does not seem quite so extreme when offered as the alternative to "they will save us."

Fish cleverly presents his own question about salvation as a rephrasing of the claim Anthony Kronman makes on behalf of the humanities in Education's End. Kronman himself, however, does not claim that the humanities "will save us." His claim is much more modest—and much more defensible. One does not have to claim that the study of the humanities will do everything to argue that it is worthwhile. To bring out the limited nature of Kronman's claims, I have italicized his qualifying language in the following passage:

The humanities give young people the opportunity and encouragement to put themselves—their values and commitments—into a critical perspective. They help students gain some distance, incomplete though it must be, on their younger selves and to get some greater traction in the enterprise of living the lives they mean to live and not just those in which they happen by accident to find themselves. No one ever perfectly or permanently achieves a critical perspective of this kind. But its relative enlargement defines the freedom (the "liberation") that a liberal education promises, and the ability of the humanities to help students toward this goal has traditionally been an important source of their authority


This is a reasonable if debatable thesis; its rejection would be controversial as the rejection of the ability of the humanities to "save us" is not. Kronman says only that the humanities give students "the opportunity and encouragement" to gain perspective; he offers no guarantee that all students will take the opportunity, nor does he imply that even those students who do make use of the humanities to "gain some distance" about their lives will necessarily become morally superior individuals.

Fish responds to Kronman's argument first by caricaturing it as the notion that contact with great works of literature and thought necessarily makes one a good person and then by a reductio ad absurdum: "If it were true, the most...

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