Monday, January 19, 2009

Can Poetry Save Us?

This article, "The Last Professor," by Stanley Fish (see photo at right) was published in the New York Times on January 18, 2009 and was called to our attention by Dr. Yarbrough. I have added photos, images and links (this one , for example, will take you to the original article and the many comments posted by readers of the New York Times). To see my thoughts on the text and to leave your own, click on the "comments" button below this post.

The Last Professor
In previous columns and in a recent book I have argued that higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.

This is a very old idea that has received periodic re-formulations. Here is a statement by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott [see image at left] that may stand as a representative example: “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.”

Understanding and explaining what? The answer is understanding and explaining anything as long as the exercise is not performed with the purpose of intervening in the social and political crises of the moment, as long, that is, as the activity is not regarded as instrumental – valued for its contribution to something more important than itself.

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 Oakeshottian ideal (celebrated before him by Aristotle [see image at right from Raphael's School of Athens, painted in 1511], 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?

To read the rest of this article click here!.

In a new book, “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities,” Frank Donoghue (as it happens, a former student of mine) asks that question and answers “No.”

Donoghue begins by challenging the oft-repeated declaration that liberal arts education in general and the humanities in particular face a crisis, a word that suggests an interruption of a normal state of affairs and the possibility of restoring the natural order of things.

“Such a vision of restored stability,” says Donoghue, “is a delusion” because the conditions to which many seek a return – healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting [see image at left] – have largely vanished. Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past. In “ two or three generations,” Donoghue predicts, “humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.”

How has this happened? According to Donoghue, it’s been happening for a long time, at least since 1891, when Andrew Carnegie congratulated the graduates of the Pierce College of Business for being “ fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting” rather than wasting time “upon dead languages.”

Industrialist Richard Teller Crane was even more pointed in his 1911 dismissal of what humanists call the “life of the mind.” No one who has “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness . . . are those who are useful.”

The opposition between this view and the view held by the heirs of Matthew Arnold’s conviction that poetry will save us [that's Arnold in the image at right] could not be more stark. But Donoghue counsels us not to think that the two visions are locked in a struggle whose outcome is uncertain. One vision, rooted in an “ethic of productivity” and efficiency, has, he tells us, already won the day; and the proof is that in the very colleges and universities where the life of the mind is routinely celebrated, the material conditions of the workplace are configured by the business model that scorns it.

The best evidence for this is the shrinking number of tenured and tenure-track faculty and the corresponding rise of adjuncts, part-timers more akin to itinerant workers than to embedded professionals.
Humanities professors like to think that this is a temporary imbalance and talk about ways of redressing it, but Donoghue insists that this development, planned by no one but now well under way, cannot be reversed. Universities under increasing financial pressure, he explains, do not “hire the most experienced teachers, but rather the cheapest teachers.” Tenured and tenure-track teachers now make up only 35 percent of the pedagogical workforce and “this number is steadily falling.”

Once adjuncts are hired to deal with an expanding student body (and the student body is always expanding), budgetary planners find it difficult to dispense with the savings they have come to rely on; and “as a result, an adjunct workforce, however imperceptible its origins . . . has now mushroomed into a significant fact of academic life.”

What is happening in traditional universities where the ethos of the liberal arts is still given lip service is the forthright policy of for-profit universities, which make no pretense of valuing what used to be called the “higher learning.” John Sperling, [see image at left] founder of the group that gave us Phoenix University, is refreshingly blunt: “Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’” nonsense.

The for-profit university is the logical end of a shift from a model of education centered in an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration to a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment.

In this latter model , the mode of delivery – a disc, a computer screen, a video hook-up – doesn’t matter so long as delivery occurs. Insofar as there are real-life faculty in the picture, their credentials and publications (if they have any) are beside the point, for they are just “delivery people.” [see image at right]

Sperling understands the difficulty of achieving accreditation for his institution as a proxy “for cultural battles between defenders of 800 years of educational (and largely religious) traditions, and innovation that was based on the ideas of the marketplace – transparency, efficiency, productivity and accountability.”

Those ideas have now triumphed (Carnegie and Crane are victorious), and this means, Donoghue concludes, “that all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary.” And as a corollary “professors will come to be seen by everyone (not just those outside the academy) as unaffordable anomalies.”

In his preface, Donoghue [see image at left] tells us that he will “offer nothing in the way of uplifting solutions to the problems [he] describes.” In the end, however, he can’t resist recommending something and he advises humanists to acquire “a thorough familiarity with how the university works,” for “only by studying the institutional histories of scholarly research, of tenure, of academic status, and . . . of the ever-changing college curriculum, can we prepare ourselves for the future.”

But – and this is to his credit – he doesn’t hold out the slightest hope that this future we may come to understand will have a place in it for us.

People sometimes believe that they were born too late or too early. After reading Donoghue’s book, I feel that I have timed it just right, for it seems that I have had a career that would not have been available to me had I entered the world 50 years later. Just lucky, I guess.


  1. I feel genuinely ambivalent about the tension Fish describes between the value of a traditional liberal arts education and an education that is more narrowly instrumental. On the one hand, I have always been instinctually drawn to educational endeavors in which learning is itself a goal and not merely a means to getting a grade, a degree, or a job. You can find evidence of my inclinations in that direction at every turn in my educational career.

    On the other hand, when I put on my teaching hat and look out at a classroom filled with degree-seeking students, I feel compelled to help them learn information and skills they may find useful in future courses. A syllabus that categorically denies its value to anything more important than itself sounds uncomfortably cultish to my ears. Even if the “learning for learning sake” cult is a cult I want to be in, I feel uneasy about requiring students to learn its rituals if that is not something they signed up for. And though I believe some of my students may share my love of learning for learning’s sake, I know that is not true for all of them. It is not even true of all of those who want something more than a grade.

    The easy way out is to have it both ways and argue that a liberal arts education has instrumental value in that it teaches students to be “critical thinkers.” But “critical thinking” is so vague. As far as I know, no one ever got a degree in critical thinking. And I daresay not everyone who has a degree thinks critically. What passes as “critical thinking” in one class may be dismissed as ideological cant or shallow naysaying in another.

    When I want to bridge the liberal arts/instrumental skills divide, I guess the term I use instead of “critical thinking” is “persuasive writing” (or, more broadly, rhetoric). Even though different audiences find different kinds of writing to be “persuasive,” teaching my students skills that may help them persuade an educated audience strikes me as a more tangible goal. And to the extent that educated audiences respond favorably to those who demonstrate knowledge of opposing viewpoints, my “instrumentalist” goals carry water for my liberal arts instincts.

    I agree with Fish, and with Donoghue I guess, on the threat to the profession represented by the exploitation of underpaid adjunct labor.

  2. I agree with your ambivalence, but I also worry about trying to sell ourselves as "applicable" or "valid" to our students. While they might not have signed up for a class in critical thinking, well, that's what they got--and considering the other "tangible" classes they're taking (business, etc.), I think they need a little humanities/critical thinking in their diet. Becuase ultimately, a student doesn't know what they need in the long run: I always ask my students, what will you be doing today in 10 years? While some have an idea, none can obviously say for certain when pressed for details. So if they don't know where they will be, how do they know what they'll need to get there? "Critical thinking" to me isn't a liberal dogma or a self indulgent exercise, but simply a set of skills and perspectives them help them read the world. You can teach it through modes of writing (which is why your approach of persuasive writing is brilliant), the interpretation of liteature, the discussion of genres and forms of art (which is where comic books comes in!), and the understanding of abstract theories and philosophy. None of these equal a degree or a real world job, but they make one more employable because he or she can "see" the world in a more nuanced, sophisticated way then someone who was never taught to "read" a photograph or explicate a sonnet. It's not about being cultured or worldly, but rather it's being able to shift critical and cultural perspectives on a dime. In business, it could be as simple as understanding another person's culture and expectations when making a deal, or it could be more personally profound, such as seeing a woman's perspective in a marriage from reading Woolf and others (God knows it's helped me).

    I strongly believe that college should teach you to improvise in life. You shouldn't just leave with a narrow set of skills (a future profession) but with a comprehensive view of the world that shows you the possibilities of existence--and why people have lived/existed the way they have. If nothing else, it gives you a profound sense of connection, a kind of lingua franca that is welcoming wherever you go. I remember when I lived in Chicago right after graduating from TU, I was wandering around downtown in blizzard weather, going from interview to interview (getting no jobs, mind you), and feeling totally overwhelmed. So then I popped into the Art Institute for refuge and found the originals of paintings I had studied in college...and felt that I had friends that welcomed me "home." I spend hours and hours there on free Tuesdays, and it all seemed familiar--I knew this place as if I had been there before. That experience got me through the rough month or so of looking for a job, and gave me a home base to return to when I was beaten down. I didn't know I needed that years ago, but then, it proved invaluable.

    So we have to give our students the skills and ideas they need to flourish, but I hope we don't have to shy away from the great rewards of critical thinking. I often have discussions with my students about Humanities class which they initially (or even afterward) find utterly pointless; but reading Rousseau's The Social Contract this semester, I keep pointing out that our country might not exist without this document...everything is ripples in a pond, and the ripples caused by this document (and countless others) are still splashing against our boat. Ignore it, say it's irrelevant, but it's still there...our job is to make them aware of the boat and the untold depths of the water around them.

  3. Josh, I think Fish shares your worry about “trying to sell ourselves as ‘applicable’ or ‘valid’ to our students,” although I am not sure if “worry” is part of his emotional palate. I feel safer saying that Fish categorically rejects the notion that professors of higher education “properly understood” (as he puts it) should be concerned in any way with applicability. Or with getting students to see what we do as “valid.”

    I think Fish would part company with you, however, when you make the claim that it is important that students get the kind of critical thinking they get in a humanities course because it will make students “employable in the long run” because they will, as you say, “’see’ the world in a more nuanced, sophisticated way then someone who was never taught to ‘read’ a photograph or explicate a sonnet.” As I understand Fish, he wants to completely decouple the goals of higher education from the applicability game.

    I don’t agree with Fish on that point. I think applicability (short-term and long-term) is one useful measure of the work we do as educators.
    There is a big gap between applicability that is realized in a narrow sense as employability and applicability that is realized in the much more general sense of happiness/awareness/connectedness that you go on to describe.

    Like you, I didn’t go to college to get a narrow set of skills. I wanted a “comprehensive view of the world and the possibilities of existence.” I wanted to know “why people have lived/existed the way they have.” These were my values and they still are, and they go a long way to describing why I put such high value on ten years of my life that I spent living in Spain and China. I value, as you do, the great rewards of critical thinking.

    I realize, however, that my values and your values and the values of many English teachers are not the values of those who sustain state-supported higher education in Oklahoma or Illinois (according to the pie chart on my bulletin board: 32% of ECU’s budget comes from state appropriations and 22% comes from tuition). Have they charged us with imparting those values—which, to the extent that they celebrate tolerance and “critical thinking,” are “liberal”? That’s a real question. I’m not sure I know the answer.