Stanley Fish has a review of Frank Donoghue's recent book The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. Reading his review, I couldn't help but think of my recent post on the links between my teaching and Bill Readings' University in Ruins. Fish sums up Donoghue's position:
The opposition between this view and the view held by the heirs of Matthew Arnold’s conviction that poetry will save us 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
Fish quotes Donoghue's conclusion: "that all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary." And Fish applauds Donoghue's utter pessimism: there is no future for the humanities, no return to glory, no Renaissance. They will all be subsumed under the wave of productivity.
I agree with Donoghue and Fish regarding the humanities future--especially in these economic times. As a rhetorician and a writing instructor, I am not sure how to feel about such a prognosis. While I believe that Universities have a larger obligation to craft citizens rather than scholars, I also feel that literature, philosophy, history, art, and all the other courses on the endangered species list help develop critical and imaginative thinking. These courses cannot be reduced to mere delivery (of static content). They train the brain to produce. But, as Fish points out, that's not the way these disciplines have conceptualized or marketed themselves in centuries past. Whether they can refashion themselves in the public's mind as something more than extravagance or intellectual decadence remains to be seen. But, while perhaps as not as absolutist as Fish and Donoghue, I remain skeptical.
Again: I am torn. I am torn because I feel that the Humanities have put themselves in this position. Referring again to Bill Readings' University in Ruins, this the lingering malaise of the Modern Enlightenment's divorcing academia from the public sphere (Kant's mantra to "think, but obey" and his distinction between public and private faculties). Our faculties need to become public once again. The University, as a place X, crumbled. Readings concludes: "In attempting to sketch how one might dwell in the ruins of the University without belief but with a commitment to Thought" (175). And rhetoric, when taught well, does this better than most of the disciplines surrounding it. Sophistic rhetoric is the art of eschewing belief, of dwelling in ruins, or appreciating agonism and celebrating insecurity--all while encouraging critical, thoughtful engagement. Welcome to the parlor. We might not be able to craft Matthew Arnolds, but I'll settle for Kevin Kellys--people who are active participants in actual (i.e., not-necessarily-academic) social networks. And that's the real crux--for Kant, for the humanities, for students: in the 21st century, the era of the network, you can't go it alone; you have to produce something for someone.
Productivity is not necessarily a dirty term. The digital citizenship course I am working with this semester aims to produce humanitarians--people who are critical participants in a community. People who are ready, able, and willing to work with other humans. My job, as a "new" professor, is to help increase the productivity of that work. I do not aim to rebuild a University, rather I hope to build people (such work is risky, ideological, difficult, controversial--but anything worth teaching should involve all four of these things). This is what the humanities need to sell in a very concrete fashion: we build good [productive] people. (Of course, I work at a research university... and they don't give out tenure for producing people...)