Can the arts and humanities 'save us'?

humanities mugs

Clockwise from top left: Gordon Chang, Stephen Hinton, Paula Moya, Jeffrey Schnapp, Harry Elam, Bryan Wolf, Russell Berman, Andrea Lunsford, John Bender, Rush Rehm.

In his New York Times blog "Think Again," Stanley Fish, a legal scholar and literary critic, recently discussed the purpose of the humanities, concluding: "It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then can they do? They don't do anything, if by 'do' is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don't bring effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them."

Stanford Report writer Cynthia Haven recently asked a number of faculty if they agreed. She also asked them: What future do you see for the arts and humanities? How might the arts and the humanities—in the university setting—retool themselves for the 21st century?

Stephen Hinton

Professor of Music and Senior Associate Dean for the Humanities

Stanley Fish, who made his scholarly reputation as a deconstructionist literary critic, is well known for painting a picture of the humanities in his own image. As a public intellectual he performs the role of gadfly: his narrowly circumscribed views of the humanities are valuable to the extent that they provoke people into responding with a more adequate, complete, and satisfying understanding than his own. (This page is further evidence that the irritation factor of his articles is considerable.) According to Fish’s limited understanding, studying literature has little social function beyond vocational training and aesthetic pleasure. Granted, these pursuits are not without value, but they’re hardly all the humanities have to offer. History, religious studies and philosophy, for example, are disciplines that Fish rarely mentions in his columns, if ever. His stance derives from worldview that was de rigueur during the Cold War period; its anti-utilitarian underpinnings applied then no less to the theoretical sciences than they did to the humanities. Looking beyond the confines of mid-20th-century academia, however, it is not hard to see how the humanities, which at Stanford include the arts, have shaped our lives and our history and hence can be justified in countless ways. The humanities on their own may not be able to save us, as Fish asserts, but we’d be lost without them.

John Bender

Jean G. and Morris M. Doyle Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature

Stanley Fish’s notion of the humanities as useless is a product of the era of high modernism during the 1950s and 1960s when he was educated and came to prominence. This was the moment of the New Criticism in literature and of Abstract Expressionism in painting—both versions of art for art’s sake. For Fish, the humanities are about pleasure—the detached pleasure of aesthetic experience for the viewer or reader and, by extension, the pleasure of self-expression by the artist.

The humanities do confer pleasure. More so than the beauty of mathematics, the symmetry of DNA, or the perfection of nano-writing? Fish uses the excuse of pleasure to deny the ways in which philosophy, literature, history and the arts stretch our perceptions and our ideas into realms outside daily experience and thereby enable us to understand everyday life from multiple perspectives. In short, to make informed judgments.

Why devalue the outcome of training that enables us to present a tightly conceived, crisply written legal brief, a persuasive report, an intricate critical essay or novel—or, for that matter, compellingly designed advertising? Not too long ago, the New York Times reported interviews with a number of CEOs who connected their ability as managers to their long-term engagement with books of all kinds, including fiction and poetry. In the Renaissance, when the term "humanities" originated, literary training (in Latin) emerged as necessary not only to the swelling ranks of officers who ran the new modern state but as signs of the wisdom required of kings. Neither they nor the modern CEOs considered the humanities useless.

Andrea Lunsford

Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor of English, Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric and Louise and Claude Rosenberg Jr. University Fellow in Undergraduate Education

Stanley Fish offers two possibilities: Either the humanities are meant to "save us"—a position he attributes to Anthony Kronman—or they are "of no use whatsoever." Fish takes the latter position, arguing that, rather than being good for something, the humanities "are their own good." This dichotomous choice doesn't seem necessary, or wise, to me: The humanities can be "their own good" while also bringing about "effects in the world." Fish himself mentions one of these effects—the sheer pleasure that comes from engaging with great beauty, for instance. But the humanities also bring about other effects: Through engagement with them, students learn to inhabit multiple worlds and viewpoints; to analyze with precision; to communicate with grace and eloquence—indeed, to produce new knowledge of their own, just as they can learn to do through the sciences. So to Fish's either/or, I reply rather both/and."

Russell Berman

Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Comparative Literature, Christensen Professor for the Director of the Introduction to the Humanities Program and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow

As Fish reminds us, the humanities do not "save us," but what does, after all, short of faith? The humanities can however provide an education to a set of intellectual capacities of great value in life: the ability to understand and interpret, to judge and appreciate, to argue and agree, to speak and write well, and, yes, to find pleasure in thinking. Our curricula in the humanities can build these abilities in students; this is hardly a negligible effect in the world. Of course Fish knows quite well that the humanities provide instruction in, for example, composition and languages. His genuine target however is research, not teaching, and the case for basic research in the humanities is indeed a tougher one to make than in the sciences or medicine (although surely not tougher than in the social sciences or law). That he overlooks students is symptomatic of our problem in the research university. The primary challenge for higher education today—especially in the context of the economic turn—is to reassert the teaching mission, and not only in the humanities. This means rethinking curricular structures and faculty responsibilities, as well as breaking down the deleterious barrier between graduate education and K-12 teacher preparation.

Bryan Wolf

Jeanette and William Hayden Jones Professor in American Art and Culture and Co-Director of the Stanford Institute for Creativity in the Arts and the Arts Initiative

Fish is trying to save the humanities from instrumentalization—to justify their existence by having to show measurable results in the world. In this way, he’s insisting on the difference between the kind of work the humanities do and the sort of work and results you get in the sciences. In that way, I applaud his intentions. But I profoundly disagree with the results of his thinking, which is then to deprive the humanities of all power except pleasure. In this way, he deeply undersells and underestimates the value that the humanities have.

The humanities encourage ways of thinking that are not defined by hard-and-fast rules, they encourage thinking out of the box, they encourage intuition, they encourage creativity, they place their deepest value on the imagination, and in this way what the humanities offer is not a practical result in the world. It's a way of thinking about the world. And this is at the very core of a first-rate university education. The arts and the humanities encourage critical thinking, self-awareness, sensitivity to cultures different from our own.

Harry J. Elam Jr

Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities, Faculty Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts, Robert and Ruth Halperin University Fellow for Undergraduate Education and Senior Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education

The problem with Stanley Fish's quote is that he ignores the histories—ironically even his own—in which art and literature have functioned not as entertainment but as social forces capable of affecting and effecting change. Through time and across the globe, communities and nations have banned and burned books, imprisoned novelists and executed actors not simply because they questioned a particular work's "pleasurable" qualities but because they feared the substantive potential of art and literature to influence minds and threaten their social order.

Invariably, in times of social need, one of the most immediate ways that people have employed to address their cause is through art. Within the legacy of African American experiences with the Unites States and the oppressive conditions that Africans in America confronted on their arrival, art and literature have consistently functioned as forms of resistance. From the Negro Spirituals that operated as coded messages of escape in times of slavery, to the poems and prose of the Harlem Renaissance to the black revolutionary plays of the turbulent 1960s, black arts have served as important tools within the struggle for liberation. In the 1980s the culture wars, waged principally around humanities, university campuses from coast to coast reverberated with tension as both Stanford and Stanley Fish, then at Duke, figured prominently.

These events testified to the fact that literature matters and that one of the many things that the humanities can "do" is energize social change and have social consequence. One need not look any further than the recent presidential campaign in which YouTube videos, songs and artwork galvanized a generation and spread a message of hope.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Rosina Pierotti Professorship in Italian Literature, Professor of Comparative Literature and founder and co-director of the Stanford Humanities Lab

Much as I welcome Stanley Fish's refreshing call to free the humanities from the shackles of salvific or spiritualizing rhetoric, I find his polarity of disciplines that do or don't bring about "effects in the world" cartoon-like. Even if the humanities had for centuries performed "only" a central role in the development of imagination, taste, critical reasoning and the ability to communicate—consolidated traditional claims—their effect upon society would have to be described as comparable to other disciplinary clusters. All the more so in an era like our own in which the unparalleled growth of local and global cultural markets has upset the applecart that once rendered "art" and "literature" normative concepts restricted to a small universe of objects.

In such a setting, it's not that the arts and humanities need to retool themselves. Rather, they have an opportunity to transcend the "pleasure" paradigm and reassert themselves in a reconfigured public sphere: to communicate expert knowledge outside the boundaries of conventional print-based networks; to embrace multimediality; to integrate design thinking, quantitative methods, and project-based learning within the laboratory for the study of the human. In short, the opportunity to once again do things in public (not unlike Fish from his digital pulpit).

Rush Rehm

Professor of Drama, Professor of Classics and Artistic Director of Stanford Summer Theater.

Fish's argument has a distinguished pedigree: Archibald McCleish's poem "Ars Poetica," ending "A poem should not mean/ But be"; Kant's definition of art as "purposefulness without a purpose" in his third Critique; the Latin phrase "ars gratia artis" ("art for art's sake"), or in Fish's version "pleasure [from art and humanities] for pleasure's sake."

Who has a problem with pleasure? If sex must be useful, then I (as a non-parent) have failed at that most pleasurable activity. But recall that "Ars gratia artis" sits arched above the roaring lion in the MGM films. We read "art for profit's sake," and willy-nilly, we find ourselves in the marketplace. Our pleasures frequently generate someone else's profit or serve someone else's interests: the "culture industry," show business, the university (not for profit, but increasingly dependent on commercial and political sponsorship). Exxon Mobil offers you Masterpiece Theater; the Department of Homeland Security sponsors the NewsHour on PBS; the Department of Defense, Lockheed-Martin and tobacco companies bring you "the research university."

Many of our pleasures take their toll on other people, whom we may not see or know (if the system works properly, we won't). It can cost them a fortune, assuming that their lives have value. As we drink our humanities and bathe in our art, we might ask whether our pleasures are so innocently gained. Fortunately, a lot of great art and the humanities ask the same question, offering pleasures that unsettle and challenge, pleasures (pace Professor Fish) worth acting on.

Gordon Chang

Professor of History, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Stanford Asian American Art Project

The humanities cannot be reduced to something utilitarian or approached for their capacity to affect the world directly as we see and understand it. The humanities have always been about something more and grander, if less immediately tangible. The humanities and art are about human conditions and experiences beyond numbers and policies. We all know this to be unassailably, if not always obviously, true: The presidential inaugural has prayer, poetry and music. Our contemporary world is changing more quickly than we can comprehend and even fully appreciate. Old categories, boundaries, rubrics and disciplines cannot contain as they once could. They cannot even contain the past—so much historical study today is about challenging, transcending, erasing and crossing boundaries. In our current circumstances, the supposed luxury of the humanities and the creative arts is pretty "cost-effective" stuff. Asking the humanities to "re-tool" themselves, to improve their instrumentality, then, is simply the wrong question. Those in the humanities and arts certainly need to think about what it is they do, but more importantly, the question that should be asked is, Why and how is it that the humanities and arts need to justify themselves today? Asking the question this way might beg the answer.

Paula Moya

Associate Professor of English

The business of the humanities—if one wants to put it that way—is the study of art, music, literature, religion, history and philosophical thought. Whether this "business" has a future in the 21st century is a question that begs several others: Is history less relevant to our understanding of the contemporary situation than it ever was? Have music and art lost their power to inspire, provoke, and express humankind's deepest yearnings? Have our concepts and myths become unmoored from those of past civilizations? Has human imagination lost its generative capacity with respect to the development of new technologies? The answer to all these questions, I suggest, is no. The humanities are no more and no less than the study of human meaning over time, even into the future.

By contrast, to ask the humanities to "do" something—in the sense that a particular action will produce a predictable result—is to fundamentally misunderstand both the purpose of the humanities and the complexity of human meaning. The humanities do not "do" anything that one can easily measure and quantify. But to suggest that they therefore have no significant effects in the world is to be provocative without reason or validation.