Fish and the Universities

by Nathan Arbor

A recent column by Stanley Fish, in the New York Times’ blog, reviewing Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, contributes to a contemporary folktale about the “crisis” in American higher education. According to this story, the universities have been the field upon which teachers and scholars in the liberal arts have battled unsuccessfully against those in the specialized disciplines (whether in the sciences, social sciences or the humanities), as well as against the demand for “practical” education and student choice on the part of students. In this battle the liberal arts have been defeated so soundly and terribly that the contemporary liberal arts major has become a mere fascinomae, and truly forward-thinking educators (and educational administrators) should wake up to the changing times and the need for customer satisfaction. The “debate” that attaches itself to this tale is whether the outcome of this battle is good or bad for the universities, the students, and the country.

Like the narrative beneath the “culture wars” debates of the 80s and 90s, this story about the fate of the universities serves primarily to generate a controversy suitable for academic publication and low-overhead journalism. And like the “culture wars” controversies, the story loses a great deal of its force the minute you survey the people who have actually experienced a liberal arts education.

In Fish’s words, Donoghue claims that “[e]xcept 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.” But whether you survey the university backgrounds of the Obama administration, or talk to the Presidents of the country’s elite universities, you’ll find that the appreciation of, and commitment to, liberal arts education remains strong, and the application rates at the top liberal arts institutions this year again suggest that no one confuses the functional value of elite universities with that of museums.

All this is not to say there isn’t a set of pressing problems facing American universities, public and private, but such problems have never depended very much on the disciplines or the faculties. Forty years ago this year, in his great book The New Industrial State, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote:

“It is the vanity of educators that they shape the educational system to their preferred image.They may not be without influence but the decisive force is the economic system.What the educator believes his latitude is usually latitude to respond to economic need.” (21: 240)

Galbraith expressed great concern that, in the absence of a clear sense of educational purpose, the universities would simply adapt to whatever the economic system suggested or demanded. He wrote:

“The industrial system has induced an enormous expansion in education.This can only be welcomed.But unless its tendencies are clearly foreseen and strongly resisted, it will place a preclusive emphasis on education that most serves the needs, but least questions the goals, of that system.” (33: 373-374)

Why should these “tendencies” have been resisted and why should they still? Because the core of the mission of the modern university is criticism: the critical examination of the way the world is and the analysis of what people have thought and written and done about it. An education that doesn’t maintain a critical distance from any particular economic or social system can never hope to produce students capable of analyzing those systems well, and arguably such students will suffer from failures of the intellect and the imagination whatever their chosen professions.

Most if not all American universities, as institutions, have been unwilling or unable to define their mission(s) apart from the economic system. The situation has only worsened since the end of the Cold War, and the reasons go well beyond pecuniary interest or even an identification with the goals of capitalism, globalism, etc.

Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins, written in 1996, still makes the strongest case for how/why the universities have failed to maintain their institutional autonomy and authority. In short, the universities today (and for decades) don’t have clear cultural or national missions, and their embrace of managerial virtues like “excellence”, “productivity” and “efficiency” reflects less a commitment to educational values than a recognition that such values are up for grabs because the historical mission of the university has gone  missing. Donoghue’s book draws attention to the power of the “corporate culture” dominating many of our universities, but a powerful place-holder is a place-holder nevertheless.

In this new century, our universities are no closer to articulating their purpose than they were in 1996, and they are probably less likely to do so today than they were when Galbraith’s book appeared. That they will have to do so eventually, in order to maintain quality and stature, seems clear; but, for better or worse, this will have very little to do with what particular departments decide to offer in fulfillment of a major,  what the undergraduate disciplines call themselves, or whether students think there is really a text in the class.

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