Stanley Fish’s columns on the humanities (here and here) have been zipping around the Internet and sparking heated commentaries back and forth. The first one evoked 484 comments before the forum was closed. The second one, at this moment, has 296.
One old conflict raised by his posts bears upon the value of the humanities. What are they good for? What does the study of literature and the arts do for people?
Fish denies any external, instrumental value for the humanities, prompting several commenters and bloggers to criticize him for ignoring a fundamental justification: their moral benefits.
One commenter, for instance, states that the humanities “teach us compassion, self-awareness and enable us to share our worlds with others.” A blogger at another site recites “the idea that humane study civilizes and perhaps morally and even spiritually ennobles.” That’s a standard assertion, in fact, in the world of arts education, where practitioners struggle to maintain the arts in the normal school day.
But does it hold? Think of how many examples of literary and artistic enjoyment derive from literature which appeals to human vice and weakness. One of the draws of narrative lies in the identifications it allows people to form, identifications that satisfy some needs and insecurities that should be abandoned or overcome, not fed. People loved Soul on Ice when it came out, in spite of (or because of) Cleaver’s misogyny and homophobia. What about Griffith’s blockbuster success, Birth of a Nation, whose brilliant cinematography coincides with lurid racism?
Perhaps people claim that the immorality of those works disqualifies them from serious study. Or they think that the works can be handled in the classroom in a way that exposes their flaws and, hence, draws those flaws out of the students. The latter threatens to slide into tendentious teaching, however, and the former faces too many exceptions to stand up. Will Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels make readers more tolerant? Will Lolita ennoble them? “MacFlecknoe”? 8½?
All of them deliver intellectual benefits, but on the moral side, readers and viewers could take them either way. Vanity, lust, domination, disgust . . . the canon provides for them all. Literary experience is as varied as is human motive. People who have, in fact, been ennobled by books extend their transformation to a potential for everyone, and understandably so. But their hope is blunted by the record. For every person who has been sobered by the example of Dorothea Brooke, there is probably someone who has been horrified without reprieve by Hank the Connecticut Yankee roasting the knights of England in their armor, or sunk into a dread-ridden atheism by Sartre’s Nausea, taught sexual mores by Restoration comedy . . .