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Fish and Chips: The Crisis of the Humanities in the U.K. and U.S.A.

By Fredric Smoler

Politics in the United States and Great Britain are again marked by intense hostility toward the expanded role of modern liberal states. Since most opponents of public investment are simultaneously enthusiastic consumers of many of its results—for example, public education—the feebleness of most defenses of public investment is usually hard to understand. But not always, because it is notoriously difficult to persuade people one cannot be bothered to understand, or toward whom one is visibly contemptuous. Some suggestive evidence: last week’s New York Times commentary and reporting on the crisis in public funding of higher education, notably Stanley Fish’s 10/11 column on the cuts at SUNY Binghamton (“The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives”), and the paper’s reporting on comparable events in the UK (“Universities in Britain Brace for Cuts in Subsidies”, on 10/15).

The Brits first: the Times article rehearses the case against the cuts, which is that they are extreme and destructive, but omits any explanation for why the current system of massive public funding has seemed increasingly problematic to so many voters. Americans, many of whom pay a significant portion of the cost of their education, may not understand that until pretty recently people in the UK paid nothing for their university education, and still pay only a trivial portion of its cost. Why was this apparently idyllic state of affairs not universally acknowledged to be very heaven? Probably because when university education in the UK was either free or almost free, as has been the case for several generations, middle and upper class people long dominated the relatively small group admitted to university, while working class tax payers helped pay for the universities, so free or almost-free university education boosted life-time earnings for already prosperous people at the expense of the working poor. As late as the 1970s, when only 8% of the population went to university, this was pretty obviously true, but at that time few people chose to notice that state funding of higher education meant a series of transfer payments from the working class to the middle class: the latter not only acquired free (or eventually very underpriced) degrees, but were also employed in large numbers in the higher-salaried ranks of state employees, in this case meaning university administrators and lecturers. The state could thus be depicted as something less like a provider of a universal citizen benefit and more like a racket, one benefitting the same elites its activities had always been imagined to benefit. This depiction was not particularly fair, but neither was it entirely implausible.

Nowadays, when larger numbers (40+%) go to university, this line of attack is less plausible, but it is still not morally trivial to tax the poor to very heavily subsidize richer people. In any case, the attackers have recently added a second argument, asserting that many third-tier universities are taking students’ (also taxpayers') money and giving nothing much back—the classic case is the much-maligned degree in media studies, which allegedly does nothing to make anyone either employable or liberally educated. If media studies degrees turn out to be not quite as useless on the job market as the critics assume, British universities are still in some quarters imagined to have an incentive to turn out potentially useless degrees, and not worry about how rational an investment is being made. What makes a degree useless is not in fact obvious—do the critics mean ill-suited to the current labor market? Do they mean useless in a non-economic sense because too watered down, or because the content of a course of study may be nothing more than lecturer-class politics tricked out as ‘knowledge’?—but since British students now graduate with debt, the universities are accused of taking their money, plus more money from the taxpaying poor, and giving what can look like very little in return. So while there are many dreadful aspects to the Tory education budget, there was also something wrong with the system it will replace: for one thing, under the current system a hedge fund magnate's child receives an education priced at less than a tenth of its cost, with some of the difference made up by money taken from someone working in a fish and chip shop. It would be nice if the New York Times informed its readers that spending on public education can be a imagined as a regressive measure as well as a progressive one—the Right’s argument in Britain (and comparable arguments in the U.S.) would then at least be comprehensible, and perhaps more competently countered.

There is something a bit like this revolt now brewing in America, and, very interestingly, a more critical view of the universities has over the last year been creeping into the NYT, previously a pretty staunch defender of American higher education. In the U.S., the argument goes,the cost of education has been rising at a significant multiple of the rate of inflation, with (at best) not enough to show for it. The universities—especially but not only the new for-profit sector—are depicted as saddling consumers with crippling and in part federally-subsidized debt, and when the student is done she (it is increasingly she), like her British counterpart, is unemployable at a living wage. This critique sometimes blurs into a general suspicion of the humanities focusing, as in the British case, on the possibility that public money is subsidizing a parasitical and sometimes exasperating academic class, one audibly and visibly contemptuous of any supervision by the elected representatives of the people who are paying their salaries. Some of the political postures taken by some academics have not been endearing, and the response seems to be “ Free speech, sure, even for its more ludicrous enemies, but why on an office-cleaner's dime?” As an additional irritant, much of the research produced by people in the humanities is done in an institutional setting that assigns comparatively low status and lower pay to the people doing much of the teaching, which civilians tend to assume is a large part of the point of a public university, and the value of some of this research is often contested, sometimes pretty crudely, which annoys humanists to the point that they can forget the prudence of tact when addressing the people who are paying your salary. There are, after all, possible replies to all of these charges, but it is not too clear that people speaking for the humanities have any great gift for making their case.

Stanley Fish, who has perhaps the best possible bully pulpit for defending the humanities (a regular column in the Times) last week opined on the severe cuts in the SUNY system’s humanities budget. One obvious way to justify the humanities is to defend general education requirements, which is normally done by suggesting that education in the humanities probably makes for better citizens and better lives. The notion that a relatively sophisticated knowledge of, say, history is useful to an electorate might be thought uncontroversial, similarly an exposure to philosophy and literature, but you’d be surprised, because Fish, who understands that his profession’s self-interest increasingly depends on general education requirements, nonetheless scorns any attempt to defend them: “I have always had trouble believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum—that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said—but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists. But the point seems to be moot. It’s too late to turn back the clock…”

Well, it certainly is too late if you refuse to try, and instead exult in cynically describing general education requirements as a naked display of self interest, while abusing anyone who argues to the contrary: “Well, it won’t do to invoke the pieties informing Charlie from Binghamton’s question—the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better — because those pieties have a 19th century air about them and are not even believed in by some who rehearse them…” It is worth pointing out what this is not. It is neither a rejection of a crudely instrumentalist defense of the humanities, nor a noble refusal to justify popular access to their study in coarsely economistic terms. It is rather something more total and a bit nastier, of which more below. In any case, Fish does have a suggestion on how the humanities can be defended. The method is through what he calls politics, by which Fish means haranguing legislators in language unlikely to endear humanists to politicians, or indeed to anyone: “…if necessary flagging the pretensions and hypocrisy of men and women who want to exercise control over higher education in the absence of any real knowledge of the matters on which they so confidently pronounce…” This seems to mean “how dare people vested with no more authority than election by fellow citizens use their own judgment when deciding how their constituents’ money be spent?”

And if any legislator is still sympathetic to the cause of the humanities, he probably hasn’t finished Fish’s column, which goes on to assert that “The truth is no one in public life cares for the humanities as an academic enterprise, although public officials most likely do care for books, movies, operas and TV, and like to think of themselves as crackerbarrel philosophers and historians. That’s O.K. It’s not their job to value the humanities or even to understand them. But it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.” Since Fish has just condemned as fools or liars anyone who asserts that these traditions of culture and art are of any use to ordinary people, he may want presidents and chancellors to lie, because it is not clear for whom he thinks these traditions are valuable, or who (and how many) are losing something precious when they disappear.

But Fish is probably not asking for a lie. In a previous Times column he seemed to argue that the humanities are necessarily an elite affair, the elite being specialist faculty and the humanities a game played by the few for their own amusement. It is strange to delight in insisting on the absolute and perfect uselessness of the humanities when taught at university level to non-specialists, because there are so many ways in which history, literature and art have been thought profoundly valuable to large numbers of people, all of these ways have been articulated by people without doctorates in the humanities, and most of them are known to anyone even a little familiar with popular demands for access to higher education. Fish would presumably be amused by 19th C. working class demands for education in classics, with people memorably asking why the language of liberty should be legible only to its enemies. In our current political circumstances Fish’s jeering is perverse, meaning it predictably courts a result opposite to the one intended. Fish amuses pretty easily, but the destruction of some of the humanities in parts of the SUNY system is not particularly amusing, even to Fish, although he cannot stop clowning long enough to make an effective argument for the cause he affects to defend.

The larger political question is whether and when the state’s actions and expenditures are imagined to be taken for small and elite groups or for large popular constituencies. Fish is a miniature example of answering this question in the least effective and attractive fashion. More seriously, the Obama Administration has risked a great deal in pretty consistently appearing to use state power to defend elites rather than large numbers of ordinary people. It may have had good if not necessarily sufficient reasons for every one of the measures it has taken to stabilize Wall Street banks with taxpayer money, first by the bail outs, then by looting savers via extremely low interest rates, now by attempting to quell popular indignation at what looks to be systematic fraud in foreclosures. The aggregate effect, however, is that the Administration’s instincts and most of its rhetoric appear not merely anti-populist but actively in the service of elite interests, which opens up a political space for faux-populists, one recently vacated but now reoccupied by the Republican party. The critique of the expansive state is traditionally rooted in a conviction that even in a democratic age it represents the interests of the few and not the many. It is maddening when defenders of the state pretty systematically make this critique look more rather than less credible.

From October, 2010

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