(Swans - July 18, 2011) Occasionally, an established academic who has a column in The New York Times (don't these esteemed academics have enough soapboxes inside of academia to promote their views?) overstates the importance of academia, his or her specific discipline, or academic "controversies." Such a case has occurred with the recent publication of Stanley Fish's "The Triumph of the Humanities." (1) Fish proclaims that the humanities, despite deep budget cuts that have targeted them in these recessionary times, have "won" because their methods and values have "pollinated" in what have been known as "scientific" fields and produced new disciplines. He identifies for example the "geohumanities" which studies the intersection of human culture and geology and the "Biohumanities" where "the humanities not only comment on the significance or implications of biological knowledge, but add to our understanding of biological knowledge itself" (here he quotes philosophers Karola Stotz and Paul Griffiths). Not only has this supposed triumph occurred at a disciplinary level but at an epistemic level since now in the "scientific" or technical disciplines, "Propositions that once seemed outlandish -- all knowledge is mediated, even certainties are socially constructed -- are now routinely asserted in precincts where they were once feared as harbingers of chaos and relativism." Unfortunately, Fish's proclamation is far too premature.
First, he seems to pretend that the human disciplines and sciences have been separate fields or that their endeavors have been separate and now, the values and/or methods of the human disciplines have bridged the gap and brought the two macro-fields together. This narrative entirely ignores any mention of the early "giants" of science, such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, who tried to make their science and religion (and in some cases, the values of their social caste) agree. The heliocentric universe was in large part a vindication of providence and the centrality of Christ to the world (the "sun" as a homonym of "Son"). Contrary to Fish's argument, science, as it was practiced in antiquity, could absorb non-scientific views and values. So his analysis of science as rigid and wary of embracing cultural beliefs is sorely lacking in attention to historical detail. Second, another lapse in historical detail is his insinuation that the emergence of the biohumanities or geohumanities is evidence of the triumph of the humanities. These fields are merely offshoots of the fields "history of science" and "philosophy of science" that have been around since the 1950s; fields that in general study the relationship between human culture and science, how scientific vocabularies are processed by culture, or how scientific concepts stand up to conceptual scrutiny. I'm not sure if the longevity of then these disciplines, as well the emergence of their offshoots (biohumanities and geohumanities) is an argument for their "triumph." Subjects such as astrology or alchemy have long been taught as having a role in the development of science but as a scientific society, we do not consider them to have any epistemic value. But the same can be said for disciplines such as the history of science, the philosophy of science, the sociology of science, the biohumanities, and the geohumanities: while they may have warm-hearted, folksy stories to tell about how science and culture interact, or dire warnings about how the abuse of science can lead to human suffering or environmental degradation, they do not tell give us a method for describing reality in detail, or give us a way of manipulating it according to our interests. This is what science does with ever-increasing proficiency. In essence, humanistic disciplines that have science as an object exist only to demythologize the sciences by questioning the cultural importance that they have largely earned.
"The Human Disciplines Versus the Sciences"
Fish's narrative, that there is or has been a war between the humanities and sciences, cannot be a snapshot of the way things are or have been in academia: first, his garden variety relativism must commit him to denying the very possibility of the existence of any real state of affairs. But, second, even if we were to grant him this narrative, it would still be crudely inaccurate. No one from campus English departments is throwing rocks at the chem lab buildings and no one from physics departments is looking to get religion booted from the university curriculum. Much of what counts as the "science wars" from the 1980s and 1990s is contrived storytelling among academics who, following Thomas Kuhn and Stephen Shaffer, make often very pedantic claims regarding scientific objectivity and truth. We have to be on guard putting "objectivity" and "truth" together with "science" since it is a stretch to claim that scientists themselves believe that their methods and craft reveal reality as it is in itself. "Reality as it is in itself" is a preoccupation of philosophers who fail to see Cartesian dualism and brain-in-a-vat thought experiments as pseudo-problems: scientists have no pretensions about these issues. With respect to a much harder version of relativism that is paraded as "scholarship" these days, constructivists in the human disciplines deny that scientific knowledge is discovered at all; rather, it is constructed using the mechanisms of privilege as well as being established by scientific consensus. Surely we could grant that scientific knowledge, like other forms of knowledge, is constructed, but we are not more improved as a race by arriving at this bit of wisdom. But such terminology, about science's "constructedness," is lost upon a public not familiar with, for good reason, academic conflicts. Academic battles are by definition meaningless except to -- well -- academics. It may be countered that academic conflicts surrounding whether women and minorities should be allowed to integrate schools and universities were real conflicts: conflicts that made us as a society all the better. But this too is an academic conceit that largely ignores that fact that social change in the larger society can predate or spur institutional changes in academia. In the late 1980s and early '90s, my alma mater, the University of Richmond, still had a coordinate system for gender, which mandated separate housing and separate student government for men and women. The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute admitted women only recently. Even at perhaps more liberal universities, larger societal change predate academic institutional change. Curriculum-wise, the field of graphic design was formally, for example, established only recently in the university, although those who studied drafting, printmaking, drawing, and so forth before the 1980s still went into careers in graphic design that was computerized. As an undergraduate, although I majored in philosophy and English, I studied printmaking and worked on page layout for three years with the campus newspaper -- more than enough experience for working professionally in graphic design. Unfortunately, upon the establishment of the major of graphic design, practitioners in the field decided to standardize Adobe software products as essential parts of the graphic design curriculum, which virtually guaranteed the Adobe Corporation an indefinite monopoly over schools that have graphic design programs. It is certainly possible in places to take a graphic design degree without taking a lick of painting or drawing. While it may seem that I have digressed here, my point is that graphic designers were already using computer programs for illustration long before the establishment of the academic discipline of graphic design was established. That the academy initiates greater social change is only part of the picture -- society and academia push and pull for and against each other. They are interdependent. Fish's "victory" must ring hollow for the tens of thousands of humanities majors each year who must wait for an eternity to obtain a job after graduation. Even for more seasoned graduate students in the humanities who find themselves without funding for a year or longer, job prospects are weak even in a moderately good economy. Fish's "victory" of the humanities has not created academic or private sector jobs for humanities majors and graduate students that can compare in salary and benefits to more scientific and technical majors. There is no victory of the humanities in the employment line.
Inflexibility of the Humanities: Prospects
As much as Fish claims that the sciences are now more open to cultural studies and the pondering of the philosophical relations between the sciences and society, the human disciplines are, on the contrary, still all too inflexible in ontology and purpose. I can recall reading a student evaluation of my teaching this past spring -- I was teaching US history after 1865 -- where the student criticized me for incorporating science, art, ideas, and popular culture into the course content. This student believed that history was about military and political conflict only -- science, art, ideas, and popular culture were mere footnotes and not worthy of exploration in a history class. This student's version of what history should be about is largely the prevailing view among professional historians who write textbooks for high school students and high school teachers who generally have no choice but to teach from these textbooks (school boards generally approve of what textbooks grade school students are to use). Predictably, many of these textbooks minimize the importance of science, art, ideas, and popular culture and focus on the political and military dimensions of history. The unspoken assumption is that military and political leaders -- "great men," if you will -- determine the outcome of nations and peoples. (2) This assumption robs "ordinary" people -- those not worth mentioning in history books -- of their agency, and leads people to say dumb things such as "Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves." African Americans resisted slavery and were freeing themselves long before Lincoln assumed political power. The story of the Underground Railroad is a story about blacks helping themselves and other blacks escape to freedom; it is also a story of white abolitionists who also helped blacks to freedom. This points out perhaps a larger problem in the study of history: the isolation of a clear cause and effect for historical events and the origins of political and social power. But another unquestioned assumption in the study of history is the belief that history is only about conflict, X versus Y, victory and defeat. It is this myopic picture of history that Fish has bought hook, line, and sinker with his "triumph" of the humanities narrative. It is a picture in which the hyper-rational, critical ideas and theories of the humanities have made the more brute and methodical sciences "cultured." Rome has brought civility to the barbarians all over again. History is also about creativity and the irrational and non-rational impulses that, in addition to people and political leaders, shape society. The Civil Rights movement was fueled by gospel music and James Brown, rock and roll buoyed the counterculture of the 1960s, and the Internet has completely revolutionized business and communication. Gospel music, James Brown, rock and roll, and the Internet thus deserve as much historical attention as causal forces as the political and military leaders that are heralded as "great men."
Unfortunately, traditionalists in the humanities generally canonize historical narratives or military/political figures, narratives that are pre-molded to fit the requirements of standardized tests for grade school students. So students come to college already having assumptions about the types of narratives history should tell, assumptions largely fostered by academic historians looking to turn a buck by having a school board or college course buy his/her textbook year after year after year. Technology is largely unexplored systematically within humanities classes themselves, except as an alien subject that can be only discussed by way of trite, philosophical generalizations. Recently, as part of my history of science class, I made my students pass in their papers as Web projects. They had to obtain a domain, make their paper Web ready, hyperlink each footnote to online sources, and finally publish the paper to the World Wide Web. There was very little HTML that I used in teaching them, but nevertheless they learned a practical, valuable skill that was relevant to their coursework. If we encourage students to use technology such as databases and word processors to construct their assignments, why should they not learn how to publish their papers to the Web in a history class? Or an English class, for the matter? This is generally where departments in the human disciplines are inflexible. (3) For all of the talk from proponents of the human disciplines such as Fish who trumpet critical thinking as their virtue, they could stand to turn out more graduates who are equally skilled in technology, because in the end, it is better for the growth of the human disciplines that their students achieve victory in the employment line.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a Ph.D. student in history at Florida State University. His main areas of concentration are the history of science, environmental history, intellectual history, the academic culture wars, and the relations between technology and culture. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)
1. Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, "http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/13/the-triumph-of-the-humanities/," June 13, 2011. (back)
3. In an earlier article on Swans regarding university ads, I warned against the dangers of techno fetish: technology can cause as many problems as it solves.
I could well imagine chaos erupting worldwide if the Internet went down indefinitely or cellular technology was once and for all declared to be carcinogenic by scientists. I believe that there is no conflict between to be accepting the benefits of technology and being keenly aware of its limitations. (back)