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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

entry arrow7:10 AM | Murdering the Humanities

My friend, the much-missed speculative fictionist Baryon Tensor Posadas, recently posted a link to this New York Times column by the cultural critic Stanley Fish, where Fish essentially announces the death of the humanities, especially in the academe. I paid close attention because this was personal: I am a teacher in the humanities, and I write, and the production and cultivation of culture has always been the focal point of my existence. I paid close attention because if the humanities is dead, has my life so far been essentially worthless?

In his column, Mr. Fish takes to task George M. Philip, the president of SUNY Albany, who last October 1 "announced that the French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs were getting the axe." He then does an extensive postmortem about how Mr. Philip got away with murder, and goes on to entertain the age-old debate once more about the worth of the humanities in contemporary life, especially in a world racked by a recession. He writes: "What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, 'What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?' Nothing."

He goes on:

But keeping something you value alive by artificial, and even coercive, means (and distribution requirements are a form of coercion) is better than allowing them to die, if only because you may now die (get fired) with them, a fate that some visionary faculty members may now be suffering. 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.

What, then, can be done? Well, it won’t do to invoke the pieties ... — 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.

And it won’t do to argue that the humanities contribute to economic health of the state — by producing more well-rounded workers or attracting corporations or delivering some other attenuated benefit — because nobody really buys that argument, not even the university administrators who make it.

There are no easy answers to the dilemma, and Mr. Fish does not even offer anything. Might as well. But he does underscore the notions of politics and ineptitude in the part of leaders who should know better as really the main causes of humanities' death. Academic leaders, he says, are supposed to be cheerleaders of the pursuit of education and knowledge, not undertakers who are only concerned about the bottomline. I firmly believe that something fundamental dies when the humanities in our culture is allowed to die. It is like a skewering of our soul.

I am already living through this. In the university where I teach, for example, I was shocked last semester to find out that the biggest college we have has dropped literature from its curriculum, simply because its autonomy from CHED declared it could. In essence, they rendered Philippine and world literatures unnecessary in the making of a thinking professional. It was a sad day when I found out this. And I could not just fathom that notion: how do you go to college without at least having a smidgen of literature in your academic life? What are we trying to produce, unthinking and unlettered robots? It felt like a kind of death.

My fellow teacher Sherro Lee Lagrimas also wonders: “What will they remove next? Have they forgotten this C.S. Lewis quote? ‘Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.’” I’m not sure they have forgotten; they just probably do not care anymore.

All these also make me realize that sometimes those who are in-charge of our educational institutions, good-intentioned they may be by the cuts that they make, are often blind to the big picture. A friend, the Hong Kong-based journalist Heda Bayron, once told me a story: “A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure to meet and share a dorm room with an MIT professor emeritus in French Studies. She teaches French literature and fills a lacuna in the education of MIT’s math and science geeks, making them much more well-rounded human beings. Learning French literature or Chinese literature also makes MIT students more competitive in the global stage because success is no longer about your math aptitude or quaint skills, it’s also about how you conduct yourself. And you can only rise above the crowd if you possess a wider perspective.”

I don't know why but this whole thing made me think, somehow, of the writer Ayn Rand, but in a different light. In her polemic novel Atlas Shrugged, conversant of her belief that capitalism is the very engine of the world, she paints a possible time when all of the world's business leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs go on a strike, hide from the rest of society who does not care for them, and watch that society slowly eat itself up from its uselessness. I wondered if somebody could write an artist's equivalent of Atlas Shrugged, where, instead of business powermen going on strike, artists will leave the rest of the world behind to wallow in its filth of no artistry and no soul.

My question though is this: if we follow these people's logic about the humanities not "contributing" anything to the economy or whatever, I counter with this idea of bankers and Wall Street people having seriously fucked up the economy and have given "the American way of life" the black eye. Why aren't business schools being closed down?

And then this: when I was in San Francisco, the city was trying to gentrify the down-on-its-luck Dogpatch industrial neighborhood near Arleta by inviting artists to come in and enjoy the low-rent warehouses. And many artists have come in, turning many of these unused warehouses into studios. There is now an upswing in the standard of living in that community, still in the beginning stages, but it's there. The city of course knows that this effort to bring in artists would soon bring in other people and other businesses -- cafes, boutiques, galleries -- and soon bring in the dollars. This has happened in New York, in Chicago, and in many other cities.

And soon, of course, this is what happens: the artists who have gentrified the neighborhoods in the first place have to move out because they can no longer pay the rent.


In both cases, artists always seem to get the short end of the deal.

On another note about Stanley Fish, he posits that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Howl (2010), the pseudo-biopic of the poet Allen Ginsberg (played here by the swoon-worthy James Franco) is the first film to be a perfect demonstration of literary criticism at work. I cannot wait to see this film in New York.

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