the crisis in the humanities

• In two articles in the “Opinionator” section of “The New York Times,” Stanley Fish discusses the decline in humanities programs in American universities. In the first of these articles, “The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives,” published on October 11, Professor Fish begins by reporting the October 1 announcement by George M. Philip, the president of The State University of New York in Albany, New York, USA, that the university’s departments of French, Italian, Russian and classics as well as the theater department were to be closed down. (Classics is the study of the “ancient” languages, Greek and Latin.)

• In explaining his decision, Mr Philip mentioned the fact that fewer students than in the past were enrolled in humanities programs. He made it clear, however, that the main reason for his decision was that his university cannot afford the programs because, over the previous three years, there has been a 30% reduction in the support it gets from the state government. (In the US, state governments, not the federal government, are mainly responsible for paying for education.)

• Stanley Fish goes on to discuss an argument that has been made against cutbacks like the recent ones at the State University of New York. According to this argument, the study of humanities benefits society by encouraging creativity, preserving tradition, and producing more well-rounded graduates. Professor Fish doesn’t think this argument has much value. He is skeptical about the idea that humanities programs actually improve society and adds that, in any case, such an argument is not likely to be effective at a time when university presidents are concerned, with the “bottom line,” i.e. with sticking to a strict budget.

•• In the second article, “Crisis of the Humanities II,“ published on October 18, Professor Fish begins by discussing the views of two other writers who are concerned with the decline of the humanities, Robert Watson and Christopher Newfield. They both argue that humanities programs do pay for themselves, and therefore they can be maintained even though universities are under pressure because of funding cutbacks. Humanities departments, they say, actually make money because they don’t have to spend much on research or equipment, and the fees they charge their students more than make up for the cost of teaching them. These departments end up with a surplus, and the university uses this money to support more expensive programs like engineering and medicine.

• Stanley Fish says that he has used this argument himself in the past but now sees that it doesn’t work. Because of cutbacks, most universities cannot any longer survive on aid from state governments and student fees. The only way they can keep going is with the help of research grants from the federal government. Humanities departments don’t get research grants and so they are dispensable.

• Despite his low opinion of the arguments used by supporters of humanities departments, Stanley Fish makes it clear that he agrees with them about the importance of teaching humanities in university. He suggests that instead of trying to argue in their favour by showing the importance of the humanities to society, supporters of the humanuties should make sure that the administrators and politicians really understand what a university is: "an institution with its own projects and goals" which is sometimes useful to society as a whole and sometimes not. Then they should point out to governments that if they want real universities in the future, they will have to pay for them