Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Defending the indefensible

Stanley Fish thinks that efforts to defend the humanities all fall short. They either are unpersuasive (as when someone makes the case for humanities as "career-enhancing") or ought to be, as when Yale’s Anthony Kronman argues that entering the great conversation will help us address the spiritual emptiness we feel (except when we hear Barack Obama speak; O.K., I made up that last part).

Fish has a bit of a point, but seems to miss Kronman’s. To be sure, if you "study" literature as people now do in university departments, you won’t be humanized. But if you approach literature and philosophy as if they had something to teach you about how to live your life, as if books (including, of course, the Book) might contain the truth--instead of inoculating yourself against anything challenging by means of "scholarship"--you might actually learn something. You might actually be "humanized."

But that is to say, with Fish, that this sort of study is an end in itself, because it gives us access to what’s highest in ourselves.

Nonetheless, where I think both Fish and Kronman go wrong--the former more egregiously than the latter--is by giving short shrift to the way in which reading "the Book" tells us about something, or rather someone, outside itself and ourselves, in whose light our lives have meaning. The problem with reading and study nowadays has to do with our massive efforts to avoid confronting that claim. We’d rather suck the life out of reading and study, totally subjectivizing them, than confront the possibility that there’s a transcendent source of meaning in the world.

Discussions - 1 Comment

The easiest (and therefore, perhaps, in some ways the best?) argument ever made to me about why I should study the humanities was simply this: it will enable you to have interesting conversations for the rest of your life. Who doesn't want that? Do you know anyone pining away for boring conversations? And interesting conversation will, of course, enhance your career goals, make you more likable, and win you the camaraderie and admiration of the opposite sex. The description of these rewards is not false; it's just incomplete. I see nothing wrong with pointing them out to an otherwise recalcitrant or lazy youth. It is certainly also true that reading great books allows you to seek something higher than yourself. But perhaps young people don't need to know all of that at once. It's enough, I think, to give them a glimpse or a hint of the wonders inside those books and let them discover (in their own time and way) just how bright they are. Perhaps Fish's problem is that he still hasn't discovered enough of this or reaped enough of the other--more transient--rewards.

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