Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities

Stanley Fish:

he humanities are taking it on the chin. If there were any doubts about this proposition, they have been dispelled by the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point’s proposal to eliminate 13 majors, including history, art, English, philosophy, sociology, political science, French, German, and Spanish. The administration cited large deficits, programs with a low enrollment, and a desire to play to its strengths — STEM subjects and training in technology. One professor of physics and astronomy (Ken Menningen) approved, declaring that the university was right to “pivot away from the liberal arts” and toward programs that students, concerned with career prospects, find attractive. That reasoning might make sense if Stevens Point were a trade school, but it is, at least by title and claim, a university, and there is an argument to be made that because the claim is now without support at Stevens Point, the title should be removed.

The philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott would have thought so. Here is his account of the university: “It is a place where [the student] … is not encouraged to confuse education with training for a profession, with learning the tricks of a trade, with preparation for future particular service in society, or with the acquisition of a kind of moral and intellectual outfit to see him through life.” Note that Oakeshott lists in rapid succession the most often invoked defenses and justifications of liberal education, and note too that he immediately dismisses them as barely worth thinking about: “Whenever an ulterior purpose of this sort makes its appearance, education … steals out of the back door with noiseless steps.”