Stanley Fish and the Question of Earning One's Keep

I'd like to first thank Joshua Landy for his post on Stanley Fish's provocative blog/column in the NYTimes. I'd like to comment just on one passage from his piece. Fish writes:

"And indeed, if your criteria are productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction, it makes perfect sense to withdraw funds and material support from the humanities—which do not earn their keep and often draw the ire of a public suspicious of what humanities teachers do in the classroom—and leave standing programs that have a more obvious relationship to a state’s economic prosperity and produce results the man or woman in the street can recognize and appreciate. (What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, “What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?” Nothing.)"

We've heard this before. Here is Mark Yudof, President of the University of California, on the budget crisis at UC:

"Many of our, if I can put it this way, businesses are in good shape. We're doing very well there. Our hospitals are full, our medical business, our medical research, the patient care. So, we have this core problem: Who is going to pay the salary of the English department? We have to have it. Who's going to pay it in sociology, in the humanities? And that's where we're running into trouble."

This is how the humanities are usually portrayed by certain university administrators (not all, of course) who adamantly insistent that the humanities are a net loss to the university, since they don't rake in the big grants. Yudof's belief that the university's "businesses are in good shape" is a telling statement, since it's clear that he sees the university as a corporation with bottom lines and budgetary efficiencies. But his assumptions are not borne out by the facts. Here is Robert Watson, from a column in "The Chronicle of Higher Education," on the true "costs" of the humanities:

"But, according to spreadsheet calculations done at my request by Reem Hanna-Harwell, assistant dean of the humanities at the University of California at Los Angeles, based on the latest annual student-credit hours, fee levels, and total general-fund expenditures, the humanities there generate over $59-million in student fees, while spending only $53.5-million (unlike the physical sciences, which came up several million dollars short in that category)."

You can also read Watson's piece here. And Watson notes that this UCLA finding is matched by similar findings at the University of Washington and at the University of Illinois. (Say, wasn't that where a certain Stanley Fish was once dean?)

It's a shame that Mr. Yudof feels this way, but to be somewhat fair, his statements were made as part of a radio interview—so perhaps he wasn't as careful as he should have been. But Fish, one would presume, spent some time in thinking about what to write and how best to express it. So the question becomes, what exactly is the basis for Fish's assertion that the humanities "do not earn their keep"? Does he have the numbers to back that up? I'm reminded here of something else that Fish once wrote: "Researchers should not falsify their credentials, or make things up, or fudge the evidence, or ignore data that go against their preferred conclusions. Those who publish should acknowledge predecessors and contributors, provide citations to their sources, and strive always to give an accurate account of the materials they present." I've provided an accounting here of the sources cited, and I'm not expert on university budgets. But Fish doesn't cite evidence for his claims, much less acknowledge the serious work done on the question of how the university functions by people like Cary Nelson, Chris Newfield (and here), Charles Schwartz, Marc Bousquet, Jeffrey Bergamini, and Bob Samuels, among others. Sure, it's a blog, and blogs don't have to be as citation-heavy as academic pieces. But in this case, being uninformed—or willfully provocative—can be extraordinarily harmful, particularly when the writer is a public intellectual as prominent as Mr. Fish is.

My Colloquies are shareables: Curate personal collections of blog posts, book chapters, videos, and journal articles and share them with colleagues, students, and friends.

My Colloquies are open-ended: Develop a Colloquy into a course reader, use a Colloquy as a research guide, or invite participants to join you in a conversation around a Colloquy topic.

My Colloquies are evolving: Once you have created a Colloquy, you can continue adding to it as you browse Arcade.