Monday, January 07, 2008

Do the humanities ennoble?

Stanley Fish asks an interesting question: does familiarity with the humanities make you a better person?
The premise of secular humanism (or of just old-fashioned humanism) is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them. Philip Sydney put it as well as anyone ever has when he asks (in “The Defense of Poesy,” 1595), “Who reads Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back that wishes not it was his fortune to perform such an excellent act?” Thrill to this picture of filial piety in the Aeneid and you will yourself become devoted to your father. Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you.
Fish answers in the negative by citing the example of professors of humanities.
If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge.
There are a few things to say about this.

First, is it true? Are professors of philosophy and literature no better as human beings than the average? Fish doesn't think so. I don't know.

Second, is it fair to expect them to be? I don't know about that either. I think it is fair to expect members of most other academic departments to be better at their subjects than the average person. The average Computer Science professor, for example, is almost certainly a better computer scientist than the average man on the street. But Fish acknowledges that the average professor of philosophy and literature is better at the work of analyzing philosophy and literature than the average person. Should one expect her also to be a better person? If familiarity with the humanities is supposed to make one a better person—as those who argue for the teaching of the humanities claim—is that an unfair expectation? I really don't know what to say about that?

I'd be interested in comments.

P.S. The image has nothing to do with the post other than that I was looking for a "humanities" image and liked this one.

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