Saturday, January 31, 2009

Two articles on the demise of the 'liberal arts'

January 18, 2009, 10:00 pm
The Last Professor
Stanley Fish

In previous columns and in a recent book I have argued that higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.

This is a very old idea that has received periodic re-formulations. Here is a statement by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott that may stand as a representative example: "There is an important difference between learning which is concerned with the degree of understanding necessary to practice a skill, and learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining."

Understanding and explaining what? The answer is understanding and explaining anything as long as the exercise is not performed with the purpose of intervening in the social and political crises of the moment, as long, that is, as the activity is not regarded as instrumental – valued for its contribution to something more important than itself.

This view of higher education as an enterprise characterized by a determined inutility has often been challenged, and the debates between its proponents and those who argue for a more engaged university experience are lively and apparently perennial. The question such debates avoid is whether the Oakeshottian ideal (celebrated before him by Aristotle, Kant and Max Weber, among others) can really flourish in today's educational landscape. It may be fun to argue its merits (as I have done), but that argument may be merely academic – in the pejorative sense of the word – if it has no support in the real world from which it rhetorically distances itself. In today's climate, does it have a chance?

In a new book, "The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities," Frank Donoghue (as it happens, a former student of mine) asks that question and answers "No."

Donoghue begins by challenging the oft-repeated declaration that liberal arts education in general and the humanities in particular face a crisis, a word that suggests an interruption of a normal state of affairs and the possibility of restoring the natural order of things.

"Such a vision of restored stability," says Donoghue, "is a delusion" because the conditions to which many seek a return – healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting – have largely vanished. Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past. In " two or three generations," Donoghue predicts, "humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country's university instructional workforce."

How has this happened? According to Donoghue, it's been happening for a long time, at least since 1891, when Andrew Carnegie congratulated the graduates of the Pierce College of Business for being " fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting" rather than wasting time "upon dead languages."

Industrialist Richard Teller Crane was even more pointed in his 1911 dismissal of what humanists call the "life of the mind." No one who has "a taste for literature has the right to be happy" because "the only men entitled to happiness . . . are those who are useful."

The opposition between this view and the view held by the heirs of Matthew Arnold's conviction that poetry will save us could not be more stark. But Donoghue counsels us not to think that the two visions are locked in a struggle whose outcome is uncertain. One vision, rooted in an "ethic of productivity" and efficiency, has, he tells us, already won the day; and the proof is that in the very colleges and universities where the life of the mind is routinely celebrated, the material conditions of the workplace are configured by the business model that scorns it.

The best evidence for this is the shrinking number of tenured and tenure-track faculty and the corresponding rise of adjuncts, part-timers more akin to itinerant workers than to embedded professionals.

Humanities professors like to think that this is a temporary imbalance and talk about ways of redressing it, but Donoghue insists that this development, planned by no one but now well under way, cannot be reversed. Universities under increasing financial pressure, he explains, do not "hire the most experienced teachers, but rather the cheapest teachers." Tenured and tenure-track teachers now make up only 35 percent of the pedagogical workforce and "this number is steadily falling."

Once adjuncts are hired to deal with an expanding student body (and the student body is always expanding), budgetary planners find it difficult to dispense with the savings they have come to rely on; and "as a result, an adjunct workforce, however imperceptible its origins . . . has now mushroomed into a significant fact of academic life."

What is happening in traditional universities where the ethos of the liberal arts is still given lip service is the forthright policy of for-profit universities, which make no pretense of valuing what used to be called the "higher learning." John Sperling, founder of the group that gave us Phoenix University, is refreshingly blunt: "Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that 'expand their minds'" nonsense.


People sometimes believe that they were born too late or too early. After reading Donoghue's book, I feel that I have timed it just right, for it seems that I have had a career that would not have been available to me had I entered the world 50 years later. Just lucky, I guess.

Read the whole thing here.

First Principles – ISI Web Journal
Last Things: On the First and "Last" Professor
James V. Schall, SJ

The study of philosophy is conducted along two lines, one concerned with action, the other with pure thought—hence they may be called practical and speculative philosophy, the former dealing with the conduct of life and the establishment of moral standards, the latter concerned with the theory of causation and the nature of absolute truth. Socrates is the type of excellence in practical wisdom, while Pythagoras concentrated on the contemplative, for which he was equipped by his intellectual power.

—Augustine, City of God, VIII, c . 4.


Everyone is reading Stanley Fish's essay, "The Last Professor," in the New York Times (January 25), a column itself based on the title of a book by Frank Donoghue, one of Fish's former pupils. It seems highly appropriate that a column entitled "Last Things" should be interested in one entitled "The Last Professor." A professor who does not in his discipline also touch on its relation to the last things is merely a professor, not a wise man as a result of what he has learned about the whole of reality that he encounters in his studies, however narrow. The "last professor" must, as Cicero said in his essay on "Old Age," finally take his stand before the last things if he is to live, what Aristotle called, a complete life.

The phrase, "the last professor" means, in Fish's context, that what a professor is said to do in his professorship no longer has any market. The lives of students have no place for the "impractical" enterprise of simply knowing. Everything is now practical, "down-to-earth," job-oriented. No one, it is said, cares for things "for their own sakes," to use Aristotle's expression. As a letter to the editor said, the teachers are looking to the AFL-CIO for help. That is, everyone now recognizes that Fish is right.

No longer do we have "leisure" only "occupation" or "business," to use the English of Aristotle's term, "askolia." And the works of leisure were, in Pieper's famous essay, the only things that could protect our freedom, keep us from being absorbed into the absolutist state, where our souls have no transcendence but only a function as a part in the whole. We are all employees now, more and more even of the state, not master-craftsmen or those who know things higher than utility. Our virtue depends on what we do or make, not on the habits of what we are, habits that we form in our own souls by our choices and self-discipline.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "professor" originally meant to speak forth or pronounce some position in public, often religious, one that we have deliberately taken. It was an act of making clear what one held or where he stood. His words informed us what he considered himself to be.

In American English, a professor is almost anyone in a college or university who teaches anything from agriculture to zoology and all things in between. Professors have different "ranks"—ranging from assistant, to associate, to full, with things like emeritus or adjunct also modifying the noun.

In the English universities, the name is more restricted. It usually refers to someone who has an endowed or established chair. The qualifications for occupying it are often quite meticulous. The German "Herr Professor" is a rather god-like character. Rashdall says that in the Middle Ages, the terms "Doctor, Master, and Professor" were synonymous. The title is related to the academic preparation and the award of a degree expressing satisfactory or exemplary mastery of a body of study.

We might say that Socrates was not a professor but Plato and Aristotle were. It is not without interest that Augustine placed Socrates as a master of the practical science, the science of how we live. Socrates himself said at one point that he grew frustrated with seeking the causes of things and turned to ethics as a kind of refuge. Francis of Assisi was not a professor, but Thomas Aquinas was. The object of the human mind is omne ens scibile, all things knowable. We are not simply about what we make or do, but about what is. The very word "university," the concern for all things, still bears this implication.


The Fish-Donaghue thesis is not about what ought to happen but what has happened. Fish is resigned to the fact that the kind of wide-ranging knowledge that he followed in his academic career will no longer be given a place in academia. He is obsolete, the last. He is grateful that he entered academia when it was still possible to spend his life in learning things. This was a world in which students were excited not about what they could make, however valuable this was, but what they knew because reality contained things worth knowing, because truth was a real enterprise of the mind.

Aristotle said that if man were the highest animal, politics would be the highest science. But since he was not the highest animal, politics would be limited to its own legitimate area. The elimination of the last professor, then, has serious political overtones. There is no one left to ask what else is there but success in this world.

Politics becomes more like a self-made metaphysics. The politician recognizes no limits to his scope. The people hold him to his claims. There are no things that cannot be done, only those who won't do them. Perfection becomes a "right," but it has no definition but what we want to give it. There is no contemplative order that would hint that man is already something, not simply a political animal.

The political order is not ordained only to itself. It is indeed open to what it cannot, in its own terms, know, but only point to. The limits of politics are reached when the political man turns on himself to reconfigure and refashion what it is to be man. This utopian project is, in fact, where we are.

Read the rest here.

A professor of mine at the University of St. Thomas astutely commented:

Fish’s article reflects perfectly the impoverishment and irrelevance of the liberal arts without a theological foundation. His final remark that having long lived parasitically on the inheritance of a vast and coherent tradition, now emptied of meaning, he is historically fortunate, is breath taking.

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