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Everything Stanley Fish Knows About Higher Education Is Wrong

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In his New York Times article, "The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives," Stanley Fish makes the following statement, "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." This argument, by a so-called expert, reveals some of the dominant misconceptions concerning higher education.

The first obvious problem is that even though Fish has been a dean, a department chair, and a professor, he does not know that most undergraduate humanities programs make a huge profit, and in fact, these departments often rely on inexpensive contingent labor to teach most of their courses. Moreover, these classes often gain the highest level of student satisfaction because they are taught in small seminars that provide personal attention to individual students. Finally, it is untrue to state that the average citizen does not respect the humanities and the need to teach students how to write, read, and think effectively and critically.

So how can someone with so much experience at American universities misunderstand the basic reality of these institutions? Like so many educators, Fish relies on false ideological reasoning instead of hard facts when he analyzes his subject matter. Since he does not want to acknowledge that universities subsidize expensive graduate programs and research grants by draining funds from profit-making undergraduate Humanities and Social Science courses, Fish has to debase Liberal Arts classes and misrepresent what these programs actually do. The fact of the matter is that the most prevalent undergraduate courses in the Humanities are introductory writing and language classes that are usually taught by part-time faculty and graduate students. While these classes are much smaller than the average lower-division course a student takes, they are efficient and cost-effective because they rely on inexpensive non-tenure-track labor.

However, since research professors, like Fish, do not respect writing and language courses, they fail to acknowledge the vital roles these courses play in higher education. Not only do these classes save money, but they teach important skills that are recognized by the general public. Furthermore, since these courses are often required, they represent a steady source for departmental enrollments. In other words, while fewer students are taking majors in the Humanities, they are still taking courses in Humanities' programs.

Perhaps if Fish had himself taken a more effective set of writing and communication courses, he would be more critical of his own ideological blind spots. Even though he is a visible critic of academic theory, he approaches the university from a purely theoretical perspective. Still, his analysis is helpful because it gives us insight to why so many administrators are making very bad decisions. For instance, the recent move to cut language programs at SUNY Albany show how universities do not recognize their own source of income and student satisfaction. As many studies have shown, small classes in the first two years of college are one of the key indicators of student retention, but since these courses are usually not taught by tenured faculty, they are easy to cut during times of budget stress.

Instead of calling for the end to the Humanities, we should celebrate and protect these areas, and to do this, we need to recognize who really pays the bills and delivers the goods in higher education. It turns out that it is the disrespected required courses that provide the cash and the student satisfaction for many colleges and universities. What schools should do, then, is to stop exploiting these educators and provide them with stable jobs and institutional respect. Not only could we turn the academic job market around by hiring more full-time instructors, but we could protect the research mission of universities by sustaining the real source of cash for these institutions.