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The humanities have been studied since ancient Grecian times as an academic discipline, examining human condition and including the arts, literature, philosophy, history and some social sciences. In 2008, nationally recognized and respected literary theorist Stanley Fish wrote a New York Times article in response to a New York State Commission on Higher Education report in which people posted complaints that the humanities are always the last to be financially funded. Fish sums up his argument with an insulting conclusive statement: “To the question ‘of what use are humanities? ’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever”.
He backs up this claim by pointing out the lack of tangible evidence that is produced by humanities compared to science and other fields. I assert that Fish underestimates the power of the intangible benefits that the humanities have to offer. His overall argument against the value of humanities presents a point-of-view that is extreme, reductive, and insulting to anyone associated with the humanities and the study of them. An education involving the study of humanities enables readers with skills that are applicable in understanding and comprehending contemporary media and literature.
Literature, for that matter, effects people morally and possibly behaviorally and that effect, positive or negative, is ‘of use’. Narrative literature and historical texts also allow readers to build a bridge and connect with the past and its people. The media has become an inevitable part of our society today and, unfortunately, media manipulation has as well. Public relations companies and the government have hidden agendas that the journalists blindly incorporate into their stories and columns. People are paid to make the American public perceive pictures and articles in a deceitful, false way in order to sell a war or downplay a disaster.
In 1996 John Rendon, the founder of The Rendon Group, a public relations firm, admitted to U. S. Air Force cadets that the Gulf War in Iraq had been a big project for his company. He even talked about generating deceiving photographs! Looking back in history through other conflicts (i. e. , Vietnam, Iraq), or political issues or even stories of famous individuals, we can observe many situations similar to what Rendon explained that supports a recurring complaint in our culture, whether provable or not, that the press will print stories without evidence if they make more money in the process.
Specifically, the media coverage after the 911 attacks were constant and focused on Osama bin Laden as the mastermind behind the attacks and on Iraq having ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as they were told by authorities. Pro-war sources were disproportionately focused on over anti-war sources which helped build misguided public support for our war on terrorism and on Iraq. But we now know WMDs were not in existence there, but this shows the power of media stories, no matter whether based on fact, and its ability to influence society and the power it can take away from us by eliminating fully-informed decision-making.
By being exposed to manipulating and deceiving narrators such as Lolita’s Humbert Humbert and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In the Rye, students gain experience in detecting this fraudulence or bias. Also, through involvement with this type of reading and writing, the ability to sense when they are being propagandized or manipulated. An education that includes humanities provides tools for people to consciously keep from falling for the bias and hidden slander that is involved, especially with politics.
This awareness can cause better decision-making (voting especially) and affect a person’s opinion very greatly. Exposure to humanities can cause people to be less egocentric and can arm them with a point-of-view that will help them see through narrow-minded opinions and statements, like Fish’s, and develop their own sound, fact-based and well-rounded opinions. Fish also comments in his article, “What do they [humanities] do? They don’t do anything, if by ‘do’ is meant bring about effects in the world”.
This claim is resting upon the questionable understanding that the ‘do’ is supposed to yield a tangible product, a constant misconception Fish seems to have. I am arguing that an effect on a person, positive or negative, implies that something was ‘done’ to have caused that effect. Fish himself names many examples of literature affecting its readers; he just chooses to discard them and remain skeptical. Countless examples have affected millions of people. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is commonly credited for the launch of the environmental awareness movement.
The Bible itself is a form of literature, and I am sure that Stanley Fish cannot argue that The Bible has not affected the world! Dr. Seuss books affect children and adults all over the world with their simple yet effective messages through the creative rhyming. The Food and Drug Administration was founded as a latter result to Sinclair’s The Jungle, and I believe that this would be considered an example of ‘doing’ something, even according to Fish. Books, and all forms of art, can cause people to reflect on the plot, the characters, or the ethical questions being pondered in the story.
We can contemplate character attributes we appreciate or reject and watch scenarios unfold in books that can be comparable to situations in our own lives. Fish believes “it is not the business of the humanities to save us”, but I do believe an education in humanities can help us save us from the “worst of ourselves” by helping us become more well-rounded citizens with an understanding of the past so we can head effectively and productively into the future. I agree with Kronman who Fish quotes as saying “a college was above all a place for the training of character…”.
This completely supports an intelligent quote by Martin Luther King Jr. King said, “Intelligence plus character—that is the true goal of education. ” Without any humanities incorporated in a person’s education, can this goal be fully achieved? The renowned Spanish-American essayist George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, and I cannot agree more with this claim. It highlights the importance of an education in history, another branch of the humanities discipline.
Having a connection and understanding with the past allows us to gain appreciation for the world today and learn from the mistakes made through history, so those mistakes are not repeated. For example, the very foundation of America’s government was created through utilizing documentations of various governments implemented through history! The founding fathers sifted through accounts of different governments and how successful they were and used them to form the Constitution.
For example, they applied the system of checks and balances in order balance power among the braches and stray from the way that Britain’s monarchy was established. Books and the arts used to be man’s sole form of entertainment and it is amazing to read the thoughts and see the creations of a person from so long ago! Narrative literature, especially from the past, allows us to delve into the mindset of someone from a different time, and that is something that no history book can teach.
The readings assigned in humanities classes expand students’ knowledge of life and ethics from a different time period and examines why this ethical mindset existed in the historical context. We reflect and compare the morals of those in the past to our own, making connections with the past yet also seeing the development of ethics and moral behavior through time. Teachings in humanities can be directly applied to the commercial culture that is present in our society today, especially with the deceitful and biased influences in the media.
Literature has direct effects on us on an emotional, ethical and logical level and the connection that is made through books with the past is undoubtedly one of the most helpful insights of the past. Fish’s argument was immature and was based merely on tangible products, a close-minded viewpoint that overlooks the power of thought and the mind! My contrasting opinion defends the impalpable and in that sense, suggests humanities can contribute to improving a reader personally and potentially benefit the future of society greatly.