Jacoby: People Like Stanley Fish Have Abetted the Crisis of the Humanities

Russell Jacoby

Head over to The New Republic to read Russell Jacoby’s stinging criticism of Stanley Fish, “Stanley Fish Turned Careerism Into a Philosophy.”  I hope these guys don’t meet at a conference somewhere.  It could get ugly. 

On the other hand, Fish may be just fine with Jacoby’s critique–“different strokes for different folks.”

Though Jacoby never uses the term, he basically presents Fish as a narcissist–someone only concerned about careerism and self-interest.  For example, he reminds us of the reason why Fish opposes blind review of scholarly journal articles: “I am against blind submission,” Fish wrote, “because the fact that my name is attached to an article greatly increases its chances of getting accepted.”  Wow. 

Here is a taste of Jacoby’s piece:

The crisis of the humanities—at the very least, the declining interest in the humanities—cannot obviously be attributed to Fish and his like-minded colleagues, but they have certainly abetted the decline. The lax concept of “socially constructed” flattens out cultural distinctions, so that baseball, physics, serious novels, and sitcoms all appear as kindred inventions, all worthy of full-time study. Not only students, but also interested outsiders and literate citizens, might wonder what is the point of going into the humanities to study comic books. Fish has been unable to uphold the liberal arts as anything more than a vehicle to provide jobs for liberal-arts professors, who do what they do. After all, the liberal tradition has served him and his friends quite nicely. “I believe fully in the core curriculum,” he wrote in one of his Times columns on the crisis of the humanities, “as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.” Bully for him. But if this is the best defense of the liberal arts by one of its most celebrated practitioners, who needs it?

Fish has raised careerism to a worldview. In this way, he is a man for our time. His writings incarnate the cheerful, expedient self-involvement that is part and parcel of contemporary life: everyone is out for himself. Fish has burnished this credo for the professoriate (who already knew it). He seems to believe that frank self-promotion is somehow subversive in this society. Fish also likes to see himself as the perpetual bad boy of literary criticism, provoking left and right. Fish is anything but. He is much too practical to be dangerous. He closes one of his defenses of the humanities with a little vignette of an encounter with a university lobbyist. He offers to accompany the fellow to the next legislative committee investigating the university. But the lobbyist has doubts about Fish’s conduct and asks, “Will you behave?” Fish concludes his chapter, “Some people never learn.” The self-satisfaction is palpable—as is the self-mystification. The unexciting truth is that Stanley Fish has always behaved. He has always bravely defended self-interest. With friends like him, the humanities needs no enemies.