This evening I stumbled upon a blog by Stanley Fish about the “Digital Humanities.” In which Fish, an academic 50 years into the profession, wrestles with how the digital age is affecting the Humanities. His article reminded me of my studies in philosophy and my master’s education. Most of all, it had me thinking of the new academia that I’m waiting for.
You see, the plan for me was that I would go from my bachelors to masters to PhD to become a Philosophy or Literature professor. Before I was even ready to admit this to myself, my high school French teacher told me I should be some sort of Humanities professor. I liked the idea so much I started planning out my opening lecture while I sewed in our basement.
I discovered throughout my undergrad that I definitely do have a knack and passion for teaching. That’s also when I realized Philosophy is more my taste, at least to teach, than Literature. I strongly believe that the Humanities play as important a role in our daily lives as the sciences, just in a different way.
But something happened along the way. It’s the reason I’ve taken this year off of school (and will be at least taking next year off as well). Since positive statements are usually better, I think it’s best to say that I realized that I want to be part of a different kind of academia.
Fish’s blog touches on what’s at stake for me. In his blog he wrestles with modern and postmodern opinions about the Humanities. Though he focuses most on definitions of what a text is and what role the author plays, he articulates two sides of academia.
On Fish’s side (or the modern side), there is an academia that sees knowledge as definitive, comprehensive, monumental and original. Only credentialed individuals (ie PhDs or those seeking PhDs) are creating meaning. The knowledge they give us is meant to be taught, learned and lived by others. Only other credentialed individuals are really able to enter into dialogue with or challenge this “knowledge.” Their response must be equally definitive, comprehensive…etc.
On the other side is the postmodern or digital humanities take on academia, it sees knowledge as provisional, ephemeral, interactive, communal, available to challenge, interruption and interpolation. As Fish summarizes, “Meaning [is] everywhere and nowhere, produced not by anyone but by everyone in concert, meaning not waiting for us at the end of a linear chain of authored thought in the form of a sentence or an essay or a book, but immediately and multiply present in a cornucopia of ever-expanding significances.” In short, everyone whether they have a PhD or not, whether they write a long argumentative book or a blog, contributes to the development of knowledge. Whether an idea is original is not as important as whether or not it is alive, active in our society.
Between these two sides, I stand near the digital humanities (that is leaving alone the extremes which Fish brings up in his article like the idea that there is no individual and no real text, that so much communication from so many directions and so much movement in knowledge ultimately means there is no communication at all and no real knowledge-that I disagree with).* Of course, considering the generational gap between Fish and I this isn’t surprising but I like to believe I have a better reason for feeling that way than just our age difference.
The more I studied philosophy, the more I saw it all around me and in history. The more we talked about and debated postmodernity the more I realized how much our lives are in dialogue with it. I’ve become convinced that individuals, communities, key moments in history, etc are all wrapped up in philosophy and play a role in writing philosophy (in different ways and degrees, of course). I’m sure this can be said of so many more disciplines.
The beauty of education, especially in the Humanities, is it does this, right? It makes us so much more aware of our reality and the multiple layers of our experiences and existence. Also, it helps us to see the intersection and interconnection between these layers. As we become more aware, we often become more reflective. We realize our choices have ripple effects and that they carry more weight. So, we try to choose more wisely.
At least, it has the potential to do this. Here’s the problem: Fish’s academia, modern academia, is too buttoned up and exclusive. After students graduate they can quickly lose that sense of its relevance because they aren’t included in the dialogue anymore. They can quickly become disillusioned by what they learned because all that decisive, comprehensive, definitive, monumental, isolated knowledge doesn’t make as much sense in a world that is so often provisional, ephemeral, interactive and communal.
Along with that there are two other problems. One) Higher education has become overpriced. Even though we’re in a serious recession prices keep rising for no good reason. (Besides their belief that they need more bells and whistles to continue attracting students and need to convince all people it is a necessity instead of a commodity). Two) I disagree with a liberal arts education being advertised as job training. It’s dishonest and ridiculous. The concept of Liberal Arts education was constructed around the idea that higher education is much more than job training. The purpose was not to create a good worker, it was to create a better human being. Advertising it as something else sets ups false expectations for most students. I know enough people my age who regret the debt they accrued for an education that was, for all practical purposed quite useless, at least in relation to their career which it was supposed to relate to.
So I’m waiting a little, until academia is more primed for a new kind of academia. That’s more responsibly priced, more honestly marketed, and more postmodern. Or until I’m ready to concede a little bit.
*At another time I’m sure I’ll share with you why I disagree with this.