Kenny sent around an article from the New York Times ("The Last Professor," January 19, 2009), in which Stanley Fish analyses the long-running trend of universities trying to make themselves of practical use, resulting in "all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary." Fish takes the position that the university should be "expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining" – that is, knowledge for knowledge's sake.
Normally, I would jump in to defend the value of literature and philosophy, both for their real utility and as pursuits that have intrinsic value. In this case, though, I wouldn't be caught dead playing on the same team as Stanley Fish. He casts himself in a heroic role, the titular "last professor" who represents "a model of education centered on an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration". Somehow, the self-importance just oozes out his statements. In his mind, throngs of nubile co-eds are waiting breathlessly to greet him, The Professor -- as popular as a rock star and as holy as a saint. He, the last of a noble race, is struggling against those soulless profiteers who would reduce education to mere vocational training.
I should point out that Fish was not merely a by-stander in that trend. As the head of the English department at Duke University, he pushed heavy teaching loads upon the graduate students so that he and the lavishly-paid celebrity academics he hired could teach less. Evidently delivering "insight and inspiration" does not involve, you know, actually teaching something. Towards the end of his tenure at Duke an external review committee considered evidence that the English curriculum had become "a hodgepodge of uncoordinated offerings," lacking in "broad foundational courses" or faculty planning. Fish managed to exalt himself, but Duke and its students didn't seem to get much out of the deal. But maybe creating new scholars is too "instrumental" for his high ideal of being useless.
As to the purpose of a liberal arts education . . . I doubt I can say it better than Kenny did:
If the liberal arts are seen as deliberately useless indulgence-endless self-justification by people who want to spend their lives arguing about the meter of a 500-year-old poem or the meaning of "The Simpsons"-then perhaps they deserve to die. If the only "value" we attempt to instill is the value of multiculturalism (which is a wonderful value, but it isn't the only one!!!) then there is no need for the study of a bunch of dead white men.
But one of the lessons of the Obama campaign is that young people still want to make a difference, not just a buck. If they study Rome, they will see not only the origins of civic virtue, but models (good and bad) of civic virtue. If they study the Greeks they will see how the very questions they are asking ("How can I lead a meaningful life?") can be approached with intellectual tools and passionate commitment. If they read Wordsworth they will see all their idealism about love and nature transformed into something which is simultaneously intellectual and transcendent.
This is not deliberately useless, but it is not merely vocational either: it is, and should be, transformative. If professors lose that vision, why have professors?