Stanley Fish says historians are deluded in thinking their training gives them special insights in politics that should be passed on to students (and others)

Historians in the News
tags: humanities, Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is a professor of law at Florida International University and a visiting professor at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University.

He says they (and others) should stop trying to sell the humanities, claiming the effort will backfire.

... The idea is that because they are trained deliberative thinkers, academic humanists have a special capacity (and duty) to correct those of us whose education has been less rigorous. This is a line of reasoning that one can find in the seminal 1915 AAUP statementon academic freedom and tenure. The authors of that (still relevant) document identify as one of democracy’s primary risks "the tyranny of public opinion." Academics, because they think on a much higher level (or so the argument goes), can help us to resist this tyranny and thus "help make public opinion more self-critical"; academics are needed "to check the more hasty and unconsidered impulses of popular feeling, to train the democracy." It hardly seems necessary to describe this point of view as elitist. It says that there is a race of superior creatures who by virtue of having acquired advanced degrees are entitled to provide guidance and correction to the benighted many who have only gone to college or perhaps ended their educations early.

I have elsewhere labeled this thesis "academic exceptionalism," and a year and a half ago a group of historians provided a spectacular example of this form of hubris, when, in a letterto the American people, they pronounced on the candidacy of Donald Trump and directed us to vote against him. In effect they offered themselves as all-purpose seers who knew what ailed us and who came prepared with a remedy — their wisdom. I reminded the historians (in a piecepublished in The New York Times) that what distinguished them from those they purported to instruct in political wisdom was the possession of an advanced degree, not a possession of some form of moral/political superiority. If a historian tells me that his or her research reveals the dark side of some policy, I will listen attentively because that historian will, at least with respect to that subject, know more than I do. But that knowledge cannot and should not translate into giving me marching orders when I enter the ballot box. I might factor what the historians told me into a political decision, but that would be quite different from acknowledging them as my political guardians. ....

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

comments powered by Disqus