Monday, October 18, 2010

Tossing Bottles

As a teenager in the 1980’s, I saw most of the important teen movies of the era. One of the staples of 80’s teen movies was the moment when the screwup hero realized that he had imbibed (or allowed others to imbibe at a forbidden party) much of what was in the parents’ liquor cabinet -- these houses always had well-stocked liquor cabinets -- and didn’t want to get caught. Invariably, he’d add water to the various bottles to make the cabinet look, at first glance, undisturbed. Tossing bottles would have given the game away.

SUNY Albany is tossing bottles, and catching holy hell for it. Apparently, it’s suspending admission to programs in French, Italian, Russian, and classics. Stanley Fish has opined that this marks the official collapse of the humanities.

As regular readers know, I stand in awe of Stanley Fish’s ability to maintain a prominent and successful career without ever, even by accident, getting anything right. It’s an astonishing record, really. He’s the David Hasselhoff of academia; nobody can really explain why he’s still there, yet he’s still there.

His win-by-losing streak remains alive. In defense of distribution requirements that used to be the lifeblood of certain departments, Fish writes -- and I am not making this up --

I have always had trouble believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum — that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said — but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.

Wow. Just, wow. So the reason we should support the humanities is to provide jobs for humanists.

It’s an interesting bit of logic. Just substitute anything at all for “humanities” and the sentence still works. The reason we should support buggy whips making is to retain the employment of buggy whip makers. The reason we should support the continued use of typewriters is to retain the employment of people in typewriter factories. The reason we should continue the production of whalebone corsets is to support the employment of whalebone corset makers. Whee!

Lest my reading seem reductive, check Fish’s piece. He explicitly rejects the usual “pieties” on behalf of humanistic studies, as well as any kind of economic-usefulness argument. Revealingly, he also rejects internal cross-subsidies:

And it won’t do, in the age of entrepreneurial academics, zero-based budgeting and “every tub on its own bottom,” to ask computer science or biology or the medical school to fork over some of their funds so that the revenue-poor classics department can be sustained. That was the idea a while back, but today it won’t fly.

Why not?

FIsh doesn’t even try to answer that, though he should. Because his alternative -- administrators will save us all! (seriously! that’s what he wrote!) -- assumes that the state legislature will be easier to persuade than will the biology department. Even though the biology department reports to the exact same campus presidents who are supposed to persuade the legislature. Even though Fish assures us that the presidents don’t believe it themselves.


Politically, this doesn’t even rise to the level of ‘failure.’

In a rational world, Fish’s piece would have been drowned out by derisive laughter. Instead, it was quoted approvingly by the AFT FACE folk and all manner of adjunct activists, even though it undercuts their departments’ reason to exist.


If SUNY Albany had, instead, simply adjuncted-out more courses across the humanities, eventuating in the same level of savings, would that have been better or worse? Suppose that, instead of tossing some bottles, it had just watered more bottles down. How might the world have reacted?

Judging by the last forty years’ worth of trendlines, I’ll go out on a limb and say that nearly nobody outside of Albany would have noticed. Business would have gone on as usual.

Instead, Albany did what few of us have the courage to do: it chose to toss some bottles and wake everyone with the noise of their shattering. It chose to face the truth, and in so doing, to maintain higher levels of resources for the programs that survived. (Fish’s analysis is silent on that point.) It made the decision -- perfectly defensible, in my estimation -- that it would rather do fewer things and continue to do them well than continue to do everything just a little bit worse.

Whether the specific bottles it chose to toss are the right ones, I don’t know; that’s context-specific, and I don’t know the context well enough to say. Whether the decision will withstand the inevitable legal challenges and votes of no confidence, I don’t know.

But it did something that the usual default move doesn’t do: it got public attention. It actually made some noise, and may have started a worthwhile debate. Should colleges continue to act as if all those budget cuts by states make no material difference, or should they put the cost on public display?

I’ll admit being less-than-optimistic that the voters of, say, New York will storm the barricades demanding more graduate programs in French Lit. Academics who care about that are invited to enter the political sphere and try to sway the electorate, though as someone who has done that for years, I’ll advise plenty of patience and a stiff sense of irony. Generally speaking, the more you can frame the discussion in terms of “great education” and “benefits to the state as a whole,” as opposed to “jobs for humanists,” the better a chance you stand.

You can’t water down the bottles forever without fundamentally changing what’s inside them. Albany decided to toss some bottles to save the rest. It’s a debatable choice, but certainly a defensible one, and it offers at least the appeal of abandoning a strategy that has failed for forty years. It also offers the appeal of maintaining quality control -- and yes, jobs -- in the departments that remain.

Albany may or may not be right, but it does not deserve the opprobrium it has received. And Fish’s win-by-losing streak remains intact.