This question was posed by Stanley Fish, the American literary theorist, legal scholar, academic, and public intellectual in a column in The New York Times on June 24. It referred to a recent paper by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences titled “The Heart of the Matter.”
In each of the sentences, Fish writes, and many others that might be instanced, the key words – “framework,” “context,” “complex,” “meaningfully,” “understanding,” “diverse,” “sensitivity,” “perspectives” – are spectacularly empty; just where specificity is needed, sonorous abstraction blunts the edge of what is being asserted, rendering it unexceptionable (no one’s against understanding, complexity and meaningfulness) and without bite.
Nevertheless, amid all this vagueness there is a strong, if somewhat subliminal, message, one that is complicit with the very forces the report is supposedly written to combat. Humanists are advised “to apply their work to the great challenges of the era as well as pursuing basic curiosity-driven research.” “Curiosity-driven” means driven simply by the desire (often obsessive) to determine the truth of a matter, independently of whether it is a truth that will rise to an era’s great challenges.
That of course is precisely how the academy, and especially the humanist academy, has traditionally been conceived – as a cloistered and separate area in which inquiry is engaged in for its own sake and not because it yields useful results. It is the rejection of this contemplative ideal in favor of various forms of instrumentalism that underlies the turn away from the humanist curriculum. The rhetoric of the report puts its authors on the side of that ideal, but when push comes to shove, they are all too ready to dilute it in the name of some large abstraction – democracy, culture, social progress, whatever. They are, in short, all too ready to depart from the heart of the matter.