There’s been a lot of ongoing discussion (all over the internets) about Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas. This comment, found over at The Valve, is one that’s really stuck with me:

To quote from a recent post of mine, “These aren’t complaints seeking answers, these are just complaints seeking justification for misery.” Who would expect anything original and challenging from someone on staff at Harvard English?

In that last sentiment I’m just echoing the line from SUNY Buffalo back in the 70s, that Harvard English was just a high-class intellectual backwater. Maybe things have gotten better since then, but . . .

And then we have Stanley Fish’s blithe assertion that the humanities are useless and that’s a good thing. One can’t help but think that the current humanities mandarinate is mostly concerned about minimizing their guilt as they ease into retirement, and anything they write about the disciplines is written toward that end, not toward changing things in a positive way.

I’m not sure whether “the current humanities mandarinate” is guilt-ridden and looking to make retirement a bit easier, but I certainly sympathize with the sentiment. There’s something just blatantly wrong-headed about Stanley Fish’s argument about the worthlessness of the humanities, but as with many of his most clever sorties into public opinion, it almost seems like it isn’t worth the time to sort out the kernel of dull truth from among so much brilliant chaff.

Menand’s solution of turning Ph.D.s into (essentially) M.A.s geared towards “the real world” is also something I completely disagree with. I hope to tackle that disagreement here in the blog at some point in the not-too-distant future. (One day when I’m not trying to finish up a piece of print writing, that is.)

Till then, Anthony Grafton didn’t much like it, either. His article came out before I got off my duff to write out my own interrogation of Menand’s argument, and not only did he make most of the objections that had occurred to me, but he put them far more eloquently than I ever could. (I also hope to look in more detail at Grafton in that same to-be-made post.)

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