Sometime earlier this spring I asked the students in my Digital Cultures class to each write down a sentence (on a post-it) about what education was for.
I have argued that higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.
This is a very old idea that has received periodic re-formulations. Here is a statement by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott that may stand as a representative example: “There is an important difference between learning which is concerned with the degree of understanding necessary to practice a skill, and learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining.”
Understanding and explaining what? The answer is understanding and explaining anything as long as the exercise is not performed with the purpose of intervening in the social and political crises of the moment, as long, that is, as the activity is not regarded as instrumental – valued for its contribution to something more important than itself.
This seems to me not very well phrased, because the distinction between an institutional ideal (which is really what this is about) and institutional reality is not well established; and “instrumentalism” is very clumsily formulated. Fish mentalistically defines being “instrumental” as a matter of purpose or intention; while of course not everything that’s intended to be “useful” actually ends up being useful, and purposes are not often as monolithic as Fish makes them out to be. Is my intrinsic enjoyment of a bag of potato chips, to take the most laughable example, diminished or even altered by the fact that eating is also instrumentally useful for avoiding weakness and eventual death by starvation? Not really; contra Fish, something can be instrinsically valuable while also being useful for some other end, even when that “other end” is, abstractly, far more important than the immediately valuable experience of, say, chewing up crisp little ovals of grease and salt. Purposes can be multiple with regard to a given activity, whose “intrinsic” merits, moreover, aren’t automatically distorted by an instrumental attitude projected onto it. Extrinsic and intrinsic value, instrumentalism vs value en soi, are not mutually exclusive. And Fish is wrong to imagine that scholastic “understanding and explaining” are automatically distorted the minute that someone starts having an intention of “intervening in social crises,” or that the academic merits of academic knowledge are incompatible with their having some other function, like job training.
Faced with demands for higher education to be “relevant” or “engaged,” either by producing a better corporate workforce as business leaders might want, or by teaching social justice as progressive activists would prefer — faced with these demands, anyway, Fish retreats into the argument that “higher education has no use; it is just intrinsically valuable.” It strikes me that this is actually an strangely deceptive move, because as a professor, higher education is obviously, trivially useful: Fish stands to gain an obvious utility — in fact a paycheck! — from the higher education that he argues is a “determined inutility.” Here is the unspoken reality of Fish’s argument: academic knowledge is useless to everyone except those faculty who are paid to reproduce it.