Way back in January of ’09 Stanely Fish wrote a jarring little essay, in which he endorsed a vision of the culture of learning attributed to Oakeshott:
“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.
Fish worried openly that such an undertaking, “in today’s climate,” hasn’t “a chance” — because in today’s climate science is better for life than the humanities. That value judgment, “rooted in an “ethic of productivity” and efficiency,” has “already won the day;”
and the proof is that in the very colleges and universities where the life of the mind is routinely celebrated, the material conditions of the workplace are configured by the business model that scorns it.
So, in Frank Donoghue’s words,
all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary.
Unnecessary to what? Defending a practice as necessary or unnecessary reveals, or at least begs, the instrumentalism Fish decries. An Oakeshottean account of what MacIntyre calls the goods ‘internal to’ learning should concede that those goods are unnecessary, external to the practices that produce them in virtue of being them! Indeed, this is Fish’s own position. But Fish’s endorsement of Donoghue’s prophecy suggests that the practicing Oakeshottean always already puts him or herself at risk. “Unnecessary, therefore we keep doing it” runs somewhat unawares into “unnecessary, therefore we pull your funding.”
Yet there is an even more serious danger for the Oakeshottean — Unnecessary, therefore you keep your funding only in your capacity as a trophy and indulgence, as a jester, a pampered pet, as a ‘holy’ fool. Fish’s definition of instrumentality leads readily into a defense of learning for learning’s sake; but the aim of reducing a flourishing culture of Oakeshottean learning down to an exotic bird in a gilt cage is not only compatible with but strengthened by the celebratory tokenism of “learning for Learning’s sake” — or exoticism for Exoticism’s sake, etc.
L’art pour l’art means: ‘the devil take morality!’ — But this very hostility betrays that moral prejudice is still dominant. […] Art is the great stimulus to life: how could it be thought purposeless, aimless, l’art pour l’art?
What? Replace ‘art’ with ‘learning’, and we go from Nietzsche to Oakeshott? But I don’t know whether Oakeshott really takes the enterprise of understanding and explaining to be ‘the great stimulus to life.’ Fish seems to concede that Oakeshottean learners will always wake up one day to discover they are being bred out. Do they actually discover they have been bred in? How is an Oakeshottean to avoid becoming too pampered a pet? Does it matter, instrumentally speaking, that this crisis is always ‘of the moment’? Why do you, practicing Oakeshottean, put yourself at such an extremity of risk?