STANFORD UNIVERSITY – “Spending time in the presence of works of great beauty can powerfully change your life,” says, Joshua Landy, co-director of Stanford’s Philosophy and Literature Initiative. Relaxed in his Stanford office Landy can seem like a low-key kind of guy, but he has sounded a rallying cry for the defense of the humanities.
There’s a good reason for his fervor; like many in the field, he feels literature is under attack.
In October, SUNY Albany – a university with 18,000 students and 57 undergraduate majors and more than 120 graduate degree programs – announced that it is axing its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater departments. The move caused nationwide protest and sent chills through humanities departments across the nation.
That’s not all. As universities abandon humanities requirements, class enrollment has declined. Unemployment remains high, causing students to focus on the bottom line when choosing a major. So how do the humanities justify their existence?
Landy, author of the forthcoming How to Do Things with Fictions for Oxford University Press, responds with a story. He’s been teaching the Introduction to Humanities course titled Art of Living for years. After spending a quarter introducing ideas, philosophies and choices, he concluded the class by reminding the students that he had said nothing about his views; now he would finally break his silence.
“Here’s my advice, straight from the heart,” he told them. “Don’t major in economics.”
Landy laughed at the recollection, and explains he has nothing against economics per se – but it’s not everyone’s calling, and high enrollment may not reflect a passion for the subject.
Landy ended his “Art of Living” course with an impassioned call for students to consider majoring in humanities if that’s what they love.
He cited Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon to defend the humanities: “It’s not about you living longer. It’s about how you live and why.” He also quoted W.E.B. Du Bois, writing in Souls of Black Folk: “The true college will ever have one goal – not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.”
Universities often provide students with a one-time-only chance to focus on the Big Questions, said Landy, “to find out who you are and what you stand for. Is there life after death? Is there a God who is omnipotent and benevolent?”
“In a way, I suppose, I’ve always at some level been interested in the big philosophical questions. Most people are. If you dig deep enough, most people are.”
Landy launched the Philosophy and Literature Initiative in 2004 with Lanier Anderson, associate professor of philosophy; it remains one of the few such programs anywhere. With the initiative, Landy hoped to capitalize on “an awful lot of interest in the intersection of literature and philosophy,” an intersection that received enthusiastic support from such luminaries as the late Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty.
At a colloquium last month, Landy argued that literature needs to push back against those who say it is bad for you (it perpetuates imperialism, or capitalism, etc.), or harmless but useless (as Stanley Fish claimed in a widely debated New York Times column), or good for the wrong reasons (it helps overthrow the patriarchy, “thanks to a bit of wordplay in a sonnet”).
“I think we need a better story,” he told an audience of about a hundred. “We all need to have a story, a story that is both positive and plausible. And we all need to be circulating that story, as widely as possible.”
Joshua Landy, co-director of Stanford’s Philosophy and Literature Initiative, is the author of the forthcoming “How to Do Things with Fictions.”
BY CYNTHIA HAVEN
Also on Stanford Knowledgebase: