Stanley Fish Defends Himself, Yet Again


Why is it every time I peruse the NY Times op-ed pages Stanely Fish is defending himself? This time he’s been associated with the Sokal hoax, accused of not separating teaching and political advocacy, and is forced to clear up his objection to the Chair of Conservative Thought at CU-Boulder. One of the things I found amusing was the idea that teachers give students lousy grades when the students write papers that oppose our political views. Isn’t this the same as a student claiming that I don’t like him and that’s the only reason he earned a “D”? True story. In my logic and critical thinking course I do a little unit on evolution/ID and always receive a bunch of wildly reactionary papers about evolution, but I look for the structure of the argument when I’m grading it, of course. I would assume most who teach are able to compartmentalize just fine. Anyway, here’s Fish:

Teachers come to their task burdened by religious and political commitments, moral philosophies and world views, and they can’t simply unburden themselves when they walk into the classroom. “It is a fallacy to think that the ‘academic’ world is or can be isolated from the political world.” But isolation from the political world is not required. All that is required is the quite ordinary ability to distinguish between contexts and the decorums appropriate to them. When you enter an institutional setting — an office, a corporate boardroom, a cruise ship, a square dance, an athletic event — the concerns to which you are responsive belong to the setting, and you comport yourself accordingly. Rather then asking, “What do my political and religious views tell me to do?”, you ask, “What do the protocols of this particular endeavor or occasion tell me to do?” The setting of the classroom is no different, even though the materials you encounter are often fraught with moral and political questions to which you would give very definite answers were you confronted by them in your life outside the academy. As long as you are in the classroom, and as long as you recognize the classroom as a place with its own constituitive demands, those questions will be seen as items in an intellectual landscape and not as challenges to which you directly and personally respond. Of course, somewhere behind what you are doing will be the larger commitments and world views that make you what you are, but for the duration of your professional performance, those commitments will be on the back burner, exerting some influence to be sure (I am not insisting on purity), but not enough to blur the distinction, basic to the very rationale for higher education, between what you would do were you in the ballot box and what you are pledged to do by virtue of the contract you have signed and the salary you are paid.

Or, some think politics has to be part of the classroom equation. Here’s Fish again:

There are some who, rather than arguing that it is impossible to keep politics out of the classroom, declare that it’s a bad idea because our responsibility is not to the traditions of academic inquiry but to the truths and urgencies of our current situation. Ben Murphy says that “if we compare Mill and Marx, the question is not just why did they think what they did but which of them came closer to the truth.” The truth they are to come close to is, I presume, a truth about the way governments should be organized or a truth about how people should comport themselves, politically and morally. I agree that it is important to have a position on such questions of truth, but the classroom is not the place to work that position out; the classroom is, however, the place to consider the efforts of men and women to work it out in the course of centuries. Steven Brence may or may not be right when he announces that an “untenable” Hobbesian notion of individualism is responsible for “much of contemporary conservative thought.” But “untenable” is not a judgment he should render, although he should make an historical argument about conservative thought’s indebtedness to Hobbes. Save “untenable” for the soapbox.

Fish ends the article with a question from a commentator who asks what good does academics “do us if it does not put us in a better position to assess current theories and thoughts?” Fish’s response:

It depends what you mean by assess. If you mean analyze, lay bare the structure of, trace the antecedents of, then well and good. But if it means pronouncing on the great issues of the day — yes we should export democracy to the rest of the world or no we shouldn’t — then what she calls assessing I call preaching.

Yes, ok. More interesting is the final paragraph of the essay:

Sarah touches on what is perhaps the most urgent question one could put to the enterprise of liberal education. What, after all, justifies it? The demand for justification, as I have said in other places, always come from those outside the enterprise. Those inside the enterprise should resist it, because to justify something is to diminish it by implying that its value lies elsewhere. If the question What justifies what you do? won’t go away, the best answer to give is “nothing.”

This seems like the right kind of attitude to me, having just quickly looked at the comments to this article, it’s amazing how off base many of them are. Of course faculty have political interests, but it’s not the business of my students to care about them and vice versa. What seems to be missing in many who attack Fish, given his responses above and in the comments, is an understanding about what exactly critique is, or put differently, academic modes of thinking.

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3 thoughts on “Stanley Fish Defends Himself, Yet Again

  1. They were great pieces. I commented on both—maybe you saw—on how even if you wanted to say bias is somehow inevitable, that there is a properly critical and political way of dealing with it. The biggest difference is if your questions are intended to make an answer or another question. Politics is obviously concerned with the former sort of procedure, because it has to be in order to be effective. Academic modes of thinking have to make points, but the best have an eye to where they can go or from whence they came.

    I’ve encountered this profound ignorance in some online newspaper comment-sections where people are quick to say “if you don’t have solutions (as opposed or in addition to your criticism), then shut-up.” I’ve even been lectured by an Obamacan, right after she waxed eloquently on how Obama is bringing us together, on how if I’m not part of the solution I’m part of the problem.

    Unfortunately, Fish doesn’t address this epidemic in everyday critical thinking, which I think has at least as much to do with complaints about “liberal bias” as professors. Kids and adults these days can’t stand the kind of suspension required to critically evaluate something, because they want to enjoy the feeling of having come down even if they don’t fully understand why they have.

  2. Pingback: Words and things pt. 5: Practice of theory « Dead Voles

  3. Pingback: Words and things pt. 5: Practice of theory | Dead Voles

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