Stanley Fish Defends Himself, Yet Again: Part 2


Once again, while perusing the NY Times op-ed pages this morning I came across Stanley Fish’s column. Surprise of all surprises, he’s defending himself and clarifying his stance on politics and the classroom…Again! Responding to objections of how he defined the political– some readers wanted to define politics in a more partisan way, others suggested teaching is political already, and still others suggested that the choice of texts and course offerings are political–Fish notes the pluralism or different forms of the definitions of the political here:

These points are part of the “everything is political” argument, which, as I have said before, is both true and trivial. It is true because in any form of social activity there are always alternative courses of action — different ways of doing things — and those differences will, more often than not, reflect opposing ideas of what is important and valuable. Even something so small as giving more time to Wallace Stevens than to Robert Frost in a semester could be described as political. One could say, then, that on the most general level the decisions that go into making up a syllabus and the decisions that lead you to vote for one candidate rather than another are equally political. But the Tip O’Neill mantra — all politics is local — should remind us that the content of the general category “political” will vary with the local context of performance. One performs politically in the academy by making curricular and other choices in relation to a (contestable) vision of what is best for the discipline and the students. One performs politically in the partisan landscape by making ballot-box and funding choices in relation to a vision of what it is best for the country as an economic and military player on the world stage. The questions “should we have a course in Third World Literature?” and “should we have a single-payer health plan?” are both political, but saying so doesn’t help us to understand or deal with the challenges in either context; the stakes are different, the strategies are different, the permissible forms of activity are different (attack ads are O.K. in one venue and unheard of in the other). Dissolving these differences in the solvent of a highly abstract notion of the political may be satisfying on the level of theory, but on the level of practice it is the differences, momentarily obscured by a fancy argument, that will always count.

Fish was also accused of forswearing truth:

No, I am devoted to the quest for truth as long as the truths being sought are academic ones. Is it true that Satan is the hero of “Paradise Lost”? Is it true that economics played a larger role in the Civil War than race? Is it true that a culture is compromised by the anthropological study of it? Is it true that voting patterns are tracked by economic status? All these questions (even the first) can be said to touch on matters of political commitment and choice, but they can be answered with a definite yes or no and backed by reasons without either choosing or committing politically, and that is exactly the kind of answer that should be given in the classroom.

Many readers took me to be advocating neutrality. I never use the word. Professors should be anything but neutral when considering a properly academic issue. Staying away from other kinds of issues — important to be sure, but out of place in the academy — is not neutrality, but fidelity to one’s profession.

You can read the whole article here, but what Fish seems to be arguing is fairly straightforward: the institutional norms properly mandate that the instructor is to give the strongest arguments/evidence from a plurality of positions and moreover, actually help our students develop and defend the best (by which I mean well-argued) positions they can muster. I take it this is the fidelity to one’s profession Fish is talking about above. Yet, this doesn’t mean that poor arguments are simply things the professor disagrees with, if that was the case, I’d fail most of my students! Once again, many of the comments seem to miss this point and insist on a rather monolithic definition of the political. I wonder if Fish is going to have to right another response to the response to the response.

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