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Purely Academic
Stanley Fish wants professors to quit the agitprop and stick to the facts.
23 January 2009

Save the World on Your Own Time, by Stanley Fish (Oxford University Press, 189 pp., $19.95)

Always academicize, never explain—that is Stanley Fish’s solution to the modern university’s political and financial woes. Professors should stick to their proper academic tasks—teaching and research—and refrain from transforming classrooms into laboratories for social change and moral uplift. If, as Fish puts it, they “academicize” in this way, the fear that universities are centers of radical indoctrination, widespread among parents and politicians, will soon disappear. And since academic activity exists for its own sake, administrators should stop pretending otherwise, stop peddling the fiction that the university serves some social end beyond itself—making better citizens, boosting economic growth, promoting diversity, or whatever. Such misguided attempts to explain and justify academic life to those unfamiliar with it never succeed anyway. Better just frankly to acknowledge the university’s “impracticality” and defend it on its own intrinsic merits. Such an argument will more likely stave off the budget-cutters’ ax than mealy-mouthed and unconvincing claims to social relevance.

For anyone who has endured the mind-numbing “now go out and change the world” banalities of a typical commencement speech or the ideological grimness of an ethnic studies syllabus, Fish’s new book, Save the World on Your Own Time, is a welcome tonic. Though a man of the Left, Fish scathingly criticizes those among his colleagues who regard teaching as a means to promote feminism, environmentalism, or opposition to the Iraq war. He dismisses with contempt both the self-serving pretense that “progressive” advocacy in the classroom is somehow more objective and rational than its conservative counterpart, and the cynical pose that since “everything is political” anyway, one might as well push one’s own agenda before the opposition can push theirs. And though his love for the life of the mind is unmistakable, Fish insists that life has limits. Nothing in the reading list or evaluation methods of a ten- or 15-week course in English literature or Peruvian history, he argues, will likely improve anyone’s moral character or equip one to vote more responsibly. Sure, a book or lecture might occasionally have a life-changing effect on an individual student; but the notion that such experiences can be engineered for students generally if only we hit upon the right lesson plan is ludicrous.

Unsurprisingly, Fish goes after the Right as well, and conservatives should take some of what he says seriously. Those who decry—justly—the leftish tilt of the humanities and social sciences ought to think hard before advocating administrative measures for redressing the imbalance. After all, conservatives have long argued that affirmative-action programs tend to cast doubt on the objective merits of their beneficiaries, and cannot practically be implemented without using unfair and ham-fisted quotas. But if this is true of attempts to remedy purported racial and gender biases, how could it fail to pertain as well to efforts at fighting ideological bias? Fish also criticizes conservatives who use the Left’s “hermeneutics of suspicion” rhetoric to attack the contemporary university. Where do these supposedly Burkean defenders of tradition get off dismissing the arguments of rivals, in quasi-Marxist fashion, as mere rationalizations of vested interests?

Still, Fish’s criticisms of the Right often fail to convince. He’s not above the occasional cheap shot, such as the hackneyed labeling of his opponents as “neoconservative” (the current scare word of choice). While he acknowledges that the vast majority of humanities and social-sciences professors veer left, he naively insists that this bears no connection to the political bias that so often infects classrooms. All will be well, Fish seems to believe, so long as explicit politicking—from candidate endorsements to petition drives—remains extracurricular. But wearing a “Bush = Hitler” T-shirt isn’t the only way, nor even the most significant way, that a teacher might indoctrinate his students. Far more insidious (and, I submit, far more common) is the passing over in silence of serious ideas with which one disagrees. Better to have an openly and even obnoxiously left-wing political philosophy professor who nevertheless requires his students to read Aron, Hayek, and Oakeshott alongside Habermas, Marx, and Rawls, than an unfailingly polite, closet liberal who assigns only the leftist thinkers and gives his pupils no indication that another intellectual tradition exists.

Fish assumes, too glibly, that academic questions can always be sealed off hermetically from moral and political ones. Yes, devoting class time to running down the president of the United States or handing out voter guides is never justified. Nor should a teacher give his students the false impression that his own views, however well-founded and skillfully defended, are beyond challenge. But even the most fair-minded professor is bound to reveal where he thinks the best arguments lead, whether he’s teaching a course in ethics that explores various approaches to sexual morality, abortion, and distributive justice, or a political science seminar comparing social democracies with laissez-faire market economies. How could he fail to do so, since the whole point of the academic life is, as Fish constantly emphasizes, the disinterested pursuit of truth?

At bottom, Fish assumes that questions of value are utterly distinct from questions of fact—a highly challengeable position. And he assumes, too, that rejecting this dichotomy would entail reducing all purportedly objective facts to subjective and arbitrary values, leading to relativism and the degeneration of intellectual life into power politics. But he ignores another alternative, which holds that questions of value ultimately reduce to questions of fact—that knowledge of the true, the beautiful, and the good can be as objective as physics or chemistry. This view was historically the dominant one in Western thought, going back to Plato and Aristotle. Fish at one point vaguely acknowledges it, associating it with “Cicero, John Milton, Philip Sidney [and] Matthew Arnold.” But his response is merely to assert, without argument, the correctness of his own stance. This won’t do. It’s one thing to expose the pretensions of crude political hacks masquerading as dispassionate inquirers, as Fish does effectively. It’s quite another to give short shrift to the giants of the Western tradition, for whom academic questions were never purely academic.

Edward Feser is the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008).

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