Thursday, January 22, 2009

Against "practicing without a license"

Below is a review of Stanley Fish's recent book "Save the World on Your Own Time," where he takes the college world to task for getting away from instruction and instilling knowledge and, instead, preaching and instilling preferred values.

I cannot say enough great things about the book and professor Fish's thesis. I am very much in agreement with all but a few minor details. I strongly urge anyone concerned with the proper role of educators to read it.


In "Save the World on Your Own Time," former professor and dean Stanley Fish is quite clear on what he wants: "I want a university infected by no one's politics, but by the nitty-gritty obligations of teaching and research." (p. 16) Fish draws on his own experience in academia, as well as the usual highly publicized examples a la Ward Churchill, to argue that the academy is focusing less on teaching and more on preaching. And unlike those like David Horowitz and Dinesh D'Souza, Fish does not simply want to make political discourse by university faculty more "balanced," but to remove it all together. As Fish writes repeatedly, teaching political ideas (how to think about them, the history of them, etc) is different from preaching political ideas.

That the latter is happening on a pretty large scale is not much in dispute. From Ward Churchill being removed from the U of Colorado for comments made after 9/11, to universities taking collective stands on policy issues, to the "speech codes" that several universities have experimented with over the past decade, Fish documents this trend quite well.

But what to do about it? Fish wants us to "return" to the "proper" job of universities: to teach students how to think, rather than what to think. Teach about ideas, rather than endorse ideas. Let's avoid the rhetoric, contra Derek Bok and Martha Nussbaum, about the universities' responsibility to promkote tolerance, democracy, pluralism, or any other value and accept the fact that universities are not in the "making good citizens" business, but in the "making educated citizens" business.

Does this mean that universities should not talk about values, politics, literary ideas, etc? No. "You can probe [a] policy's history,...explore its philosophical lineage... [and] examine its implicaitons... but you can't urge it on your students." (p. 24) Will this make the university stale or self-censorious? Fish offers persuasive reasons to suggest that self-censoring can lead to more excitement. Anyone can offer and talk about their opinioins; it is quite more exciting to show students how to analyze and talk about ideas then it is to opine about them.

Some of Fish's other ideas will doubtless rub some the wrong way. For instance, many people take it as a given that the goal of a university is to promote social justice, democracy, pluralism, multiculturalism, or some other such value (other than the pursuit of truth and knowledge). Fish says no! This is the job of the counselor, clergyman, television pundit, and politician; for an academic to preach values other than pursuit of truth and knowledge is to, in effect, "practice without a license."

Fish even gets into a juicy discussion on the "intelligent design" movement, and argues quite persuasively that the very subordination of pursuing truth to pursuing "democratic pluralistic debate" is what gave rise to this fiasco. Some may think it is a stretch, but Fish is quite convincing in his suggestion that our infatuation with keeping debates as pluralistic as possible has gotten in the way of our asking whether a certain position is true or the opposition worthy. (ID exploits this by focusing less on the "theory's" scientific merits and more on the value of "democratic dialogue.")

My only real complaint about this book is that I was hoping to hear Fish's take on the dilemma caused by professors at once having to take positions in publications (particularly humanities publications) while expecting not to let students find out their biases. (The Ward Churchill incident is a good example, where Churchill seemed very neutral and fair in his classes, but was fired becuase his writings rubbed people the wrong way.) Should we not expect professors to take iconoclastic positions in print for fear that their students might find out? Or is taking strong positions okay, so long as one keeps their research and teaching seperate? I think I know where Fish would come out here, but I was hoping to hear him discuss this very vexing and pertinent topic.

All in all, though, the book was well argued, economically written (176 pp.) and is bound to stir up an academy that needs stirring up.

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