The Magazine

Towering Ivories

Stanley Fish and his ideal of the American university.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

But he is a bad boy with a witty and incisive mind and stellar academic credentials. He taught English literature at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins before joining both the English literature department and law school at Duke, where he also ran the Duke University Press. From 1998 to 2004 he served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He made his name as a young scholar in the late 1960s with Surprised by Sin, a major reinterpretation of Milton's "Paradise Lost." Works such as Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (1989) and There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing Too (1994) earned him a reputation as a devotee of postmodernism and deconstruction.

While the reputation was not entirely undeserved, Fish remained his own man. He never produced the clotted prose typical of contemporary literary studies, instead cultivating a lively and entertaining style. And while he certainly read and absorbed cutting-edge theory, and in accord with it, propounded flamboyantly relativistic doctrines about human knowledge, he never took to invoking postmodern and deconstruction themes to advance partisan political agendas. He has preferred puncturing pieties to promoting causes, so much so that he has not been above spinning sophistical arguments to confound and defeat his many and varied interlocutors. As a sign of his iconoclasm, if not his daring, he has occasionally agreed, if not with conservative reasoning, then with conclusions more common to conservatives, even while (as in this new book) caricaturing conservatism.

Save the World starts strong, with a question inadequately addressed by today's faculty and administrators: "What exactly is the job of higher education and what is it that those who teach in colleges and universities are trained and paid to do?" It's not that our institutions of higher education don't have an answer. Peruse the mission statements of colleges and universities across the land, Fish observes, and you will discover that they believe that it is among their main tasks to promote social justice in myriad forms and form good human beings and citizens. Fish emphatically disagrees. Endorsing a "narrow sense of vocation," he contends that the job of institutions of higher education is intellectual work, which requires students to acquire knowledge, not join movements or parties, and construct and evaluate arguments, not celebrate and embrace values or causes.

But this narrow understanding of the university's mission is not, he immediately points out, a modest one: "If you think about it, that's a lot to ask. It's at least a full time job and it wouldn't seem to leave much room for taking on a bunch of other jobs."

In so arguing, Fish opposes not only postmodern proselytizers who assert that intellectual inquiry is politics by other means, but also distinguished left-liberal educators such as the former Harvard president Derek Bok, who contend that the university has a responsibility to mold politically engaged citizens. Fish recognizes full well that, in practice, this generally turns out to mean citizens engaged in left-liberal politics. In Fish's eyes, however, neoconservative and conservative critics (he uses the terms imprecisely and interchangeably) of our politicized universities are just as bad. Instead of undertaking to depoliticize the curriculum, contends Fish, they exacerbate the problem by seeking, under the cover of calls for intellectual diversity, to increase their political representation among faculty.

In Fish's view, moral education and civic education conflict with professors' academic responsibilities, and lie beyond professors' professional competence: