The Magazine

Towering Ivories

Stanley Fish and his ideal of the American university.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Teachers can, by virtue of their training and expertise, present complex materials in ways that make them accessible to novices. Teachers can also put students in possession of the analytical tools employed by up-to-date researchers in the field. But teachers cannot, except for a serendipity that by definition cannot be counted on, fashion moral character, or inculcate respect for others, or produce citizens of a certain temper. Or, rather, they cannot do these things unless they abandon the responsibilities that belong to them by contract in order to take up responsibilities that belong properly to others. But if they do that, they will be practicing without a license and in all likelihood doing a bad job at a job they shouldn't be doing at all. When that happens--and unfortunately it does happen--everyone loses. The students lose because they're not getting what they paid for (it will be said that they are getting more, but in fact they are getting less). The university loses because its resources have been appropriated for a nonacademic purpose. Higher education loses, because it is precisely when teachers offer themselves as moralists, therapists, political counselors, and agents of global change rather than as pedagogues that those who are on the lookout for ways to discredit higher education (often as a preliminary to taking it over) see their chance.

This is well said--except where Fish wrongly denies the moral and political benefits of professors' performing their academic duties scrupulously, and falsely insinuates that critics of the politicization of higher education typically have nefarious motives.

The university to which he wants to return, Fish stresses, would not be, as some of his opponents imagine, a sterile and dreary place, devoid of passion and indifferent to virtue. "No question, issue or topic," he maintains, "is off limits to classroom discussion so long as it is the object of academic rather than political or ideological attention." Such discussions--about the argument and action in Plato's Republic, the narrative sweep and cast of characters in Tolstoy's War and Peace, the causes of the American Revolution, changes in the social meaning of marriage, and the proper methods for studying morals and politics--are more than capable, as those who have experienced them can attest, of exciting students, focusing their attention, and arousing in them the hunger for knowledge.

And while in Fish's judgment any connection between college study and the exercise of moral and political virtue after graduation is remote and contingent--he goes so far as to deny that the study of literature and philosophy is edifying--he himself emphasizes that when they do their job properly, professors have every right to teach--indeed, can't do their job properly without teaching--intellectual virtues. These include clarity, rigor, innovativeness, and the courage to follow the argument and evidence where they lead. Professors teach these virtues not by lecture or exhortation but by demonstrating them in their conduct of class and in their carrying out of research.

When the aim of higher education is properly understood, Fish explains, it becomes clear that colleges and universities must not, as so many faculty are keen to do, declare, in the university's name, a foreign policy, domestic policy, environmental policy, or economic policy. The only kind of policy universities should have is an educational policy. Accordingly, Fish condemns "the vote by a major association of British professors to boycott Israeli universities and refuse to do business with Israeli professors until they had disavowed their country's policies and practices." Nor does he consider the boycott an aberration. The British professors' egregious politicization of academic life is "fruit of the same poisoned tree" as "announcing one's political allegiance in class, poking fun at the administration in power, railing against capitalism, giving the writing course over to discussion of various forms of discrimination."

Critics, Fish notes, will object that it is naïve or ignorant or both to ask professors to separate politics and ideas, either because of the psychological impossibility of setting aside one's formative and fundamental moral and political beliefs or because, in reality, everything is political. His pragmatism overriding his postmodernism, Fish will have none of it. While acknowledging that, from a psychological point of view, a perfect separation may be impossible, he points out that we successfully compartmentalize all the time, "making distinctions between contexts and the behaviors appropriate to them." And while assuming that knowledge is inevitably entangled with forms of power, he insists that the entanglements that emerge in the academic context do not commit one to positions on such questions as who should be president, whether taxes should be cut or increased, and when the nation should go to war.

Other critics will be quick to invoke academic freedom. But academic freedom, Fish rightly argues, is not a license to professors to say in the classroom whatever they please. Like the academic vocation, it is narrow, protecting professors' freedom to pursue academic inquiries where reason requires. Fish, however, does academic freedom no favors by declaring it "the freedom to do one's academic job without interference from external constituencies like legislators, boards of trustees, donors, and even parents." For where professors are betraying their professional obligations by spouting off about politics in the classroom--and his book provides more than ample testimony that substantial numbers of professors are derelict in their duties--those who are paying the bills and have a formal responsibility for the institution have an obligation to ensure that the rules and standards that govern university life be honored.

It falls, in the first place, to administrators to call to account professors who refuse to honor the line between education and advocacy. But this, Fish also indicates, administrators have, all too often, failed to do. True, dealing with faculty can be daunting. Drawing on his own experience as dean at Illinois and approvingly citing the experience of other administrators, Fish reports that professors tend to be parochial, selfish and self-indulgent, narcissistic, ignorant of what administrators do and how universities actually operate, and scornful of the task of administration and those who choose it.

So one can sympathize with administrators. But one should not, as Fish is inclined to do, let them off the hook. Administrators have at their disposal carrots and sticks--including faculty salaries, promotions, and leaves--and, were they possessed of the understanding and determination, could employ them to combat professors' politicization of higher education.

But neither the understanding nor the determination have been much in evidence. And alas, after a prolific 40-year career involving appointments at great public and private universities and five years as a dean of a large arts and sciences faculty, Fish provides little in the way of useful advice on how to reform a university world that, he shows, is very much in need of reform. His principal suggestion to faculty and administrators is to improve themselves while standing guard against wily conservative intellectuals and meddling state and federal legislators, who wish to co-opt the university for their own political purposes. At all costs, he counsels, faculty and university administrators must avoid explaining or justifying the university to
nonacademics who, in his view, cannot possibly understand the university's purpose or value.

What begins promisingly and unfolds entertainingly and incisively ends frivolously. From Fish's account you would never guess that Allan Bloom's bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, which 21 years ago launched the conservative critique of the contemporary academy, makes the case for strict separation between the pursuit of truth inside the university and the quest for political advantage outside it. Nor is Fish persuasive that legislators and private donors ought to keep their noses out of university business.

Legislators should not write blank checks with taxpayer money. Particularly when professors use universities (as Fish vividly describes) to indoctrinate rather than educate, legislators have no respectable choice but to exercise greater oversight at state universities over the expenditure of public funds. And private donors have an incentive to support neglected core classes through restricted gifts that oblige universities, if they take the money, to honor the giver's intent.

Contrary to Fish, faculty and administrators should not be less capable than plumbers and accountants, lawyers and physicians, kindergarten and grade school and high teachers, of explaining their profession's use to the public. Indeed, professors, whose professional lives on Fish's own account ought to be devoted to knowledge and reasoned argument, should be uniquely capable.

Moreover, just because intellectual work has its own rewards doesn't mean that it can't advance nonacademic ends. One benefit of liberal education--notwithstanding Fish's insistence that "fashioning citizens for a pluralistic society has nothing to do with the pursuit of truth"--consists in the contribution that it makes to the formation of free citizens. Seeking knowledge through the study of the humanities, social sciences, and sciences not only disciplines the mind but also improves understanding of the variety of human goods, and the range of arguments concerning their advantages and disadvantages.

Although liberal education does not guarantee virtuous citizens, it is reasonable preparation for prospering in a democratic and pluralistic society that provides individuals the freedom to pursue happiness as they see fit, provided they respect the right of others to do the same.

Fish is wrong again when he writes that "democracy, we must remember, is a political not an education project." Democracies--certainly those that seek to safeguard liberty--are political projects that depend on education projects. And liberal education is a culmination of democracy's education project. But to perform its work properly, and to justify its support by the state, liberal education must be governed, as Fish forcefully argues in the best parts of his book, by educational standards and not political considerations.
To be sure, there is paradox in that notion. But the hard part is not, as Fish extravagantly fears, explaining the university's mission to the public. The hard part is explaining it to professors.

Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.