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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Save the World on Your Own Time

by Stanley Fish

Oxford, 208 pp., $19.95

Many people have as
difficult a time hearing and giving due weight to the liberal in "liberal education" as they have in hearing and giving due weight to the liberal in "liberal democracy." But in both cases the adjective is critical: A liberal education is a specific form of education, one that fits individuals for freedom; and a liberal democracy is a specific form of popular government, one that protects individual freedom by limiting majority power.

Their common connection to freedom connects liberal education and liberal democracy. Because individual freedom not only presupposes rights and responsibilities but also presents individuals and society with distinctive opportunities and temptations, liberal democracies depend on citizens of a certain sort: self-reliant, disciplined, tolerant, rational, industrious, open to the variety of ways of being human, informed about public affairs, and disposed to settle disagreements through compromise and under law.

Of course, this does not exhaust the list of human virtues, not all citizens display all these virtues or display them to the same degree, and some conspicuously lack them. Because virtues do not develop automatically, liberal democracies must take an interest in citizens' acquisition of them. But the state's interest must be circumscribed by its duty to protect individual rights: A liberal and democratic state cannot too directly or aggressively cultivate the virtues of freedom without compromising the rights it is established to preserve.

In executing this delicate balancing act, liberal democracies depend on the associations and institutions of civil society: the family, religious community, work, and, not least, education. This is not to suggest that these associations and institutions should become organs of the state. To the contrary; to reap their benefits, liberal democracies must respect their integrity and ensure their independence.

For example, by pursuing their distinctive ends, religious communities--or, at least, some religious communities---encourage individuals to care for their souls, which can serve as a counterweight to the state's emphasis on physical security and material abundance. Religion can also provide a ground for toleration by teaching that all human beings share a common dignity. A liberal democracy that is home to tolerant and law-abiding religions might reasonably go beyond tolerating them to supporting them. This does not mean enlisting or politicizing, but rather, say, eliminating their tax burdens and otherwise leaving them alone, enabling them to benefit the nation by fostering the virtues that flow from the pursuit of their distinctively religious mission.

The good reasons that liberal democracies have for supporting liberal education are even clearer. Liberal education hones intellectual skills that prepare students to contribute to the nation's prosperity; exposes them to the findings of the sciences and social sciences, making them more knowledgeable and sophisticated voters; and by deepening their acquaintance with the humanities, liberal education refines their judgment and enlarges their sympathies.

In other words, by directly providing nonpolitical benefits to students, liberal education indirectly provides political benefits to the nation. Were the state to commandeer the curriculum to disseminate a distinctly political message, it would destroy liberal education's private and political benefits. The consequences would be no less ruinous were it not the state but faculty and administrators who commandeered the curriculum for political purposes.

Stanley Fish, the title of whose book is an admonition to professors to keep their politics out of the classroom, understands a great deal about what is wrong with higher education in America. Unfortunately, his prescriptions for reform--which amount to little more than exhortations to faculty and administrators to mend their ways and, whatever else they do, not to explain or justify liberal education to legislators, private donors, alumni, parents, or students--are foolish and self-defeating. Part of the trouble is Fish's fondness for deflationary tactics and contrarian positions. The deeper problem is his failure to take seriously the liberal in liberal education and the liberal in liberal democracy.

Fish is the Davidson-Kahn distinguished university professor of humanities and a professor of law at Florida International University in Miami, as well as a regular blogger on politics and culture for the New York Times editorial pages. He has long reveled in his role as a kind of academic bad boy, only too happy, for example, to tout his taste for cars, celebrity, and high salaries.