Education is useless

New book seeks to define the university on its own terms


There is no end to the list of academics, university administrators and political activists who when asked what is the university for? will provide nothing short of an awe inspiring vision. A vision that if it were true, the world would be an exemplary and wonderful place.

We are told that the purpose of a university is to effect positive social change, to shock students from their complacency towards a society bereft of morality, and to turn them into engaged citizens.

Utter nonsense, says Stanley Fish in his new book, Save the World on Your Own Time. Fish argues that all universities are equipped to do is advance knowledge through teaching and research, nothing less, and certainly nothing more. Professors who seek to double as “preachers, political leaders, therapists and gurus” do not exemplify the academic mission. They import “agendas” from “foreign venues” and “overwhelm” and “erode” the “distinctiveness” of the university.

Heaping scorn on those on the American left and right who view the classroom as the place where the culture wars are to be won and lost, Fish rejects all pretense to justifying or romanticizing what professors do. In fact, he doesn’t just reject such pretenses he throws them to the floor and stomps on them for good measure.

He advises academics, when asked what justifies what you do, to respond with an unapologetic “nothing.” Truth is at the core of a university, but it is truth for its own sake and it is to be pursued unencumbered from outside concerns. “[F]ashioning citizens for a pluralistic society has nothing to do with the pursuit of truth,” he writes.

The only values that should be emphasized are the “academic values” of honest scholarship. The worth of this or that field rests wholly with those who enjoy studying them. Even if students are sometimes inspired to be better people by what they learn it is not something that can be counted on because it is not something professors are equipped to do, or should be doing anyway.

When describing what the job of a university teacher is, Fish focuses on what professors are actually trained for. They are trained to investigate questions using the scientific method or some other accepted formula for advancing academic knowledge. It is their job to present their findings in scholarly publications and to teach their fields to students, to provide them with knowledge they did not already have, and that’s it.

To illustrate his point, Fish coins the awkward word “academicize.” When teaching political controversies, for example, don’t pursue questions such as “who is right?” but questions such as “what is the nature of the controversy?”, “how did it evolve?”, and “what have been its consequences?”. There is no need to soapbox. Such classroom investigations are not only closer to the academic mission, they are more fruitful than the superficial exchange of banal political opinion characteristic of partisan politics.

By not embracing the type of university Fish is advocating, the academy leaves itself open to charges of indoctrination and calls from activists and legislators for the balancing of political views that are irrelevant to the quality of scholarship. A real world concern in American higher education.

A frequently cited fact is that between 75 and 95 per cent of American university professors would describe themselves as left-of-centre. “So what?” says Fish. Academics are, or should be, capable of compartmentalizing their different selves, depending on the context they find themselves in. What you say and do in your professional life is different from what you say and do in your personal life. It is “easy,” we all do it all the time.

Fish is a gifted polemicist and nearly every sentence is constructed with such acerbic precision that, despite its occasional repetitiveness, his book is as energetic as it is contrarian. He is also deft at answering potential critics. To those who say “everything is political,” he responds that it is illegitimate “to import the politics appropriate to one context into another which while no less political, will be home to a quite different politics.”

Fish dismisses those who would argue that because all knowledge should be scrutinized that therefore, all perspectives should be taught simply because they exist, a point often made by those who would have intelligent design taught in biology. “Expert judgment as a category of validation is not discredited generally because it has occasionally turned out to be wrong,” he writes.

Still, despite his mastery of brevity, and conclusions that follow logically from their premises, there are a couple small weaknesses.

Fish spends little time on the question of what professors should do with respect to their favoured academic (as distinct from political) perspective. He sees no general problem with such academic advocacy, but greater attention to this question would have clarified and strengthened the overall argument. He has done so in some of his previous writing.

Organizationally speaking, a few sections of the book read as if they were just popped in. The chapter “Administrative Interlude” reads as if it is the second movie in a trilogy with no clear beginning and no defined end.

Further, for all his invective against politics in the classroom, Fish believes only about one in 25 university professors are actually guilty of doing so. Still, as he says “one out of ten-thousand would be too many.” And the sentiment that the university can be justified in terms of values imposed from the outside that leads some to advocate professors engaging in moral teaching is widespread. As such, it is a sentiment worth countering.

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Education is useless

  1. I would offer an interesting antithesis to Fish with the following idea:

    “Pursue truth in your own time.”

    After all, if humanities are useless and people are just doing research for research’s sake, why should the masses of taxpayers be funding it?

    I think any professor who claims to be an independent researcher whose work it outside of politics, while getting all their funding from government grants or other interest groups, is either hypocritical or has spent too much time out of the real world.

    If you look at any North American campus, especially in the sciences and engineering, but probably in the social sciences (and who knows, some sectors of the humanities) as well, “strategic planning” is being done to focus on research directions that correspond to broader goals of the governments or whoever is funding it. Any grant application to NSERC (Canada) or the NSF (USA) asks you how your research benefits society. There is a trend to bring research results to the marketplace.

    Is that good? This is a debate to have. But hiding our head in the sand and claiming the university is still some ivory tower surely won’t solve anything.

    As for Fish’s title: “Save the World on your own time”, I would suggest that people read Jeff Schmidt’s “Disciplined Minds” for the exact opposite statement: you have more power to change the world in your workplace than in the voting booth.

  2. (or in the Saturday afternoon protest, for that matter)

  3. Hi Philippe,

    Your points about strategic planning are valid, and it is part of the reason Fish argues for education for its own sake, as he laments that universities are being used for state goals. He devotes two chapters to this and other questions that I only briefly touched on in my review due to me not wanting to go on for ages. I don’t think his head is in the sand.

    The university is not an ivory tower, but just because everything is connected does not mean it cannot be distinct, he argues. His conclusions are ultimately pessimmistic as he sees little prospect for the academy to effectively counter the demand that it be subservient to a myriad of of interests that can often be irrelevant to academic pursuits.

    When you question why would taxpayers be willing to fund the humanities if they have no logic beyond internal logic, are you saying that such fields as literary criticism and medeival history are capable of effecting changes that some people advocate? Do students really leave the university more moral than when they came? What I mean to say is it even possible for university education to do what so many want it to do?

    Or are you saying that the study of the humanities be abandoned and replaced with moral education?

    I’m not sure if your point about affecting politics in the workplace addresses the issue here. What is being discussed is whether it is the professor’s job to advocate politics, and I would agree that it is not, but that does not mean they cannot still effect politics at the workplace, say with conversations with coworkers and extracurricular activities.

    All that is being argued is that it is not the job of professors to preach politics in the classroom. I am not familiar with the author you listed, but from your comments I suspect he doesn’t mean that people should not do their jobs when at work and instead egage in politics.

  4. For the most part, I agree with Fish and always have. I feel much the same about student unionism. I believe it is very important for students to organize because they have certain shared concerns as students – including (but not limited to) costs associated with their education, academic policies, facilities on campus, and a participatory role in decisions made by the administration. But I don’t think student unions should try to expand their mandates into social causes off campus. It isn’t that I disagree with efforts in these areas, it’s just that I believe there’s a place and a time.

    Some claim their cause is so important that it’s “always” the right place and time, but I actually think it weakens all organizations (especially representative ones) when they can’t maintain a clear and distinct mission and identity. For that reason, there can never be a cause that’s so important it’s always on topic, because the attempt to do that actually weakens the vehicles you need to accomplish your goals. That, and the tragedy of the commons dictates that it’s never one issue that’s always on topic but actually dozens (depending on who you ask) and therefore you can never get anything accomplished at all, once you buy into the notion that your organization has a global mandate.

    Anyway, I’m rambling. But I believe very strongly in Fish’s vision that you do what your institution is designed to do, you do it as well as possible, and you form other institutions and associations to do other things. You don’t need to be anti-political to believe this. You can be very politically committed and still agree with this approach simply because, in the long run, it’s more effective.

  5. Reply to Carson:

    First, about Jeff Schmidt, you’re right, he doesn’t say you should do politics “instead” of your work. He does argue however that you should do your work in accordance with your values. And I think a professor can do that without “moralizing speeches”. I guess my point was just that the way a subject is taught can never be politically neutral. Maybe Fish agrees with me on that, but his statement you quote about it seems a bit ambiguous:
    “To those who say “everything is political,” he responds that it is illegitimate “to import the politics appropriate to one context into another which while no less political, will be home to a quite different politics.””

    (Also, the title of Schmidt’s book (Disciplined Minds) comes from the realization that a lot of professionals, who have in theory a large freedom of action (like tenured academics), will nonetheless act in a largely “submissive” manner. His conclusion thus is that the current state of the education system does not encourage independent thinking. But maybe that’s another topic.)

    On your other point: “When you question why would taxpayers be willing to fund the humanities if they have no logic beyond internal logic, are you saying that such fields as literary criticism and medeival history are capable of effecting changes that some people advocate? Do students really leave the university more moral than when they came? What I mean to say is it even possible for university education to do what so many want it to do?”

    I already commented on this in another post. I think the humanities have a potentially enormous impact on society. It is our whole culture and worldview that is shaped by philosophy, religion, literature and history. The fact that this impact is indirect (because our worldview then affects our actions) doesn’t mean it’s less important. From my point of view, the justification for a society supporting research in humanities is to help us understand how our culture and worldview came to happen, and it’s really powerful knowledge when you think about it.

    While I agree with you and Fish about universities keeping a necessary level of independence from outside forces, either governmental, corporate or other, that does not negate in my opinion the role universities have in shaping society. While some academics might, in their mind, pursue “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”, other will see the societal impacts of their research and make their academic decisions with these possible impacts in mind. And personally I think it’s something to be promoted.

    This doesn’t mean that academics should “indoctrinate” students or the public. They can serve society however by providing critical information that helps others make their own decisions on important issues. I guess I could summarize it that way:

    “Any academic will have a political opinion, and they shouldn’t attempt to hide it, but rather expose all the facts that lead them to have this opinion, so that people can benefit from this knowledge no matter where they stand on this issue.”

  6. Hi Philippe,

    A couple points. When he argues that just because “everything is political” does not mean it is legitimate to “import” the politics from one venue into the politics of another, he prefaces it with a point about the distinctivesness of academic politics. Decisions on what courses should be offered, what to put on a reading lists and so on are indeed political questions but it is the politics of the university and is only coherent in that context. The decisions should be guided by what is academically relevant. So it is true that everything is political, but that doesn’t mean there is no venue that is distinctly political. For Fish, the claim everything is political as an argument to justify politicizing the classroom is meaningless because of course it is true, but differing institutions are not political in the same way. He is more articulate than I am on this point!

    As for your final point, why is it necessary or even useful for an academic to teach us why he/she has come to a political opinion? If I am taking a class in literature and the prof advocates for a particular reading of a poem than that is interesting and relevant, but why that prof has come to favour say the Democrats over the Republicans, or whatever, just isn’t relevant. Academics are trained to pursue the study of particular fields, that is there job. Sure, they have political views, but advocating them is no more their responsibility than it is any other citizen, and doing it in the classroom detracts from what they are suppose to be doing and (what anyway) most of them do.

  7. Hi Carson,

    I guess I shouldn’t have used the word politics if you’re going to use it in the narrow view of electoral politics. Just replace it with “subjective perspective on the world that has an incidence on their field”.

    “Any academic will have a [subjective perspective on the world that has an incidence on their field], and they shouldn’t attempt to hide it [and make claims to total and complete objectivity], but rather expose the [path of reasoning based on facts] that lead them to have this opinion, so that people can benefit from this knowledge no matter where they stand on this issue.”

  8. And I would argue that how you see the world politically/economically would have an impact on, say, how you do health research, to say just one example. So yes the “social” worldview of natural scientists can have an impact in their field.

  9. Hi Philippe,

    I never suggested that anyone should make “claims to total nd complete objectivity.” I am not saying you are attributing this assumption to me, but as you are responding to me, I feel I should clarify it.

    Further, I’m not sure what you mean by this last statement. Do you mean to say that if someone is moved to pursue a specific research question because of real world dillemmas? or because they feel there is a moral urgency to solve this or that question? Are you then simply saying that professors should explain why they feel their research is relevant? That is to say are you saying they should explain why what they are pursuing has scientific value, or more broadly academic value? or are you saying why something has political value? aside from scientific value.

    Of course people’s social worldview might affect the research questions they choose to pursue or how they conduct it, and then again, it might not. One might be motivated to find a cure for AIDS because they want to contribute to reducing human suffering, and another might be motivated because it is an interesting and perplexing question, and still another might be motivated simply by the fact that that is what he/she has a research grant to do. But what, in the end, should matter is whether the question has scientific worth. In the university, scientific or academic value should trump other concerns. I am by no means saying research should not be pursued, or courses taught, that have real world implications, only that that should be a secondary concern, if it is a concern at all. I personally am not sure exactly how much it should be a concern, but I am sure that relevance to advancing a particular field is what should matter above and beyond. Regardless if something has endless (positive)implications for the world, if it cannot be justified within the logic of a particular field, then it should not be given the time of day in the university until its scientific worth can be demonstrated.

    With respect to some of your previous comments about how the humanities should be funded because they contribute to the understanding of the human condition. One reading of your argument (and I am not saying that this is your intent) might be that you are suggesting that humanities research and humanities education should be contingent on what impact it has on the world, but there is no guarantee that it will have this impact. It might and it might not, but if universities were fully organized this way, that is with the humanities and for that matter the social sciences being contingent on, for example, greater cultural and historical awareness in the society more broadly, much research and teaching would be limited because of the inability to demonstrate real world effects. How do you measure this?

    Now, what I take you to be saying is that because humanities education deals with the understanding of the human condition, that it is therefore important that the state contribute to its continuation. But, what about if and when legislators and the public more generally begins to demand evidence of this supposed contribution? And what about, as happens in the U.S., when critics don’t like the take on humanity being taught in the universities and begin to lobby for control of academic decisions such as reading lists and what courses to offer, to be removed from universities and put more firmly into the hands of outside interests. After all the state is paying, and if we justify the humanities in this way, we run the risk of giving a wide opening for the state to attempt to shape the unviersity for its own goals, as it does increasingly. Social relevance can be just as easy an excuse to mold the universities to promote a sense of patriotism. Looking for such justifications for the humanities is as detrimental to the autonomy of the university as looking to justify other fields by how well they meet the demands of the labour market.

  10. I think we’re getting in an interesting debate about the question of “academic worth” vs. other factors.

    For one thing I refuse to take an elitist viewpoint, and I am assuming that politicians and the public are smart enough to see that it is useful to give academic freedom to the researchers, to see that fields like humanities and social sciences will have a broader impact, etc. If for some reason they don’t and want to cut funding to those fields, hopefully it will make the academics wake up and work more on communicating to a larger public rather than just communicating with their peers.

    I think the scientific soundness of any teaching and research, of course, an obvious criteria for its funding. But you can have a lot of research projects that are all scientifically sound yet stem from different perspectives or “priorities” in what is to be researched/ taught, i.e. some points of view are dominant because of the main culture in place, not because they are “better science”.

    For example, you could have an economics professor with a Keynesian or monetarist perspective, a psychology prof. with a humanist or behavioral perspective, a physicist with a reductionist or emergent perspective, etc. So if you take a class with a certain professor it is certainly good to know which school of thought they come from to put their teaching in perspective. That’s one thing.

    But there is more to that. Right now, especially in the sciences / health sciences but maybe outside, the “dominant perspective” and the research priorities is coincidentally aligned with what is funded. This is not surprising. It is more attractive (because of possible financial returns) to fund molecular biology / biotech than ecology. Thus there is more external funding (governmental and corporate) in those lucrative fields. Thus there are more hirings of professors who work in those fields. Thus those fields and their academic perspectives become dominant in a department.

    The example I was giving about health research… Say that you have a disease (and they are numerous) whose causes are both genetical and environmental. You can look at finding solutions for individuals at risk / already afflicted, such as gene therapy or drugs, or you can look at improving public health and prevention, reducing pollution, etc. to tackle the environemental factors. Let’s say both are scientifically justifiable, it becomes an ethical dilemma between providing treatment to certain individuals (possibly those who can afford it) or applying broad measures that affect all the population, particularly those with lower sanitary/environment conditions. Also, one solution can obviously generate more revenue than the other.

    So as a researcher whether you look at individual health vs. community/public health is not a purely scientific question but correlates with your values, and, possibly your political views.

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