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.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.