U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Stanley Fish, Again

Anyone following the latest brouhaha that Stanley Fish has created? He has, once again, wriggled into a position in which he is receiving flack from both left and right. Taking issue with the decision of the University of Colorado to appoint a chair in the history of conservative thought, he first argued that politics has no place in the classroom. But that comment upset his leftist critics, who regard the personal as political and therefore impossible to divorce from any endeavor. His second post was defending himself from both sides, which continued with this latest round. His summary comment: “Many posters accused me of idealism; but it is those who hold out for larger truths and more expansive purposes who are the idealists. I’m just the guy who keeps saying, over and over again, just do your job.” Thoughts? –DS

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I have always found Fish’s argument to divorce politics from scholarship (which I don’t separate from teaching) either naive or sanctimonious or fatuous, perhaps some combination of all three. And not because I regard “the personal as political,” which is equally fatuous in its identity politics. There are myriad ways to argue against Fish. I’ll quickly make three:

    1) Imagine what the historical discipline would look like if all historians consciously sought to divorce politics from their scholarship. (It’s an impossible counter-factual.) There never would have been a revision of the traditional view that the cold war was caused by an expansionism inherent to the Soviet system. (There never would have been the traditional view to begin with, formed as it was by explicitly political cold warriors.) There never would have been an explosion of social history rooted in the Sixties zeitgeist, which, among other things, explored slavery from the point of view of the slaves. (There never would have been a traditional view of slavery to begin with, formed as it was by explicitly political apologists for slavery.) I could go on, but I think my point is made. Perhaps these are examples that Fish thinks separate from “politics” properly defined, since he seems to define partisan behavior as merely how people vote. But many such historical revisions were grounded in very immediate political and partisan concerns. For examples, many of the cold war revisionists (William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, Christopher Lasch, etc.) were highly active in leading campus teach-ins.

    2) This leads me to my second point. Our knowledge as professors, as people who have spent years, sometimes decades, studying topics that are very political, often (not always) puts us in a position to understand a political situation better than our students, better than most people. We would be remiss in keeping such knowledge to ourselves rather than sharing our analyses, as the cold war revisionists did during the 1960s teach-ins. This does not mean a biology teacher has the right to share her thoughts on President Bush, unless it is with regards to President Bush’s opinion that all schools should teach evolution and “intelligent design” equally–then that biology teacher would be remiss in not sharing her expertise knowledge.

    3) Who cares if a professor is trying to proselytize? It happens everywhere, all the time. Yes, many university professors tend to be liberal, especially in the humanities, but it’s one of the few institutions where that is so. The left should happily trade away the universities for those two dominant institutions largely controlled by more conservatively-inclined people, the military and the corporations. Does anyone mean to tell me leaders in those two institutions don’t proselytize political views? Please.

    All that said, I’m perfectly fine with the conservative position at the University of Colorado. I like Crispin Sartwell’s take on it in an op-ed he wrote for the LA Times, titled, “The Smog of Academic Consensus.”


    Cheers. Andrew

  2. Andrew,
    I have to say, I agree with Fish. The distinction between teaching and writing/scholarship is an important one. It is permissible, in my mind, to bring one’s political motivations and thoughts into scholarship, but not into teaching, particularly in a form of teaching that consists of lecture and asks the students to regurgitate what they hear in lecture on an exam (which seems to be how many history courses work). That is pretty much a recipe for requiring conservative students to regurgitate liberal accounts in a class, stifling them and making them feel (rightly in my opinion) like they are being indoctrinated.

    There are really two different points in response that I should discuss. First, is teaching a form of catechesis, in which student’s grades are based upon their accurate regurgitation of their professor’s account? Irrespective of the politics, that strikes me as a bad way to teach but is all-too-common and forms a presumption in this entire debate. If teachers lecture and students regurgitate, then teachers should not share political opinions in a classroom.

    If teaching is not a form of catechesis and student’s can bring their own perspectives into the course, if the assignments ask them to sharpen their critical thought skills in ways that still allow them to hold onto their own political sensibilities, if they are encouraged to sift through differing interpretations of events (for example, in Lendol Calder’s unconverage survey), then it might be permissible for the instructor to introduce her politics into the classroom, but even then I would be leery, for the same reason that we do not allow teachers to date students. The balance of power is simply too uneven to expect that the teacher can introduce her political views into the classroom without weighting the students critical response on essays and assignments.

    One useful distinction that I have relied upon is a journalistic one. Journalists distinguish between voice and opinion in evaluating their articles. Supposedly, most pieces of reportage are supposed to be without voice or opinion, being able to be written by anyone. That is tremendously difficult, but it is the goal. Some articles contain voice but not opinion: articles of legal analysis or political analysis for example. They cannot have been written by just anyone and they have a recognizable voice, but they are grounded in a established body of facts that still is the main focus. Finally, opinion is when all checks are off and writers are able to write whatever they want, within the boundaries of fact, from a distinctly individual perspective that is designed to provoke argument. If we read Fish as saying that an instructor should have no voice or opinion in a classroom, that is difficult if not impossible given the fact that the instructor is designing the course, establishing the goals, etc. But I do not read Fish in that way, so my position is that the instructor can have a voice in the classroom on politics but cannot have opinion. I am aware that the boundary is fluid, but I think that it is important to make these distinctions lest we give the legislatures continued license to meddle in the academic affairs of the university because professors are using their positions to propagate political opinions behind the cover of their academic freedom.

  3. David–You make good points, especially in contrasting the different types of history classrooms–one that asks students to recite against one that asks them to think critically about the material and historiography. Hopefully we all do our best to adhere to the latter model.

    That said, I remain unconvinced that teachers should even attempt political objectivity. It is my experience that students see through such a disposition as false, that students want their professors to be advocates for something, political or otherwise. If my goal were to convince my students to vote Democratic, or to convince them that George Bush is a war criminal, then I would not be a very good teacher because these goals are expedient, partisan, and, frankly, boring. But my goal is to get my students to question their presuppositions, both epistemological AND political. Having such a goal is what gets me out of bed in the morning, it’s what drives me, makes me passionate and, as such, it’s what makes me an effective teacher. If such passions were stamped out by professional “objectivity” as advanced by Fish, then I’d be a bad and boring teacher.

    In terms of not alienating students, style matters. My conservative students tend to really like my classes because they’re well aware that political disagreement is never the basis for how I evaluate them, in fact, quite the opposite, as those students who are willing to challenge me or the material in thoughtful ways, with use of evidence, thrive in my class.

    In the end, I guess I’m not naive or self-important enough to think that my students care all that much about my politics or objectives, that they’ll seriously notice the difference between me being “political” or me being “objective.” The only thing they will know for certain is if I’m boring. Cheers.


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