Comment on Fish

Stanley Fish has been making trouble again through his New York Times blog, which I'd link to except for the fact that it's behind the "TimesSelect" subscriber-only firewall. The post that has sparked a lot of attention of late was Fish's admonition that academics should do their jobs and not worry about trying to fashion their students into people of character or to impart to them a particular ethical or moral vision of the world. Predictably, my Weberian inclinations led me to rejoice at the advice; just as predictably, most of the subsequent discussion has been negative, with people posting outrage at Fish's political irresponsibility and the like. I am particularly impressed with one of his responses to a critic:

. . . the second assertion – academicizing is not what we should be doing in perilous times – has a genuine force; and if, as a teacher, you feel that force, your response should not be to turn your classroom into a political rally or an encounter group, but to get out of teaching and into a line of work more likely to address directly the real world problems you want to solve. There is nothing virtuous or holy about teaching; it’s just a job, and like any job it aims at particular results, not at all results. If the results teaching is able to produce when it is done well – improving student knowledge and analytical abilities – are not what you’re after, then teaching is the wrong profession for you. But if teaching is the profession you commit to, then you should do it and not use it to do something else.
All I can say to that is "amen, amen," except for the bit about there being nothing virtuous or holy about teaching. What I actually posted as a reply on the TimesSelect blog was this:

"As a self-proclaimed Weberian I delight in most of Stanley Fish's admonitions and recommendations for the proper conduct of the classroom: don't preach, don't engage in political mobilization, don't go into a classroom with any goal in mind except one, the goal of opening space where students can encounter texts and ideas and one another. What they do with the experience is not my concern as a professor; my concern is simply to produce the space where learning may take place. And genuine learning, in this case, is less about mastering some determinate piece of material (where "mastering" is a code-word for "agreeing with this or that perspective on the text/idea/issue") and more about developing some more or less defensible argument of one's own about it.

The one place where I diverge ever so slightly from Fish's recommendations (his rejoinder about hoping that what we academics do is irrelevant to practical and political life brought a big smile to my face, and will most likely serve as the seed for a post or two on my blog in the near future) is in the idea that one should never "give it [the classroom] over to a discussion of what your students think about this or that hot-button issue." In my experience -- and this is quite possibly due to the fact that I teach political science and political philosophy rather than literature -- such discussions can be most rewarding, precisely in that they force students to both articulate their own positions and to engage the positions of their peers (and sometimes they also have to engage the position that I adopt, which I do for pedaogical purposes and certainly never because I want the students to agree with it). Those classes are not "politicized," although they are full of political statements and statements about politics; the key difference here is that I as a professional academic have absolutely no opinion whatsoever on what position my students should adopt. I have such opinions as a human being, but I wasn't hired to be a human being -- I was hired to be an academic, and I try to do my job.

If my students want to know what I really think of their positions, they are free to ask me outside of class, preferably after the class is over and I am no longer in a position of direct authority over them -- a position of grading them, in other words. If they want to know what I think about some substantive issue within my sphere of competence, they can look me up on Google Scholar and see what I've written on the issue. But in the classroom, my job is not to have positions; my job is to encourage/inspire/force my students to have their own positions.

I also disagree slightly with Fish about the point of the exercise. While I share his disdain for academic fields trying to justfy themselves in terms of the services that they provide to the state or to the world as a whole, I do think there's something being provided here: by giving students the opportunity to explore positions and stake out claims and defend them, I feel like I am providing a space for self-crafting, a place where students can perhaps come to know more fully who they are. There is no specific agenda here; I am not trying to make them into certain kinds of persons with certain kinds of views. But I do want to push them -- regardless of their positions on whatever we are considering -- to go further, to develop their stances, to confront what Weber called the "uncomfortable facts" that every perspective has to face precisely because no perspective is simply and universally true and comprehensive. If I had to give that process a name, I would choose something like "intellectual and spiritual maturation," a content-neutral moral preference for a certain sophistication and subtlety of thought and general comportment. Of course it's useless -- but it may also be the among the most valuable things in all of human experience.

That, to me, is the vocation for higher education. There are other vocations, to be sure, but let's keep them in their proper spheres and out of the classroom."

The post about the irrelevance of academia and academics to practical/political life is forthcoming. Count on it.

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