Not in the Job Description: Saving the World

After years at the center of scorching debates on education, Stanley Fish probably has developed a very thick hide. He’s going to need it.

His latest book, Save the World on Your Own Time (Oxford University Press), is sure to bring forth volleys of fire from his fellow leftists, who will denounce him as a traitor for saying that they should stop using the classroom as a soap-box and viewing their mission as that of “change agents.” The book is also going to bring forth volleys from the right, since Fish can’t resist making tangential attacks on conservatives for complaining about the very thing he criticizes professors of doing. And finally, he is going to take some heat from people (such as this writer) who can’t buy his concluding argument that public higher education should be given all the money it wants, no questions asked.

Let’s begin with the part of the book that is solid. Fish writes, “College and university teachers can (legitimately) do two things: (1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience; and (2) equip those same students with the analytical skills – of argument, statistical modeling, laboratory procedure – that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions….”

In other words, just teach your subject. Don’t try to be a “change agent.” Don’t fuss over students’ “dispositions.” Don’t use your classes to gratify your urge to save the world.

And it follows that colleges and universities also have a very circumscribed mission. Their job is to organize things so that scholars can proceed with their two obligations. Their job is not to (and here Fish clashes with Harvard’s Derek Bok) “develop such virtues as racial tolerance, honesty, and social responsibility” or turn students into “active, knowledgeable citizens in a democracy.” Those good results may happen if the school does its job well, but they are not goals to consciously aim at.

To illustrate his argument that straying away from the academic straight and narrow leads to trouble, Fish – a former English professor – points to composition courses. “More often than not,” he writes, “anthologies of provocative readings take center stage and the actual teaching of writing is shunted to the sidelines. Once ideas are allowed to be the chief currency in a composition course, the very point of the course is forgotten.” Much as the instructors in those courses may want to use them to “raise awareness” in the students about issues like poverty, the plight of native peoples, and the oppression of women, they should resist it. It’s hard enough teaching young people how to write properly without the distraction of political advocacy.

But doesn’t it rob higher education of much of its substance if professors have to steer away from controversies? Fish is not saying that college studies should be entirely devoid of controversial topics, but that they need to be treated in an objective, scholarly way. As he puts it, they should be “academized.” What Fish means by that is that they should be the objects of analysis rather than allegiance.

I’ll provide my own example here. Economics is a field that’s loaded with controversies, but the subject should be taught in a value-free way that explains phenomena without telling the student whether he should regard them as good or bad. With regard to price floors or ceilings, for example, a professor who “academizes” has the students work through the likely consequences of enactments like minimum wages and rent controls without insisting that the students regard those consequences as good or bad.

The only quibble I have with the first part of the book, where Fish admonishes professors just to do their job, is that he never works up much scorn for those who insist on trying to indoctrinate students. There is no shortage of cases that might be cited, such as this UNC geography course the Pope Center’s Jay Schalin wrote about last year. Professors who want to save the world on class time may feel mildly rebuked by the book, but Fish saves his ire for the latter part of the book, which is devoted to a blitzkrieg against critics of higher education on the right. He never gives any reason why he’s opposed to professors using their courses for proselytizing except that when they do so it gives critics on the right ammunition.

Even though organizations like the National Association of Scholars, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Pope Center, and others who criticize the penchant that many professors have for smuggling irrelevant ideological matters into their classes have repeatedly disclaimed any desire to replace left-wing advocacy with right-wing advocacy, Fish insists that the truth is otherwise. He is absolutely certain that the university is in danger of dragging in a far-right Trojan Horse filled with creationists, warmongers, and other dolts. Specifically mentioning Anne Neal of ACTA, Fish says, “(S)he urges trustees to take over the university and conform its operations to neoconservative imperatives.”

That would no doubt be a good line at a liberal cocktail party, but it’s far from the truth. Conservative and libertarian critics of higher education are not trying to stage a coup and replace all professors who don’t toe the line with right-thinking comrades. What we want to see is what Fish says he wants to see – professors who just teach the subject.

And that leads me to the big hole: Exactly how are we going to move from a status quo where many professors abuse their positions to a better world where they don’t? Fish doesn’t consider that. To him, the various conservative organizations that have called attention to the problem are conspiring to take over the academy and presumably kick out everyone whose politics aren’t correct. They can’t be entrusted to save the educational world. But there aren’t any critics on the left who insist that professors give up their wayward activities. Does Fish think that the proselytizing professors will read his book and say, “Oh, now I see the error of my ways.”?

The book concludes with another blitzkrieg, this one against anyone who favors reducing government higher ed subsidies. Fish blasts away at politicians who are part of “a coordinated effort to commandeer higher education by discrediting it.” He is angry that higher education, in his view, has been politicized by “know-nothing” politicians who try to score points with clueless voters by saying that we spend too many tax dollars on it.

The cold truth is that the United States has become an exceedingly politicized country and everything that government spends money on is subject to political gamesmanship, whether warranted or not. If some politicians manage to reduce higher ed appropriations, don’t whine about it; go and find people and organizations willing to put up the money needed. Some state universities, most notably the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, have to a great extent replaced public money with private money. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. The less a university (or anything else) relies on government funding, the more freedom it has to make its own decisions. It’s no more possible to have publicly-funded universities that are free of politics than it is to have water that runs up hill.

I find plenty to disagree with in Save the World on Your Own Time, but when Fish sticks to the theme in the title he’s right on target. Unfortunately, the likelihood that professors who relish the opportunity to play the role of “change agent” in their classes will heed what Fish has to say is hardly better than the likelihood of finding water that defies gravity.