Academic Indigestion

A scholarly critic offers a caustic appraisal of higher education.

By Peter Conn

By Stanley Fish C’59
Oxford University Press, 2008. $19.95.

Over the past 40 years, beginning with a 1967 book on John Milton, Surprised by Sin, Stanley Fish has earned a considerable reputation as a scholar and literary critic. After a high-profile tenure as head of the English department at Duke, Fish spent the years 1999-2004 as dean of arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. His latest book, Save the World on Your Own Time, combines a spirited commentary on the purposes of higher education with reminiscences of his administrative tour of duty. 

Fish has a positive relish for confrontation and debate. His latest book doesn’t disappoint: It bristles with pugnacious opinions, calculated to offend just about everyone. He is an equal opportunity insulter—the Peck’s Bad Boy of academia.

Some of his targets are predictable. He nurses a downright contempt for federal and state legislators who interfere with the governance of public universities. In Fish’s view, most politicians who bloviate about higher education “wouldn’t recognize an academic value if it ran over them.” 

Faculty also come in for hard talk. Recalling his five years as a dean, for example, Fish says that the question he was most often asked by faculty was: “Why do administrators make so much more money than we do?” The answer he gave, says Fish, “was simple: administrators work harder, they have much more work to do, and they actually do it.”

As a sometime administrator myself, I confess to a sneaking admiration for Fish’s snappy (and approximately accurate) reply. I also enjoy the brio and theatricality of the scene he summons up. 

Sobered by his decanal experiences, Fish reached the disheartened conclusion that faculty members have defaulted on their collegial obligations and “consider themselves independent contractors engaged fitfully in free-lance piecework. They have no idea of how comfortable a life they lead.” Amen.

As for his students, Fish tells them that “while they may have been taught that the purpose of writing is to express oneself, the selves they had were not worth expressing, and that it would be good if they actually learned something.” 

The exuberant abuse is all good fun, but it punctuates a strong and important argument. Fish is fervently committed to the core principles of higher education as he understands them, and he takes on everybody—left and right, inside and outside the university—who threatens those principles. 

Serious thinkers, including the redoubtable Martha Nussbaum (professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago), have accused Fish of relativism, but the essays in this book don’t provide much evidence for the charge. To be sure, he argues that our scholarly conclusions, especially in the humanities, will necessarily be provisional—but that is not really a very radical or threatening idea. He declares repeatedly that the search for truth lies indispensably at the core of academic inquiry. It is precisely this core commitment that, in his view, he is trying to protect.

Fish’s thesis, stated briefly, is that teachers should do only what they are trained and qualified to do: (1) “introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry they didn’t know much about before; and (2) equip those same students with the analytic skills that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions …”

Fish proudly calls this a “deflationary” account of academic work, as in: taking the air out of the inflated rhetorical balloons that offer up universities as the places where students will find—or invent—cures for every social, political, and moral problem: “poverty, war, racism, gender bias, bad character, discrimination, intolerance, environmental pollution, rampant capitalism, American imperialism, and the hegemony of Wal-Mart.” 

If this is caricature, and it is, Fish intends it to sharpen the contrast between his strictly limited view of education’s purposes and the expansive enthusiasms that tempt college presidents and their ghost-writers into utopian verbal excess. Thus the title of his book: If you want to save the world, do it outside the classroom, on your own time and your own dime.

Education, in Fish’s view, is solely concerned with the development of scholarly and intellectual skills. Isaiah Berlin, citing the 18th-century English theologian Joseph Butler, liked to remind his readers that “each thing is what it is, and not another thing.” Fish’s admonition recalls that famous dictum: Education is what it is, and not the myriad other things that have sometimes been added to its job description.

From this starting point, Fish goes on to review and judge all sorts of educational and pedagogical pronouncements. Insofar as such pronouncements diminish, aggrandize, or encroach on the fundamental tasks of teaching as he has defined them, Fish insists that they are illegitimate. 

He points out that teachers cannot, except unpredictably and accidentally, improve anyone’s moral character, or promote respect for others, or shape citizens of a particular sort. Nor should they, as far as Fish is concerned. The members of university faculties know a great deal, but they are not, as Fish correctly points out, “moralists, therapists, political counsellors [or] agents of global change,” and students are the losers if their teachers assume these roles. 

But isn’t teaching—along with every other willed activity—inherently political? A whole generation of teachers and students in the humanities has been hectored with the slogan that teaching is a “political act.” To which Fish replies, speaking truth to slogans: “Only bad teaching is a political act.”

If education should not be measured or described in terms outside its own domain, neither should it be assessed on its “usefulness.” Aside from being unprovable, claims about the utility of education threaten what Fish regards as its self-justifying integrity. Fish, by the way, makes no exceptions for professional schools. If they are only useful, then such schools are not, in his view, the location of academic activity.

Not all readers or teachers will be attracted to the sort of pedagogical behavior Fish recommends: Many will find its chaste austerity rather studied and remote. After all, it was John Milton, Fish’s favorite writer, who wrote in the Areopagitica that he could not “praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.” Fish acknowledges that his is a minority view, but of course he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Peter Conn is a professor of English at Penn. His latest book, The American 1930s: A Literary History, is available from Cambridge University Press.

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