What did you learn at school, today ?

In his latest book, Save The World On Your Own Time, Stanley Fish makes a compelling plea for a value-free academic world which would be only devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and its transmission to students. This is a very provocative statement, isn’t it ? Well, though I can already hear the howls of indignation coming, I will argue that, in a perfect world, this thoughtful and persuasive essay should not be provocative at all. But let me just detail the book’s content.

Fish’s main argument in this book is that however laudable the ideals of a tolerant and peaceful society, which would foster democracy and struggle against gender discrimination and economic oppression (among others), this should not be the true purpose of an institution of higher learning to promote them. When professors offer themselves as moralists or political activists, they do not only waste their time; they also abdicate their true role: that of advancing knowledge among the students population by means of carefully chosen teaching materials and pedagogical virtue (indeed, one of the only “virtues” that has its place in a university). Though the book itself contains seven chapters (plus an introduction), it is mainly articulated around three ideas.

  • do your job
  • don’t try to do someone else’s job
  • don’t let anyone else do your job

According to Fish, the only job which is relevant here is “a) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry they didn’t know much about before, and b) equip those same students with the analytical skills that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research should they choose to do so” (p. 18). That does not mean that political and current questions cannot be brought into the classroom, but in order to be relevant, those questions have to be “academicized”. “To academicize an issue is to detach it from those contexts where it poses a choice of what to do or how to live … and insert it into an academic context where it invites a certain kind of interrogation” (p. 170). Instead of asking ourselves if Barack Obama is right or wrong, we can analyze (grammatically, rhetorically …) his discourse and ask whether he is compelling or not, without offering a judgement on the political ideas that are at stake. Doing the latter, argues Fish, would transform the classroom into the kind of sterile TV show students can quietly watch at home, and would provide no advancement of knowledge. Then, Fish tackles the two main criticisms which could be made about his statement: the idea that everything is political and that you cannot totally separate your analysis from your opinion on the question. About the first criticism, Fish argues that it is crucial to make a distinction between the academy politics and the partisan politics. Whereas the latter is about social goals and international relations, the former is about the good interpretation of a poem, or the relevant choice of a textbook. Those can involve some harsh debates, even harsher that debates over death penalty or abortion, Fish argues, and they are the only debates which should be allowed in the classroom. And about the second criticism, Fish argues that separating analysis from judgment is what we do all the time if we want to behave in society. If I go to my best friend’s son’s Bar Mitzvah, I am not going to address the audience with a discourse on the evils of Israel’s policy in the Middle-East, even if I’m a zealous defender of the Palestinian cause (shall I precise here that the example is mine, not Fish’s !).

Stanley Fish, Photo by Barney Cokeliss

But what about free speech and democracy, which (almost) everybody regards as utterly important values, shouldn’t they be fostered in the classroom? Fish’s answer in the second part of his argument – don’t try to do someone else’s job – is unequivocal. It’s a no. Democracy and free speech are only political values, and not academic ones. Democracy, for example, is the idea that everybody’s voice weighs the same in our society, but it’s not true in a university. Teachers teach, students learn and administrators manage. That students take the same part as administrators in the numerous administrative tasks involved in the functioning of a university might not be a very good idea. As for freedom of speech, Fish argues that it is very different from academic freedom. The idea that any opinion must be valued is indeed totally opposite to the goals of the academy. Actually, only true and endured opinions, ones that can be demonstrated or rationally discussed, have their place in the university. That a professor, as a citizen, must be protected by the First Amendment is incontestable, but within the university this right is limited by the ability of this professor to do his job. Thus, academic freedom is only the freedom of pursuing the research of truth and the advancement of knowledge, not the freedom of offering any political view to the classroom without analytical insight. Fish provides many interesting examples of how a university should (or should not) react to the political events of the day, especially when they involve students or faculty members, including a very fine understanding of the issues at stake during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia.

This brings us to the third part of Fish’s argument. If professors do not do their job or try to do someone’s else job, they will end up being despised by people outside of the academy, who will pretend they can do the job as well. Businessmen, opinion leaders, politicians and lobbyists argue that the faculty offers a biased leftist point of view and that ideological and political balance should be introduced in the university, by being open to a different set of ideas. They denounce gender and race studies and plead for creationism. The irony of some arguments does not escape Fish’s mind. Coming mostly from the right wing, those activists often use a very vulgar conception of post-modernism, a movement they abhor and long tried to fight,  to enforce their conservative political views. According to them, post-modernism is teaching that no theory can be held to be true, so that every opinion should be valued on an equal footing. But Fish argues that this is a very bad understanding of what post-modernism is. “Postmodernism is a general and abstract description of the way knowledge is established and challenged. It tells us that any establishing or challenging of knowledge is a historical rather than a transcendent event” (p. 134). But historical contingency has nothing to do with scientific relativism, because “[y]ou can be persuaded by postmodern arguments on the very general level of their usual assertion … and you can still hold firmly to judgments of truth, accuracy, correctness, and error as they are made in the precincts of some particular realm of inquiry” (ibid.). Holding against those who argue that post-modernism is the denial of scientific knowledge, Fish claims that, on the contrary, this conception of knowledge shares the same properties than the values which should be at the core of the academy: it serves no political or ideological views and it is totally useless to society in general.

This brings Fish to the last point of his reflection. Because the true purpose of liberal education is merely to give students a hint of the advancement of knowledge in any given discipline, it has almost no cash value for the society as a whole. It does not make better men and women, just men and women with better analytical skills. It does not contribute much to the national product; sometimes it does not even help people find a job. The question is: how can you raise funding with such a discourse? The answer provided by Fish is deceptively simple: you can’t. But if you pretend that higher education can have any practical interest for the rest of the world, you end up managing your university like a business and consequently undermine the true beauty of academic activity: its fundamental uselessness.

Fish’s book is not flawless. Some of his examples are a bit far-fetched (when he tries to “academicize” the question of whether George W. Bush has been the worst president of the United States ever). Elsewhere, there are some contradictions. For example, he could have eschewed writing he voted for Gore in 2000 and for Kerry in 2004 to counterbalance arguments that some may find too conservative. At the end of the book, his defense of the academy makes him write that most faculties are ideologically unbiased, which is a bit contradictory with some examples he introduced before.

But overall, I think that Save The World On Your Own Time makes a fascinating read. This is particularly timely regarding the current status of our discipline. Historians of economics often offer themselves as moralists and political activists, denouncing the evils of free markets, of mathematical reasoning and general equilibrium model-building or pretending that the world would be in a better shape if economics had stopped its development after a) Aristotle, b) Adam Smith, c) John Stuart Mill or d) Friedrich Hayek (you can choose your favorite one). They desperately try to prevent their students from investigating the topics they find “morally hazardous” – meaning: opposite to their own conception of moral -, reducing fascinating scientific debates to mere ideological wars. This temptation is obvious in conferences, on the HES list (now SHOE) and even sometimes on this blog (particularly in the comments section). But if historians of economics do not do their job – which consists in writing the history of economics – and try to do someone’s else job, who’s going to do theirs?

Stanley Fish (2008), Save The World On Your Own Time, New York: Oxford University Press, 189 pages, incl. index and  a selected bibliography.

3 thoughts on “What did you learn at school, today ?

  1. Nice review!

    I wonder, though: according to Fish, where should moral and ethics be discussed then? Just in philosophy course and political parties? At what stage would it be legitimate for a scientist to express its views on the moral aspects of scientific practice?

    The question might even be more tricky for historians, even if that might just be a self-centered effect. A historian is both a scientist and a social commentator – at least, by judging from what I read in good history of science. To me, that implies that moral judgments will be part and parcel of the job. And I suspect that not just in history, but in sociology and economics as well, it is part of the job to utter value-laden statements (just try to discuss “without morals” IMF policies in a course of international economics, or profit-driven financial accounting methods to first year students.)

    The thing is, morals does not equate with “uninformed opinion”. Morals can be discussed in an academic way. Preferences for equality, arbitrage between short-term or long-term welfare, the valuation of non-human life… all of this has to be explicitly discussed when the subject obviously bears on it. That would be interesting to discuss it more, as this is a hard issue where I am not sure to have found a definitive stand. But look at this last example: don’t you think that a discussion on the moral aspects of the Pareto criterion of efficiency is called for, when it is first introduced to the students? The lecturer is surely not supposed to provide a textbook answer at the end, but he should certainly open and and nurture the discussion.

  2. According to Fish, there is virtually no subject that cannot be “academicized” so values and moral can be addressed in any course, as far as it is not used to indoctrinate students and that it can be translated into the course curriculum. Even in the class of philosophy, the professor is not supposed to ask “what would you do in that given situation?” but “what would Plato, Kant or Hegel would tell you to do in that given situation?”
    About the moral aspects of the Pareto criterion of efficiency, that should be part of a good introduction to economics course (or a more advanced one if you believe it’s a bit too complicated for junior undergrads) … on the other hand, I wonder whether it has its place in a history of economics class. I assume it has its place if you can “historicize” it … but as I remember, in the HET classes I followed during my graduate program in Paris, there was no “historicization”, just harsh criticism of the concept.

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