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Fish's Folly By: Brian Bishop
Fromtheheartland.org | Friday, July 28, 2006


Stanley Fish has the decidedly frumpy notion that the pursuit of truth is the central purpose of the university. He has the further stodgy understanding that "the serious embrace of that purpose precludes deciding what the truth is in advance, or ruling out certain accounts of the truth before they have been given a hearing, or making evaluations of those accounts turn on the known or suspected political affiliations of those who present them."

Like spinster come debutante Bridget Jones, his efforts to advance these principles hang precariously upon the edge of reason – and like his cinematic counterpart he wishes to have it both ways. There are, in his view, some exercises of citizenship that are moral necessities transcending this search for truth. While berating the loose citation of the first amendment in the campus culture wars, he awards a constitutional commendation to a college basketball player who turned her back on the American flag. How is this political expression anymore a first amendment exercise than the publication of controversial opinions in student newspapers?

Fish is clear that editors who make such decisions should refrain from reference to the first amendment and simply bear the consequences because they don’t have a duty to publish controversial material. Does not the same apply to his queen of the court? Is it not possible that many present at the basketball game did not agree with some American policies, but they do not have a duty to turn their back on the flag.

Fish pooh-poohs the opposition to free speech zones on campus suggesting it is a quaint manifestation of the eternal ideological grudge match over the truth:

Some activists on both the left and the right protest such zones and argue that the entire university should be a free-speech zone, one large Hyde Park corner, for after all isn't the university primarily a place for the unfettered expression of ideas? The answer is no. The university is primarily a place for teaching and research.

Why then would it be inappropriate to confine the political expression of this women with the "Basketball Jones" for dissing American policies to a free speech zone? Perhaps, because Fish sees himself as expressing a truth here while the right and the left are chasing fictions in objecting to the cabining of campus expression.

The editors of the Brown Daily Herald who accepted an advertisement objecting to reparations for slavery from David Horowitz thus turning loose the demagogues of Brown’s "Third World Center" to steal an issue of the newspaper are, in Fish’s world, only reaping what they sow -- not defending the first amendment. At the risk of falling into the Fish trap, this is true insofar as it goes. But in choosing to publish the ad the editors are defending free expression and the pursuit of truth, a far greater contribution to the mission of the University than some basketball player who mistakenly believes that the respectful silence and largely uniform attention to the flag during the playing of the national anthem may be read as an endorsement by all participants of any or all the polices of this nation.

Fish all but concedes a leftist hegemony on campus expression but views Horowitz’s antidote, a call for intellectual diversity, as some kind of slippery slope toward affirmative action for conservatives – as if this slippery slope should worry the academy when it has already driven headlong off the cliff of political correctness. But Fish has an answer for this too, to dismiss PC as a clever PR campaign of the right. The real job of complaining conservatives is to study poetry if they want to become humanities professors.

This is a nice theory but it can’t help but recall the elucidating and entertaining prose of James Panero who left Brown without taking the graduate degree in art history (or was it Spanish dwarfism) towards which he long labored because the school itself labors under just the type of bias that Fish imagines, quite vividly I think, can be fixed by conservative scholarship. Panero’s retreat from academia, like that of many who contend with its ascendant progressive orthodoxy, was precipitated not simply by finding himself the skunk at the faculty garden party, but finding the institution itself closed to alternative perspective.

Fish ought to well recognize the very phenomenon he agitates against at the same moment claiming it a figment of fertile imaginations. Indeed Panero could have been quoting Fish on the failure of the modern academy to live up to its foundational principles:

at a progressive school like [Brown], where all the important truths of life have been agreed upon beforehand and heaven is fast on its way to earth, no one wants to hear a peep. … If [Brown] had had an administration building with pillars it could have carved over the pillars: Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you feel guilty.

Of course Panero saying it is so is not the truth revealed. But does not the possibility that it is so -- as reported consistently by many observers -- suggest that the search for truth is imperiled. Fish’s dismissive attitude toward intellectual diversity reveals that his risk analysis is upside down: he would see his own announced central purpose for the university undermined in order to save it from some imagined future conspiracy.

Fish cannot be so obtuse as to believe that the intellectual diversity movement is anything but a demand for toleration – i.e., "a proposal that precludes deciding what the truth is in advance, or ruling out certain accounts of the truth before they have been given a hearing, or making evaluations of those accounts turn on the known or suspected political affiliations of those who present them." By Fish’s very own definition there are serial allegations that academia is eroding the very legitimacy of liberal education. But he is busy worrying that some polemics with less finesse than Horowitz – no trifling measure – will push valid ideas a little too far? And as an alternative, Fish offers a challenge to conservatives to fertilize their own academic fields. That is the kind of Catch 22 that makes Yossarian’s paradoxical predicament seem the simplest of riddles.

That the toleration of conservative ideas on campus does not seem of any importance to Fish -- indeed seems a plot of some sort -- perhaps implies Fish’s own ironic belief that conservatives are the ones who aren’t willing to subject their beliefs to rational inquiry in the marketplace of ideas. It is, after all, on this basis that Fish’s dismissive notions regarding religious thought are formed. Religious ideas have no place in academia (other than to be studied as sociological oddities) because they derive from beliefs which may not be tested rationally. Certainly this is not an entirely illogical critique of religion as an intellectual template in the age of reason. But it does not hold that simply because a certain moral outlook is adopted as an article of faith that the faithful are precluded from making logical arguments in support of such a code giving it rational as well as spiritual underpinnings.

Much as Fish trusts Horowitz’s motives – enough to have consulted for him in the writing of the Academic Bill of Rights – I doubt that Fish himself has any worries whatsoever regarding an innate capacity to hold his own in a potentially less secular more intellectually diverse academic environment. Stanley Fish is a laudable curmudgeon imbued with common sense and eclectic beliefs that belie lumping him in with progressive advocates masquerading as academics. Indeed his endearing story of rejecting union membership at Berkeley 35 years ago indicates he is no Stanley-come-lately to iconoclasm:

"They [told me] the union would (1) work to change America's foreign policy by fighting militarism, (2) demand that automobiles be banned from the campus and that parking structures be torn down, and (3) speak out strongly in favor of student rights. In response I said (1) that if I were interested in influencing government policy I would vote for certain candidates and contribute to their campaigns, (2) that I loved automobiles and wanted even more places to park mine, and (3) that I didn't see the point of paying dues to an organization dedicated to the interests of a group of which I was not a member."

But just as one gets to thinking the enlightenment – emeritus style – has finally returned to at least one campus, self-contradictions arise. One can’t help but get the sense that Fish believes the bulk of his progressive colleagues would find themselves at a marked disadvantage if they were to release their death grip upon the American institution. He can’t possibly imagine that some major role reversal is in the offing, but perhaps he fears the O’Reilly Factor: that the few conservatives and classic liberals that make their way onto faculties will quickly attain outsized star power and influence as the only act on the block. But this of course has its natural check in the too-big-for-one’s-britches factor which now dogs O’Reilly himself, who is busy trying to litigate his progressive competitors off the public stage – not only to no avail but to the diminishment of his own stature.

Indeed virtually any phenomenon that one could associate with a more intellectually diverse institution has a natural check. It is the very marketplace that Fish recognizes is the context for academia. I refer less to the silly web-of-academic-life analysis which suggests that these institutions could not exist without the forbearance of market institutions, but rather the emerging understanding of education as a market good. Ironically, much as Horowitz has co-opted the language of toleration and affirmative action from the racial diversity movement to serve as the template for his push for intellectual diversity, the leftists who imbue the vast majority of campuses with an anti-capitalist "naissez-faire" perspective propose that the market has spoken insofar as academic bias with students flocking to their academic altars regardless, or perhaps in support, of this phenomenon.

Market forces are working in new ways on public campuses as well. Fish’s participation in efforts at the University of Illinois at Chicago to capture highly respected (if oft ideologically redundant) faculty to raise the perception of state schools as competitive with elite private institutions has raised the eyebrows of legislative benefactors. The trade off which Fish all but invites and has certainly been evidenced elsewhere is less public money for more institutional independence – "trade dollars for autonomy", Fish suggests (albeit various grants and loans channeled through individuals amount to a large public subsidy for higher education, these may at least be directed to both private and public colleges).

Indeed this trend has some libertarians, such as myself, recognizing that the University of Michigan was making essentially a private decision regarding its affirmative action admission policies rather than dispensing government resources based on race. If this affection for diversity has less than the salutary academic effect predicted by the hordes of administrators and CEOs who defended it before the U.S. Supreme Court, the reputation of the school and its relative attractiveness in the educational marketplace will suffer.

Fish seems oddly silent on the proposal that diversity, at least as measured by the politically correct indecies of race, gender, sexual preference and the like, is a benefit to the mission of the university. Given that Fish is explicit that intellectual diversity is not a requirement of the search for the truth, it is surprising he has not so vigorously expressed the same skepticism with regard to the purportedly surrogate measures which are popular with progressives.

Horowitz has a keen grasp of the commitment of universities to diversity and seeks to embarrass institutions into a return to the intellectual diversity at the root of a liberal education rather than to command it. But this embarrassment must take place by exercising the very mechanism just discussed – effecting the market regulation of schools by affecting public perception. This means that, of necessity, a great deal of the debate takes place outside the University in the social, political, and cultural milieu that are the feeder system for perspective students and perhaps more importantly the feedback system for alumni who are the fiscal lifeblood and equally, perhaps supremely, important market indicators of a University’s success.

There is little question, as this discussion permeates the polity, that the inevitable governmental mechanisms proposed for implementing intellectual toleration are predominately blunt instruments oft employed in reactionary fashion. This is true of governmental mechanisms for accomplishing virtually anything and a reason that some of us seek less governmental intrusion across the board. It is ironic, however, that the institutions that have become more an advocacy core for the politicization of the latest secular humanist social science than a stable of truth seekers should fear the privations regularly visited on any regulated endeavor by overzealous politicians.

I can only add to the fears which Stanley Fish harbors by adding the State of Rhode Island, in that liberal bastion of New England which is become a sea of political blue in partisan maps, to the list of states having considered legal compulsions to increase intellectual toleration at its institutions of higher learning. As is typical, the call to arms came when a conservative took Fish’s advice and attempted to work within the system to become credentialed to change it.

Bill Felkner, a masters candidate in Social Work at Rhode Island College, became suspicious that he was enrolled in a program of indoctrination and advocacy when professors of social work at the school began showing the Michael Moore anti-Bush polemic Fahrenheit 911 in class as well as promoting attendance at extra-curricular screenings in the fall before the 2004 Presidential election. Felkner’s response to this bald advocacy masquerading as social work education was modest enough, he proposed an open showing of the responsive Fahren-hype 911. Not only was this suggestion dismissively rejected by the faculty at the school, but they openly questioned the fitness of anyone with conservative ideas to study or perform social work – a tactic similar to that of progressive intellectuals who seek to label conservatives as racist by definition and thus marginalize their ability to participate in discussions of race-based policies.

This extremely politicized maneuvering within the college faculty caused Felkner to reexamine portions of the curriculum which seemed at least to have more substantive relation with social work than Michael Moore’s campaign tripe. One troubling facet of his coming semester’s work was a course that required Felkner to lobby the state legislature for the social services policy proposals favored by the School of Social Work. Thus did Rhode Island College explicitly mimic the progressive bent which Panero implied forestalled his studies at Brown. "You shall know the truth, and it shall make you guilty".

Substantively, this required Felkner to approach legislators with the goal of convincing them to extend eligibility for state sponsored education beyond an individual’s first two years on welfare. Felkner was required to research the issue and make arguments in support of this change. His research, perhaps incentivized by the intellectual gerrymandering he had already experienced and by the realization that he had not been asked to search for the truth but rather to manufacture arguments in support of a truth his professors proclaimed as already established, lead him to exactly the opposite conclusion. He can now cite reams of data that suggest work experience coordinated with brief particularized training far outperforms RI's no twenty-something-left-behind idea that every unwed mother should go to junior college.

This silly idealist has the nerve to expect a masters program in social work to live up to the profession's own standard of respecting the opinions of peers regardless of their political ideology (National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics 2.01). But his professors who are now threatening to fail him and effectively expel him from the program because he will not lobby for their policy preferences helped write the Code of Ethics for the NASW. Does anyone really expect the NASW to eat its own in order to protect the intellectual freedom of some moderately conservative thinker. Not bloody likely. And where one wonders is Stanley Fish, the champion of the backturning basketballer, citing West Virginia v. Barnette? He is too busy parsing intellectual diversity from the pursuit for truth to recognize that that pursuit ended long ago on most campuses.

This is not about a mandate that Universities should foster some kind of parity of adoption for various ideas amongst either their faculty or student bodies, but rather about the very admission of these ideas to academic discourse whatsoever. The refusal of university after university to recognize when the institution is chilling the search for truth in favor of the idea that its renown educators have already found it, while the few rational voices amongst the radicals have taken to imagining conservative conspiracies, indicate that there seems little hope for reform other than from without the university. This reform will come from the folks who pay the bills. If that worries the folks who cash the checks, maybe they ought to do something which they conceive as responsive but more intellectually defensible, than the clumsy rubrics they imagine will rain from the Republican sky.

Stanley Fish is ahead of the curve in recognizing some of the failings of the modern university but is too far ahead of the curve in thinking that the corrections will be overdone when they have not even begun yet.

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