I don't read Stanley Fish's blog at the New York Times very often, but every once and a while I'll check it out if the headline is intriguing. Thus, the other day, I came upon this passage in one of his most recent posts:
While phrases like freedom of speech and academic freedom are routinely invoked whenever there is a discussion of how professors should conduct themselves, classroom performance has nothing to do with such grand abstractions and everything to do with a simple injunction: do your job.
Of course, before you can do your job, you have to know what it is. And you will not be helped by your college’s mission statement, which will lead you to think that your job is to cure every ill the world has ever known – not only illiteracy, bad writing and cultural ignorance, which are at least in the ballpark, but poverty, racism, ageism, sexism, war, exploitation, colonialism, discrimination, intolerance, pollution and bad character. (The list could be much longer.) I call this the save-the-world theory of academic performance and you can see it on display in a recent book by Derek Bok, the former and now once-again president of Harvard. Bok’s book is titled “Our Underachieving Colleges,” and here are some of the things he thinks colleges should be trying to achieve: “[H]elp develop such virtues as racial tolerance, honesty and social responsibility”; “prepare … students to be active, knowledgeable citizens in a democracy”; and “nurture such behavioral traits as good moral character.”
I can’t speak for every college teacher, but I’m neither trained nor paid to do any of those things, although I am aware of people who are: ministers, therapists, social workers, political activists, gurus, inspirational speakers and diversity consultants. I am trained and paid to do two things (although, needless to say, I don’t always succeed in my attempts to do them): 1) to introduce students to materials they didn’t know a whole lot about, and 2) to equip them with the skills that will enable them, first, to analyze and evaluate those materials and, second, to perform independent research, should they choose to do so, after the semester is over. That’s it. That’s the job. There’s nothing more, and the moment an instructor tries to do something more – tries to do some of the things urged by Derek Bok or tries to redress the injustices of the world – he or she will have crossed a line and will be practicing without a license. In response to this trespass someone will protest the politicization of the classroom, after which a debate will break out about the scope and limits of academic freedom, with all parties hurling pieties at one another and claiming to be the only defenders of academic integrity.
I suppose I'd have more sympathy with this passage if Fish didn't seem so allfire sure that he just knows what the job of a professor is and just knows that his two-part prescription is the sum and substance of it. Because it seems to me that there's something missing in his formulation -- Content.
If the "job" of a college professor really is simply to expose students to material they don't know about and to help them do further research if they so choose, then we evacuate the entire content of a college curriculum. In Fish's formulation there is no intellectual difference between teaching ethics and teaching automotive engine repair. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad when my mechanic knows what he's doing, but that's not what it means to study in a university.
The philosophical foundation of the liberal arts is not, a la Fish's empty formulation, simple information retreival. If that were so, there would be no reason to keep general education requirements that mandate the teaching of literature, or philosophy, or ethics, or even science and math! The justification for studying these fields is because they are deemed to be valuable! And yes, somebody, somewhere, needs to make that determination. And yes, in that case, they are imposing a value system on the university. And yes, this has political implications. And yes, they do therefore run the risk of being accused of "politizizing" academia. Another way of looking at the same set of facts is this -- the establishment of any value system as the foundation of education is an invitation to an argument about whether those values are the right ones or the wrong ones. And that argumemt is itself a part of what academia is about.
Fish seems to think that we can have an academic curriculum with no political implications. I don't. We don't need to have a monolithic ideology that requires us all to walk lockstep in agreement with those implications, but we can't divest ourselves of the implications in any event. Education is a value-forming exercize, which means that it is in some sense always going to be subversive to the values of those whom it challenges. But you can't educate well unless you embrace the idea that there are things that are of value and education can help illuminate them. Doing so runs the risk of controversy, and accusations of political subversion, but it's always been so. Just ask Socrates.
UPDATE: Fixed links and a typo.