Stanley Fish is Wrong

June 20, 2008

Academician and New York Times regular Stanley Fish is, again, involved in a debate about whether or not professors should be explicitly political in their teaching.  This current debate began when Fish, in print, objected to the recent creation of a Chair in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, arguing that there was no need for such an explicitly political appointment.

I have always found Fish’s argument that professors should divorce politics from scholarship (which I don’t separate from teaching) as either naive or sanctimonious or fatuous, perhaps some combination of all three. There are myriad ways to argue against Fish. I’ll quickly make three:
1) Imagine what the historical discipline would look like if all historians consciously sought to divorce politics from their scholarship. (It’s an impossible counter-factual.) There never would have been a revision of the traditional view that the Cold War was caused by an expansionism inherent to the Soviet system. (There never would have been the traditional view to begin with, formed as it was by explicitly political Cold Warriors.) There never would have been an explosion of social history rooted in Sixties zeitgeists, which, among other things, explored slavery from the point of view of the slaves. (There never would have been a traditional view of slavery to begin with, formed as it was by explicitly political apologists for slavery.)

I could go on, but I think my point is made. Perhaps these are examples that Fish might argue are separate from “politics” properly defined, since he seems to define political behavior as merely partisan, or as how people vote. But many such historical revisions were grounded in very immediate political and partisan concerns. For example, many of the Cold War revisionists (William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, Christopher Lasch, etc.) were highly active in leading campus teach-ins. 

2) This leads me to my second point. Our knowledge as professors, as people who have spent years, sometimes decades, studying topics that are very political, often (not always) puts us in a position to understand a political situation better than our students, better than most people. We would be remiss in keeping such knowledge to ourselves rather than sharing our analyses, as the Cold War revisionists did during the 1960s teach-ins. This does not mean a biology teacher has the right to share her thoughts on President Bush, unless it is with regards to President Bush’s opinion that all schools should teach evolution and “intelligent design” equally–then that biology teacher would be remiss in not sharing her expert knowledge.

3) Lastly, who cares if a professor is trying to proselytize? It happens everywhere, all the time. Yes, many university professors tend to be liberal, especially in the humanities, but it’s one of the few institutions where that is so. The left should happily trade away the universities for the two dominant institutions largely controlled by more conservatively-inclined people, the military and the corporations. Does anyone mean to tell me leaders in these institutions don’t proselytize political views? Please.

I remain unconvinced that teachers should even attempt political objectivity. It is my experience that students see through such a disposition as false, that students want their professors to be advocates for something, political or otherwise. If my goal were to convince my students to vote Democratic, or to convince them that George Bush is a war criminal, then I would not be a very good teacher because these goals are expedient, partisan, and, frankly, boring. But my goal is to get my students to question their presuppositions, both epistemological AND political. Having such a goal is what gets me out of bed in the morning, it’s what drives me, makes me passionate and, as such, it’s what makes me an effective teacher. If such passions were stamped out by professional “objectivity” as advanced by Fish, then I’d be a bad and boring teacher.

In terms of not alienating students, style matters. My conservative students tend to really like my classes because they’re well aware that political disagreement is never the basis for how I evaluate them, in fact, quite the opposite, as those students who are willing to challenge me or the material in thoughtful ways, with use of evidence, thrive in my class. 

In the end, I guess I’m not naive or self-important enough to think that my students care all that much about my politics or objectives, that they’ll seriously notice the difference between me being “political” or me being “objective.” The only thing they will know for certain is if I’m boring.

All that said, I’m perfectly fine with the conservative hire at the University of Colorado (although CU should hire back Ward Churchill, too). I like Crispin Sartwell’s take on it in an op-ed he wrote for the LA Times, titled, “The Smog of Academic Consensus.