Friday, May 21, 2004
A few years ago, the presidents of nearly 500 universities issued a declaration on the "Civic Responsibility of Higher Education." It called for colleges and universities to take responsibility for helping students "realize the values and skills of our democratic society."The emphasis is mine (as well as the links), mostly out of shock that it comes from the pen of Fish, whose own career has done as much to question the validity of a search for truth as to illuminate the path to it (see for example blogchild John Bruce's reflections or Erin's beatdown from a few years back). And regrettably, ours is one of the 144 colleges involved in a similar endeavor and there's no telling where this stupidity will end.
Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard and one of the forces behind the declaration, has urged his colleagues to "consider civic responsibility as an explicit and important aim of college education." In January, some 1,300 administrators met in Washington under the auspices of the Association of American Colleges and Universities to take up this topic: "What practices provide students with the knowledge and commitments to be socially responsible citizens?" That's not a bad question, but the answers to it should not be the content of a college or university course.
No doubt, the practices of responsible citizenship and moral behavior should be encouraged in our young adults � but it's not the business of the university to do so, except when the morality in question is the morality that penalizes cheating, plagiarizing and shoddy teaching, and the desired citizenship is defined not by the demands of democracy, but by the demands of the academy.
This is so not because these practices are political, but because they are the political tasks that belong properly to other institutions. Universities could engage in moral and civic education only by deciding in advance which of the competing views of morality and citizenship is the right one, and then devoting academic resources and energy to the task of realizing it. But that task would deform (by replacing) the true task of academic work: the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching.
Erin refers to Fish as "academe's own Machiavelli", so one can only wonder what a retiring dean will gain from these Times essays. Stay tuned.