Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Fishing for trouble 

Stanley Fish can be maddening. When I met him up here a couple months ago, I was charmed by his manner with students and interest in teaching about Dante at the mere mention of a few students around him who were studying The Inferno. We spoke at length later about academic freedom -- disagreements, sure, but a very pleasant exchange from which I certainly learned and of which I am uncertain I taught him anything at all.

So when this week's column came out, lambasting the University of Colorado's proposal to raise money for a chair of conservative thought, I was none too surprised by its view. Prof. Fish speaks to an ideal in which faculty who bring liberal activism into their classrooms should be treated like the dog who wets your carpet:

First, what does �left-leaning� mean? Does the university issue policy statements on controversial matters? Does its administration come out for gay marriage or for gun control or for reproductive rights? Does the university endorse liberal candidates, or criticize Supreme Court decisions, or contribute to Move If the answer to any of these questions were �yes,� �left-leaning� would be an accurate designation. It would also be a reason to deny the university its tax exempt status and demand that it register as a lobbyist. But of course the university does none of these things. How then does it lean left?

The answer appears a little further down in the story when it is reported that emeritus professor Ed Rozek surveyed the Boulder faculty and found that out of 825, only 23 were registered Republicans.

That is a strawman argument on two scores. First, one could hardly find a university as an institution that does engages its institutional voice for gay marriage or its fundraising arm for MoveOn. What we're talking about is that individual faculty behave that way, and encourage their students to do so. As we see below, he doesn't think they should, but then he believes that they must be honorable and so don't do it, save for a few knaves on each campus.

Then second, he simply won't believe the data on intellectual balance. The Rozek study is perhaps flawed, but you don't have to look far to find other such studies. Fish does his readers a poor service in ignoring the other data that are available.

We've been here before with Fish; from an article five years go in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (reprinted in FrontPage here):
[T]eachers should teach their subjects. They should not teach peace or war or freedom or obedience or diversity or uniformity or nationalism or anti-nationalism or any other agenda that might properly be taught by a political leader or a talk-show host. Of course they can and should teach about such topics --something very different from urging them as commitments--when they are part of the history or philosophy or literature or sociology that is being studied. The only advocacy that should go on in the classroom is the advocacy of what James Murphy has identified as the intellectual virtues, "thoroughness, perseverance, intellectual honesty", all components of the cardinal academic virtue of being "conscientious in the pursuit of truth" ("Good Students and Good Citizens," New York Times ,September 15 2003). A recent Harris poll revealed that in the public's eye teachers are the professionals most likely to tell the truth; and this means, I think, that telling the truth is what the public expects us to be doing. If you're not in the pursuit of truth business, then you should not be in the university.

I was told something very different in the 60's when I was teaching at Berkeley. In the wake of the Free Speech Movement a faculty union had been formed and I had declined to join it. Some members of the steering committee asked me why and I asked them to tell me about the union's agenda. They answered that 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. How about improvements in faculty salaries, better funding for the library, and a reduction in teaching load? You, sir, I was admonished, do not belong in a university. No, they didn't know what a university was and a lot of people still don't.
And faculty unions still push the same thing today in some places. I get his point: sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. But if Fish rejects intellectual affirmative action -- which I think he's right to do -- what alternative does he offer?