We Should Applaud Stanley Fish

In a recent interview with Mars Hill Audio Magazine, Stanley Fish insists on a distinction bound to vex his colleagues. Professors must remember, he says, the difference between academic judgment and political judgment. In a classroom situation, academic judgment is the application of academic training to materials within the purview of a discipline, for instance, an English professor deciding whether Satan is or is not the hero of Paradise Lost (Fish’s example). A political judgment is the application of a professor’s political values to, well, anything, such that a “conclusion about action in the world could be immediately drawn.”

I don’t know of any distinction held in higher disregard back in the swirling culture wars days of the late-80s and early-90s. There was no such thing, the wisdom of the moment declared, as non-political academic judgment. I remember a graduate seminar at UCLA around 1987 when the teacher inched through a Derridean reading of a Wallace Stevens poem while a couple of students fidgeted uncomfortably. (At this time, deconstruction was considered an abstract endeavor that refused the ideological nature of language and the politics of academic labor.) They finally spoke up, stating that Steven’s Romantic expressions about imagination and reality were, in fact, a case of suppression. Stevens merely engaged in “reification,” converting social and political phenomena into interesting-sounding abstractions. That’s the job of intellectuals, they noted, to cloak messy and inequitable human matters in the garments of beauty, truth, ideas, and theories.

“But what political facts does Stevens hide here?” the professor asked.

“All of them,” one answered. That is, the poem represented the very act of obscuring ideology.

“Uhh . . .” the professor mumbled, pondering how a thing’s total absence signifies its universal presence.

“There is no escaping ideology,” the other muttered.

“But . . .” the professor began again.

“There is no escaping ideology.”

It was a mantra, and it had all the force of a party-line pronouncement. It had other versions, too— “Everything is political,” “Always historicize,” etc., catchphrases that commanded us to embed novels in worldly, political conditions. They echoed in classrooms and conferences, and to recognize the political aspect of interpretation soon acquired the status of professional awareness. If you gave a lecture while on a campus visit to interview for a job, you could do no better than to acknowledge your own necessarily political position in a through-and-through political institution, the campus.

Now, in 2009, here is Stanley Fish asserting otherwise, claiming that academic judgment does, indeed, exist separately from political judgment. His words sound as if they could come from 1980s conservatives such as William Bennett who objected most of all to, exactly, the “politicization of the humanities.” Indeed, in a column last month in the New York Times, Fish begins with the academic/political distinction and proceeds to agree in large measure with one of the more prominent conservative organizations in higher education, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).

It’s entitled “What Should Colleges Teach?”, and it was prompted by a survey of freshman composition courses a few years back. Fish read lesson plans for 104 sections at his university and found that “only four emphasized training in the craft of writing. Although the other 100 sections fulfilled the composition requirement, instruction in composition was not their focus. Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization. These artifacts and topics are surely worthy of serious study, but they should have received it in courses that bore their name, if only as a matter of truth-in-advertising.” Writing courses taught by writing instructors should focus on writing, period. People should teach subjects in which they have some expertise (what do English graduate students know about globalization?), and materials brought into the course should not obscure stated aims (how does teaching about racism help students write better sentences?). This is to insist upon boundaries between disciplines—another no-no in current thinking—and to divide people into experts and dilettantes. It is also to endorse the goals of general education and examine how well a college curriculum delivers them. Hence the discussion of a new report by ACTA.

It bears the title What Will They Learn? A Report on General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nation’s Leading Colleges and Universities (see here), and it follows a simple method. ACTA researchers reviewed general education requirements at top schools and determined the extent to which they demand study in seven subject areas: composition, literature, U.S. government or history, economics, math, and natural or physical science.

ACTA reached dismaying conclusions. College-level mathematics are required at little more than half the schools included, only 11 of them require a survey course in history or government, and only two require an economics course. Lots of schools require a literature or history course of some kind, but the courses that could qualify are so many, haphazard, and idiosyncratic that they did not provide the breadth proper to a general education requirement. (Only 17 of them do have a lit survey course on the books.) As the report stated, “Within each subject area, it is not uncommon for students to have dozens or even hundreds of courses from which to choose—many of them narrow or frivolous.” The result is a curriculum not of general education but of random, disconnected courses that fall into “distribution” areas and add up to not much more than scattered excursions.

Fish largely agrees, and he approves of ACTA’s “stringent and narrow” criteria. He also “maintain[s] (with ACTA) that there is only one way to teach writing.” He even signs on to ACTA’s commitment to a “common culture,” citing the report’s claim that an “important benefit of a coherent core curriculum is its ability to foster a ‘common conversation’ among students, connecting them more closely with faculty and with each other.”

He has criticisms, though. One, he questions why ACTA demands history and literature courses with a sufficient degree of breadth and comprehensiveness. Why shouldn’t a course on one segment of history such as the Civil War provide an understanding of American citizenship and freedom just as well as does a “survey stretching from the landing at Plymouth Rock to the war in Iraq”?

More importantly, he feels ambivalent about the very fact of concurring with ACTA. As a man of the center-left and in sympathy with certain identitarian themes (see his take on the Henry Louis Gates arrest), Fish feels “slightly uncomfortable” joining hands with a conservative group. In particular, he doesn’t like ACTA’s “crusade for ‘accountability,’ a code word for reconfiguring the academy according to conservative ideas and agendas.”

When I first read those criticisms, I wanted to dispense with the whole piece. “So,” we could grill Fish, “you’re happy with students meeting lit and history requirements with outre theoretical courses on microscopic materials? You think a class on the Vietnam War provides students an understanding of ideals, texts, events, and figures of U.S. history? C’mon. And what about the many reconfigurations of the academy according to progressivist and leftist ideas and agendas? And are you so caught up in identities and groupings that you have to dither so much over the politics of people with whom you now and then agree?”

But if we consider the circumstances of the piece and of Fish himself, the objections look overdone and we should drop them. Remember that Fish has lived and worked in academia for five decades, with career stops in Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, and Duke, roles in noted institutions such as the School of Criticism and Theory, and important defenses against the National Association of Scholars and the Sokal Hoax. In other words, he has remained at the top of an animated and erratic profession, one without objective standards of worth. Keep in mind that in the humanities you are what people say of you. They review you for promotion and your writings for publication, and their word is final. It’s a clubby, tribal world filled with people preoccupied with one another. They exclude and include, gossip and congregate. Is his book out yet? Did she get that job? Who will chair the department next year?

No wonder that associations matter, and Fish feels some guilt. I left Emory University in 2003 to work as a political appointment in the Bush Administration. It was a post at the National Endowment for the Arts—no foreign policy work or stem cell research—but nevertheless, when I returned to Emory in 2006, several colleagues cut me off. Since then, numerous subtle and hidden discriminations have followed on the rule of guilt-by-association.

Fish’s qualified praise of ACTA belongs in that judgmental context. Professors are quick to sense wavering loyalties, and Fish here crosses the line too far. A good word about ACTA, David Horowitz, and any other person or organization on the right violates protocol and kills the sense of togetherness, however much balanced by bad words on other aspects. You see the process in comments made by freshman composition instructors and quoted by Fish in a follow-up post, “What Should Colleges Teach? Part 2” (August 31st). They allege that Fish doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he is too advanced and elite to teach composition classes himself. That’s not true, but that fact is less important than the tactic which says, “You have nothing to say, for you are not one of us.” Conservatives hear it all the time, and it indicates their best response to Fish’s piece. Because of his prominence and his academic position, Fish’s voice in favor of certain conservative curricular principles has a tactical value. Over the years, academics have responded to ACTA and other outside critics by casting them precisely as outsiders, people who haven’t done the work to enter the professoriate, and so they don’t understand what professors really do. Now, conservatives can claim an ally deep in campus territory, and they should repeat Fish’s concurrence with clapping hands.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

5 thoughts on “We Should Applaud Stanley Fish

  1. I find it impossible to believe that in the whole world of baseball there isnt someone who couldve taught Lewis to play a better left field. He does seem to always be alert and into the game, its not like hes slow, he doesnt have bad knees theres just no reason. And, while I may have a higher opinion of him at the plate than most, one cant argue with the fact that his bat would make the lineup better.

  2. Either double major with journalism and creative writing, or perhaps a “good” school in a urban area where I possibly could major in journalism and minor in creative writing? I’m simply a sophmore in senior high school but I understand I enjoy write and that i have no idea of what I’d enjoy more as a possible actual career, journalism or creative writing. What would be the best college for an individual as i am?.

  3. I heard about that last week. I just want to check if this thing is real. It’s just like with the politics in our world

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