Blogs > Cliopatria > Stanley Fish says "Focus!"

May 28, 2004 8:59 am

Stanley Fish says "Focus!"

Distinguished scholar and administrator Stanley Fish has a Parthian shot in today's NYTimes, forwarded to me (and the entire faculty) by an alert colleague in political science. His argument is that the politicization of the university is indefensible, and he includes in that politicization the rhetoric of citizenship, civic responsibility and character-building which many general education programs claim to enhance.

Academia, Fish argues, should focus on study and understanding, and if that study influences the world, so be it, but that is not your responsibility nor should it be your aim. Academics should, he writes

engage in politics appropriate to the enterprise they signed onto. And that means arguing about (and voting on) things like curriculum, department leadership, the direction of research, the content and manner of teaching, establishing standards — everything that is relevant to the responsibilities we take on when we accept a paycheck. These responsibilities include meeting classes, keeping up in the discipline, assigning and correcting papers, opening up new areas of scholarship, and so on.
While his call for depoliticization certainly rings true in some senses (I have a colleague in the humanities, with whom I share many political views, who doesn't understand why I don't allow time in every class for discussion of the war in Iraq), I'm not convinced that civic engagement is necessarily political, though I do agree that a focus on the more specifically academic virtues (respect for evidence and argument, integrity [can we talk about plagiarism?], engagement rather than intellectual isolation) would redound to the benefit of civil society.

I wonder where he stands on the entrepreneurial model of academia, that we should be more engaged in activities which produce economic returns? Nor does Fish address the question of our non-academic lives: I've had people tell me that my public statements on political matters are unfairly bolstered by my degree and position; I've also had people tell me that public statements by definition imply bias in my teaching. So, if the University is to be depoliticized, what does that mean for the life of the professor?

An Apology: Yes, that's right. Someone on-line has apologized for something they said which turned out to be unfair, and wrong. That someone was me, correcting my overhasty comments regarding the historians who post at Big Tent. Thomas Bruscino, in particular, has been quite patient in explaining the error of my ways and making a good case for their distinctive style. I even went back and read some Theodore Roosevelt as a result! I'd call it penance, but I really enjoyed it. Sign of a true history geek and political junkie, I guess.

Update: Some of my colleagues here think perhaps that Fish was joking, either intentionally or unintentionally. Anyone here know enough about Fish (apparently he was connected with the infamous Sokal-Social Text hoax?). If he's kidding, he's doing so in a particularly destructive fashion....

Update #2: Now we're debating general education, and whether or not it has the dreaded"good citizen" as an intended result.

Final Update:: The New York Times did publish a letter in response to Fish, a devastatingly pointed rejoinder. My contribution, as with so many of my letters to the Times, will find a home on HNN's "nothing written is ever wasted on the WWW" page.

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Richard Henry Morgan - 5/24/2004

Just to finish the trend, Anthony Pescecane in The Lecturer's Tale is supposed to be a send-up of Frank Lentricchia (still at Duke, and now a theorese-apostate).

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/24/2004

In his hoax, Sokal left clues widely spread upon the ground. He said that "Lacan's psychoanalytic speculations have been confirmed by recent work in quantum field theory." He also said that "the axiom of equality in mathematical set theory is somehow analogous to the homonymous concept in feminist politics." But the best one was this little gem of an endnote (endnote #73 from the hoax essay):

"In the history of mathematics there has been a long-standing dialectic between the development of its "pure" and "applied" branches (Struik 1987). Of course, the "applications" traditionally privieged in this context have been those profitable to capitalists or useful to their military forces: for example, number theory has been developed largely for its applications in cryptography (Loxton 1990). See also Hardy (1967, 120-121, 131-132)."

Fish responded, in the NY Times, that Sokal had "carefully packaged his deception so as not to be detected except by someone who began with a deep and corrosive attitude of suspicion that may now be in full flower in the offices of learned journals because of what he has done."

The evidence from the Bellesiles affair would suggest otherwise. It seems that Sokal's effort to attack the mind, bend the spine, and lose the war for the allies, has come to nought. Moreover, it would not take a corrosive suspicion to spot the nonsense -- merely the vaguest familiarity with the subject matter. Hardy thought applied math was ugly, and thanked his lucky stars that nothing he did in number theory had even the slightest application. Quite unintentionally, it was discovered that there existed in number theory a group of trapdoor functions, such as prime factorization. It is easy enough to multiply two large primes and get a product, but hard as hell (there is no shortcut, just brute-force numbercrunching) to find the prime factors of a large number. This is the basis of contemporary cryptography, and it was simply never pursued with that goal in mind. Thus, Sokal's footnote is a real knee-slapping howler (to those with a mathematician's sense of humor).

David Lion Salmanson - 5/24/2004

I actually am supposed to teach current events. The parents expect us to do it in Upper School donchya know, and for the most part, I hate it. I end up doing a lot of "what kind of information would you want to know to understand this situation?" Most of the kids don't read newspapers or talk about what is going on with their parents. They do get a lot of stuff from reasonably reliable web sites (CNN etc.) and are often ahead of me with specifics, but they got no big picture.

My brilliant department chair, when asked by parents if she does current events in her classes says, "of course, we do them everyday!" Meaning, when your daughter came home and said, "Oh, a battle in Karbala, did you know that was where Ali was martyred and its holy to both Shi'a and Sunnis?" because she studied it three months earlier before it was in the news, she didn't know it, but it was gonna be current events eventually. Now if we could just get the parents to understand that about the Mongols.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/24/2004

Try James Hynes, _The Lecturer's Tale_.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/23/2004

No, I don't but I'll keep an eye out, thanks.

Though it's over-rated, Jane Smiley's "Moo" is still pretty funny.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/23/2004

Do you also have Tom Sharpe's novels of academia (Wilt, Wilt on High, etc.)? They are a gas too.

Konrad M Lawson - 5/23/2004

Kerim has posted some of his own interesting comments on his blog at:

Jonathan Dresner - 5/23/2004

This gets better and better. What does it mean to "interpret the world" without concepts? I mean, there's a real epistemological problem here.... which is a nice way of saying that it doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

Not to mention the shear ingratitude of attacking the economic foundation of the institutions and industries that supported him so generously through his career.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/23/2004

If we combine the chronology of Mr. Morgan with the content of Mr. Green, we'll probably come closer to reality. There's nothing about them that's contradictory: one can be brilliant and still be careless, ideological and sometimes wrong.

I'm thrilled to know, now, who Lodge's character is based on: I have what I'm pretty sure is a complete collection of Lodge's books.... There's nothing quite like it for historians, and there's an awful lot of literature out there about English professors. We need to remedy that, somehow.

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/23/2004

By God, you're right, I never have seen Stanley Fish and Daniel Green in the same room.

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/23/2004

Hey, who let Stanley Fish's publicist in to the party?

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/23/2004

I try to draw a lot of contemporary connections in my history teaching. Indeed, the first class I will be teaching at my new university (affiliation as yet unstated as the result of effluveous jackassery at my last place) is a summer course called "Contemporary Issues and Historical perspectives" (Four weeks, four themes that play to my professional "expertise" [scare quotes for you, Ralph!] -- Global Terror, Africa, Race and politics in the US, and the 2004 Election) otherwise, I tend to avoid the most contentious of contemporary issues unless they bear precisely on the issue at hand. History by analogy is great most of the time. But I am a firm believer about keeping ideology out of my classes, or at least of giving equal time, and issues that are so cutting edge and are so fraught I try to avoid. the Middle East one in the summer class is the one I am most afraid of given my pro-Israel proclivities, but I know the literature on the other side, and I'll be unscrupulously fair, in that I'll be as absent as possible. And as a civil rights historian, I'll emphasize that aspect of the Palestinain plight (no matter what I think of their demonstrably terrorist leadership). The 2004 election theme will fall in the last week, and we'll explore elections historically, then they will explore the issues in 2004, with equal weight to both sides based on their own work, with very little Derek axtion in between (note Rickey Hendersonesque use of third person -- Derek approves!)
Despite what those who want to find rampant leftism in the academy want to believe, I believe that most of us separate what goes on in the classroom from our politics. We hear about the loudmouths who use the lectern as a mouthpiece. That is not representative of what goes on in the classroom.

Daniel Green - 5/23/2004

Your account of Fish is a caricature. He's not only a Milton scholar, he's probably the foremost Milton scholar in the world. He's also one of the founders of a whole school of literary study/criticism, reader-response theory. There are few literary scholars or critics with a more distinguished publishing record or who have been as consistently provocative and influential as Stanley Fish.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/23/2004

I used to be a student of Stanley Fish -- not in the sense that he was ever my teacher, but I used to follow his various moves.

If I remember correctly, Fish was a Milton scholar at Hopkins when Derrida descended on the US in the mid-60's at a famous seminar there. Fish grabbed on to that with zeal -- so much so that he was sent up as the character Morris Zap in David Lodge's novels of academia, Changing Places, and Small World.

At one point in his career, Fish said something to the effect that he had been absolved of the duty to be right, and merely had to be interesting -- a position he later abandoned. He also said at one point that, having labored in the vineyard, he no longer felt that his contributions should be peer-reviewed -- that he should be published in academic journals simply because he wrote them.

Duke, some years back, when rolling in more dough than sense, brought Fish down there and gave him a mandate to make the Duke English department simply the most chic place to hang out (they also made him a professor of law -- I kid you not). He brought in a lot of people like himself -- each thought he/she was a solitary genius surrounded by dullards, and the whole thing blew up (an outside committee put out a report saying that the department was in disarray). At one point, Fish wrote the Provost at Duke, urging him to ban members of the National Association of Scholars from tenure committees, as they were widely believed to be sexist and racist. Apparently, he initially denied writing the item (which was published in the school paper), until one of his colleagues (to whom he had sent a copy) released his copy to the student paper -- at which point Fish said something to the effect that he was writing ex hypothesi, or somesuch.

I think that, as part of his heading the Duke Press, he was in charge of the campus bookstore acquisitions. At one point, as part of an interview, James David Barber (a bigshot poli sci type there, and a high mucky-muck in the NAS) took a journalist around the bookstore with him, turning over (to prove a point) each book from a leftwing perspective, leaving few standing up -- and seems to have earned the wrath of Fish.

Duke added to Fish's honors by making him head of the Duke University Press, which put out Social Text (a journal which took to heart Fish's aversion to peer review, and so got hoaxed by Sokal). By the time of the hoax, Fish had already moved on. For years he had been interviewing for deanships in third-rate schools, and eventually he hit pay dirt -- Chicago Circle made him a dean.

While dean, he published a reply to Sokal in the NY Times -- a rather incoherent argument that a publisher takes a submission's assertions on faith (rather than just the data), and that Sokal had morally transgressed. It was not found widely convincing.

He wrote something similar to this latest NY Times piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I don't know when to take him seriously, if ever.

Daniel Green - 5/23/2004

He is indeed in a sense arguing for "the total abandonment of the concept of education." Concepts" of education get in the way of educating--or in his words of "interpreting" the world.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/23/2004

"they don't work.... No academic has ever....Knowledge has been produced." Such certainty.

But it's all wrong. The essence of higher education has always been twofold: skills and character, with an emphasis on the latter. "Character" refers both to intellectual habits and to moral ones. What Fish is arguing for here is the total abandonment of the concept of education as a developmental process in favor of .... well what isn't really clear, but it looks to me like pure instrumentality and I don't buy it.

Daniel Green - 5/23/2004

Stanley Fish has thought these issues through more thoroughly than any other living thinker/academic/critic. The key to this current article is the last paragraph, where he refers to actually getting things done. The problem with all the other external agendas fastened onto academic study and teaching is that they don't work. No academic has ever saved the world from its political problems, and no pristine Democratic Citizen has ever been produced by the academy. Knowledge has been produced.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/22/2004

Thanks for the clarification, but he's wrong. Worse, he's leaving out important bits which leads me to believe that he hasn't really thought things through, in spite of his consistency.

Daniel Green - 5/22/2004

Fish is not joking in the least. He's been saying such things for years. And he's right

Jonathan Dresner - 5/22/2004

Who knows what I said? I just don't have time for it most of the time, what with the World History torrent and being in Asian history. But every semester I teach China, no matter what period we're doing, I spend a good half-class on the current US-Taiwan-China issue, and when news hits that's relevant to the places/times we're studying I bring it in. It's not a "feature" of my courses, more of an ad hoc thing. One thing that I do try very hard is to avoid partisan reactions to current events: I give background and context and raise issues, but they really have to work to get something political out of me most of the time.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/22/2004

My mistake, perhaps. I thought that I recalled your having said that you firmly ruled "current events" out of bounds in the classroom.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/22/2004

I'm not sure exactly what you mean.

I've discussed the Iraq situation in my classrooms several times, mostly in my World History with regard to the Ottoman Empire, Mandate System and the United Nations. But most of my classes are Asian history, and there just isn't a strong connection to be made most of the time. Some in the 19th and 20th centuries (imperialism, etc, though it's mostly implicit, rather than explicit) but a lot of it just doesn't connect that well. I am very careful to keep my comments reasonably factual and neutral, unless they corner me and I clearly state an opinion (which usually they find confusingly unclassifiable in simple partisan terms). I just don't believe that every session of every class is "current events day."

Ralph E. Luker - 5/22/2004

I do sense a difference between Jonathan Dresner's finding no place for a discussion of the war in Iraq in his classroom and Jonathan Rees's not "bringing it up every ten seconds."

Jonathan Dresner - 5/22/2004

Good luck at the convention. I got to be a county-level delegate in Iowa four years ago, but the state convention conflicted with finals, so I didn't go on. As a Bradley delegate, there wasn't a lot of demand for my services anyway....

To clarify, I fully agree with you: if I thought Fish was really on to something I wouldn't do the work I do here at HNN. I think the classroom should be reasonably neutral ground, but I do not think we can or should disengage from the "real" world.

Jonathan Rees - 5/21/2004


Thank you for not issuing a blanket endorsement of Fish's essay. It would have been so easy to applaud something that is planted so firmly in the mushy middle ground, but you've hit the nail right on the head. Would Fish ever conceive of these ideas if he were dean of a business school? I doubt it. This isn't a prescription to save the university, it's unilateral surrender. You can be civicly engaged in your classroom and in your scholarship without bringing up Iraq every ten seconds and without betraying the obligations of your position.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go serve as a delegate to the Colorado Democratic state convention this weekend. I'm looking forward to meeting lots of other Don Quixotes at the educators' forum this evening.


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