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May 30, 2004 9:52 pm

Responses to Fish

The responses to Stanley Fish’s penetrating op-ed in last week’s Times are, in many respects, as interesting as the op-ed itself.

Commenting on increasing calls for colleges and universities to teach “democratic citizenship,” Fish cautioned academics against crossing “the boundary between academic work and partisan advocacy.” As he correctly noted, “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.” Instead, Fish noted, academics should focus on “the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching.”

The Times published several letters to the editor criticizing Fish. A couple seem to deliberately misunderstand Fish’s argument, which was not that academics should cease comment on political matters outside the classroom, but that institutions of higher learning are ill-equipped to teach “democratic citizenship” because of the inherently political nature of the concept. (I would add that structuring curricula around such a goal also means giving short shrift to a traditional liberal arts education.) Pace University president David Caputo, however, openly challenges Fish, noting

Today's students care about the social issues of their world, else why would we be seeing large campus majorities doing volunteer work? Far fewer students, however, vote. Getting a taste of social concerns by undertaking modest service projects as part of classes that put such projects in larger contexts, as my university's faculty now requires, is one tool for closing that gap.

Campuses with this approach are modeling the habits, skills and excitement of taking part in the democratic process, whatever side one may end up on.

This comment is fascinating in a variety of ways. First, if “large campus majorities [are] doing volunteer work,” then why would Pace or any other school need to require such work as part of courses? It appears as if Caputo wants students to work in certain types of volunteer projects—projects selected by the faculty—that place social issues “in larger contexts” and would make participants more likely to vote. I’d be willing to wager that, say, pro-Israel, anti-gay marriage, or pro-life “service projects” do not occupy prominent places in the Pace roster.

The organization that Fish’s op-ed directly attacked, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), has now also responded. AAC&U president Carole Geary Schneider writes that since “the nation has a unique opportunity to engage an entire generation with the difficult questions that challenge both our democracy and the global community . . . campuses are replacing the ivory tower ethic with a new vision of purposeful engagement with the wider world. College faculty cannot presume to ‘know’ the right answers to the world’s hard questions. But it is their business to explore those questions, in all their complexity, with their students.”

Geary Schneider’s letter avoids confronting Fish’s main points, probably because Fish’s basic argument is irrefutable. If colleges restructure their curricula away from traditional liberal arts topics and toward addressing the “world’s hard questions,” the criteria by which professors and administrators determine what constitutes a “hard question” becomes critical, raising issues associated with the ideological imbalance of humanities and social science faculty. Nor does Geary Schneider—or any of Fish’s other published critics—explain why the current generation of students, unlike their predecessors, should receive not a liberal arts education but one focused around their professors’ conception of what entails “democratic citizenship.”

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Jonathan Dresner - 6/1/2004

Most of the "service learning" projects that I'm aware of really do come out of substantial disciplinary questions and are considered educationally quite successful at introducing students to the complexities of the real world, the challenges of doing research, etc.

There are exceptions, and I've never been forced to decide how I feel about the "hours of service necessary to graduate" requirements (I think I oppose them, unless someone can do a much better job of linking them to disciplinary, or interdisciplinary, pursuits), but usually they are ecumenical in their scope.

mark safranski - 5/31/2004

I never really thought I'd find myself on the same side of any issue with Stanley Fish but nevertheless he is right. And in a good cause. Amazing how conservative Professor Fish has become these days ;o)

For starters, required or coerced " volunteering " defeats the entire purpose of the enterprise. It's as Orwellian as calling a tax a " charitable contribution" in order to teach people to be more generous.

Secondly, parents and self-supporting students are not paying a premium in tuition to become drones or foot-soldiers in the trendy political or social activism of the faculty. Set aside the political imbalance and the wingnut proclivities of professional academics for a moment - this is simply a case of fraud. They have been hired to educate and they are proposing to accept payment but render something else in return. Whether that "something else" is worthwhile or not is irrelevant.

If David Caputo wants to indoctrinate let him go form a religious cult and leave the business of education to those who want to teach.

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/31/2004

Isn't it possible that simply by teaching students how to read, write, evaluate evidence and arguments, and present ideas clearly, we are preparing them for democratic citizenship? Isn't anything else running the risk of inculcation? Shouldn't those of us who are liberals in the academy be smart enough to know that we should be interested in creating less, not more, perception of bias in the classroom? I will be teaching a summer class, "Contemporary Issues in Historical Perspective" this summer, and I am excited about it. My view is that it will only be successful if students don't really know where i stand on most issues (broadly they'll know that I care about Africa, about race, etc. But they won't know my policy stances on affirmative action, say). But Even in this class, I won't much harp on "Democratic Citizenship" so much as I will on making sure they know how to weigh arguments, read sources, identify bias, and so forth. Much beyond this (and i do always encourage my students to vote, even if only to get the satisfaction of canceling out mine) I am wary of "democratic citizenship" as a goal in the classroom beyond the oblique approaches i have presented -- I don't trust it from the right, and I don't trust it from the left.

Robert KC Johnson - 5/31/2004

I'd agree completely that there's nothing incompatable between a liberal arts education and preparing students for democratic citizenship--in fact, I think a good liberal arts education is the best preparation for citizenship. I find it unfortunate, as Fish points out, that groups like the AAC&U don't agree.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/30/2004

I'm not convinced that the "search for truth" and "education for democratic citizenship" are mutually exclusive. Nor do I think that a consensus on a single ethic of citizenship is necessary for democratic engagement to be promoted by the curriculum. I think the diversity of views and approaches encompassed by the traditional liberal arts curriculum is quite adequate to the task, actually.

And I think the argument about volunteerism and general education is kind of backwards. Actually what's happened (I think) is that faculty have noticed that students enjoy doing real things and volunteering more than "book learnin'" and, in some ways, retain more of what they learn in the process, so we've integrated it into the curriculum as a way of encouraging faculty to teach in ways that students like rather than the other way around.

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