Blogs > Cliopatria > Stanley Fish and saving the world one book at a time

Mar 10, 2009 9:30 pm


Stanley Fish and saving the world one book at a time



Stanley Fish has a challenging column in Sunday's New York Times:"Neoliberalism and Higher Education". As the contents of Cliopatria, and indeed much of the academic blogosphere, attest, the trend of market approaches to the running of universities is on a lot of minds.

Fish's own philosophy of the academy is largely orthogonal to neoliberalism: he exhorts academics to"stick to your academic knitting", to"do your job and don’t try to do someone else’s", and to leave off"trying to fashion a democratic citizenry or save the world". Critics of neoliberalism, naturally, see such a perspective as backing up the power of university administrators (i.e., furthering neoliberalism in the academy). But Fish has also argued that"To the question 'of what use are the humanities?', the only honest answer is none whatsoever", that the humanities (including his own field of literary theory) are intrinsically worthwhile but will not contribute to the saving of the world or other political ends. That is not a persperctive that meshes well with the instrumental approach of neoliberalism.

As I explained in my first post to the now-defunct Revise & Dissent, my view is something along the lines of: if you're not trying to save the world, what's the point? Nevertheless, I mostly agree with Fish when he says we should not (in the name of academic freedom) erase the distinction between political action and scholarship (much less teaching). How, then, ought academics try to save the world? The most viable approach, I think, is through careful choice of what topics to apply the methods of one's discipline to.

Take the work of historian of science Steven Shapin. In The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (2008), Shapin explores the complex ideas of what it was (and is) to a be a scientist in the modern world. Despite media images where the academic scientist predominates, most scientists in the U.S. have been working in industry since the rise of the military-industrial complex in the 1940s and 1950s (and a large proportion were doing so even at the beginning of the 20th century). But the working life of the industry scientist is hardly the caricature of scientific management (squashing out the creativity and freedom that is a supposedly natural part of science) that has been circulating at least since the work of Robert K. Merton.

Although it's not explicit in the book, Shapin's work is a response to the trend of running universities like businesses. Successful businesses that revolve around original inquiry and research, Shapin shows, are a lot more like universities (pre-scientific management) than is generally appreciated. The implication is that, if universities are to be patterned after businesses, the appropriate examples within the world of business (as opposed to distorted ideas of business research that adminstrators might have) are actually not so foreign to the cherished culture of universities that opponents of neoliberalism in higher education seek to defend.

In his preface, in defense of his tendency in much of his historical work to address"the way we live now", Shapin says this:

"I take for granted three things that many historians seem to find, to some degree, incompatible: (1) that historians should commit themselves to writing about the past, as it really was, and that the institutional intention of history writing must embrace such a commitment; (2) that we inevitably write about the past as an expression of present concerns, and that we have no choice in this matter; and (3) that we can write about the past to find out about how it came to be that we live as we now do, and, indeed, for giving better descriptions of the way we live now."

In thing (3), I would replace can with should. Scholars have a moral responsibility to make their work responsive to the needs (as the scholars themselves see them) of the society that supports them.

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Jonathan Jarrett - 3/13/2009

As a medievalist I'm particularly sensitive to a demand for relevance that it's often hard to provide. I've argued before and will doubtless argue again that writing about the past is an intrinsic good, as you indeed know Dr Ross because it was in response to a post of yours that I wrote and you commented then. It is of course very easy for it to be done badly or be dull, which is a failing on the writer's part. But it is, I would submit, quite possible to answer requirement (3) in what you set out simply because people now are interested in (1) and want us to get round (2) so as to tell them about it.


Sage Ross - 3/11/2009

Oh, I certainly agree that the present doesn't necessarily have to be addressed explicitly in order for works of history to do thing (3) effectively.

But I don't think thing (3) should ever be merely an incidentally consideration in the writing of history. Clever readers can find bits of relevance in almost any work of history, but some history is written as if writing about the past is strictly an intrinsic good (as Stanley Fish may believe it to be...or perhaps he would distinguish history as a social science from history as part of the humanities).


Tim Lacy - 3/11/2009

I'm with Jonathan in that we can often trust the intelligence of our readers. Readers know a correlation when we see it. They (and sadly us) don't always know validity, but we know when an application forward can be considered. The properly humble historian writing today doesn't need to force ~every~ comparison---nudging will do. Why? It's about your audience. When you're teaching history to undergraduates or high school students, then go ahead make a number of caveated comparisons. Be a little presentist. But when you're writing a scholarly book, limit the nudging. But there's nothing wrong with talking to both audiences when needed. - TL


Sage Ross - 3/10/2009

True, any particular work may not be able to reach directly to the present. But I think it behooves us to be conscious of thing (3) as a collective goal of the discipline and to consider how our own topics can contribute to it (and also, to inculcate thing (3) as a norm of the discipline).


Jonathan Dresner - 3/10/2009

I'm with you almost all the way to the end, then we diverge. The third element in his description -- which is, I agree, an excellent short manifesto for principled presentism -- is what we work towards, but we may not achieve it in any single work or in a lifetime of work. If we adhere to 1 and 2, though, the discipline will increasingly be able to accomplish 3.


Sterling Fluharty - 3/10/2009

I am glad to share this blog with such great company. Keep up the great work!