You can always count on Stanley Fish. He strikes a few sound blowsand then all too soon he’s flailing away, sometimes doing more harm than good. Fish is like ice in good bourbon: pleasing at the outset, but after time the source of watery ruin.
A recent article, “Professor, Do Your Job,” provides a good example. As a former academic administrator, Fish know how goofy undergraduate education can get. He denounces glib “opinion-sharing sessions” that masquerade as “values education.” He censures professors who imagine themselves “agent of change” and who turn lecterns into political pulpits. All good punches thrown against the intellectual vacuity and ideological smugness that blemish American universities today.
Yet, as he always seems to do, Fish quickly overreaches. He adduces Yale College’s mission statement, which includes the goal of developing students’ “moral, civic, and creative capacities to the fullest.” Anodyne, yes, but Fish throws up his hands. “I’m all for moral, civic, and creative capacities,” he writes, “but I’m not sure that there is much I or anyone else can do as a teacher to develop them.” Apparently Aristotle had it all wrong. Virtue is not taught; it just happens.
He goes on to assert: “Moral capacities (or their absence) have no relationship to the reading of novels, or the running of statistical programs, or the execution of laboratory procedures.” OK, let’s get this straight. Diligence and disciplined attention are irrelevant to reading Henry James. Honest use of data has no bearing on statistical analysis. Any slovenly and disinterested professor can teach sound laboratory techniques.
Of course, Stanley Fish knows that he is wandering into the absurd. In fact, after a brilliant book on Milton, he has made his career on hyperbole. He loves the attention-getting line. There is no text! Morality is irrelevant! Then once the reader buys in, he dodges and weaves with half-baked qualifications and evasions.
Here’s a great example of a Fishean qualification. We’ve been told that moral capacities have no relation to academic workbut later in the essay Fish protests that of course he endorses the crucial role of intellectual virtues: “thoroughness, perseverance, intellectual honesty.” Still further, Fish gives an elaborate and convincing explanation for why a university should expect professors to exercise proper self-discipline in the classroom. Teachers should keep to the matter at hand and not ventilate on the affairs of the day, nor should they use the classroom as an occasion to preach to a captive audience. Apparently, Fish does not think that graduate students learn this very important academic virtue from their mentorsor maybe he does, and he didn’t really mean to say that moral capacities cannot be developed by teachers.
The evasive false distinctions are priceless. “I’m not saying,” he writes, “that there is no connection at all between the successful practice of ethical, social, and political virtues and the courses of instruction listed in the college catalogue; it’s always possible that something you come across or something a teacher says may strike a chord. . . . But these are contingent effects, and as contingent effects they cannot be designed and shouldn’t be aimed at.”
Did he really say that? Here’s the logic. Something is contingent if it’s not necessary. Therefore, by Fish’s reasoning, we should only design curricula and aim at educational goals that follow necessarily. Hum. You can take Intro Chemistry and Intro Biology, memorize like crazy, get a decent gradeand still fail to learn how to think like a scientist. Pre-med students do it all the time. Therefore, we should not aim at teaching introductory-science students how to think scientifically?
All education is contingent, as all educators know only too well. One student might learn the virtue of gracious patience from a professor who gives time to poorly formed freshman questions. Another might admire the courage of a fearless train of questioning in an author, and want to imitate it in his or her own life. Books, ideas, peoplethey all have a contingent moral influence over us. And intellectual influence is also unpredictable. Why do only some folks (very few, actually) see the force of mathematical proofs? There is no deep difference between the contingency of moral influence and the contingency of intellectual influence.
I could go on with other examples of sloppy reasoning, but I won’t. At first glance, Stanley Fish seems a friend to those who wish to rid the university of tired methods of multicultural consciousness-raising that masquerade as education. Some want to highjack higher education for ideological purposes, and they need to be called by their true names: propagandists and not teachers.
But a closer look reveals a deep investment in what Fish calls a “deflationary” view of higher education. “College and university teachers,” he writes, “can (legitimately) do two things: 1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience and 2) equip the same students with analytical skills.” The message is clear. Higher education is just a matter of facts and skills, facts and skills.
“Teaching is a job,” he writes, “and what it requires is not a superior sensibility or purity of heart and intentionexcellent teachers can be absolutely terrible human beings, and exemplary human beings can be terrible teachersbut mastery of a craft.” I have trouble recalling a sentence so full of cant.
It is true that wonderful people can be lousy teachers. Virtue is not a guarantee of intellectual acumen and pedagogical skill. But it is patently false that terrible human beings can be excellent teachers. They may flash brilliantly in the lecture hall, but their arrogance and self-regard destroys academic departments. Their selfishness insulates them from students, unless they are the type who seeks disciples, in which case they ruin students. All of us have witnessed the phenomenon: a brilliant mind corrupted by vice. Students learn from such men and women only reluctantly, if at all.
Moreover, what Fish has written is an insult to craftsmen, and ordinary people with regular jobs. It’s precisely not the case the mastery is sufficient. When a guy’s life is a mess and he misses work, the burden falls on the rest of the crew. When he cuts corners on the job site, morale falls. A bitter-tongued or gossipy coworker can bring far more ruin than virtuous mediocrity.
I can’t make up my mind. On the one hand, Stanley Fish seems a man committed to restoring integrity to the intellectual life. He expresses a heartfelt dismay over the way in which political correctness has corrupted the education of an entire generation of young Americans. And yet, on the other hand, Stanley Fish is a shill for our self-deluded elites, the folks who want very much to believe that expertise and intelligence can flourish without the inconveniences of moral discernment and judgment.
In this tirade against the politicized classroom, as in so much of what I’ve read of his over the years, I find myself leaning toward the other hand. Fish has long positioned himself as a naughty critic of the academic status quo; however, he invariably ends up telling contemporary academics what they want to hear.
He zings a few overheated lefty professors and the spineless administrators who kowtow to their multicultural agenda. As I read, I cheer him on. But in the end, he preaches the gospel of our postmodern elite culture: Don’t worryexpertise, power, privilege, and wealth impose no special moral burdens.
Our collective desire to be free from moral responsibility exercises a terrible power over our vision of reality. We really do want to believe that vicious men and women can be excellent teachersor excellent anythings. The desire is ancientto be able to love vices and neglect virtue as we compliment ourselves that we are serving the common good.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University.
"Professor, Do Your Job" by Stanley Fish, Policy Review