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Save the World on Your Own Time

by Stanley Fish

Oxford University Press, 208 pages, $19.95

Here is Stanley Fish, writing Save the World on Your Own Time: “Not only is the genuinely academic classroom full of passion and commitment; it is more interesting than the alternative. The really dull classroom would be the one in which a bunch of nineteen- or twenty-year-olds debate assisted suicide, physician-prescribed marijuana, or the war in Iraq in response to the question, ‘What do you think?’ . . . What teacher and student are jointly after is knowledge, and the question should never be ‘What do you think?’ . . . The question should be ‘What is the truth?’”

A book whose author can write such sentences is hard to put down. And well worth reading. Save the World on Your Own Time is actually about many things—perhaps too many things, some of them seemingly contradictory.

On the one hand, Fish wants to downplay charges of political correctness within the academy; to suggest that the number of faculty who use the classroom to impose their ideological views on students is relatively small (at most perhaps one in twenty-five); to argue that postmodernism is a rather harmless epistemological stance that need incline no one to relativist views; and, for good measure (though in ways a bit hard to relate to the main themes of the book), to offer a defense of a hierarchically structured academic administration against a model in which faculty share institutional governance.

On the other hand, the book’s entire polemical edge (and the point of its central second chapter, titled “Do Your Job”) depends on the assumption that many college and university teachers are all too eager to use their classrooms for “partisan purposes.” Rather than taking up ideas and arguments as objects for analysis, they offer them as “candidates for allegiance.” Rather than doing what academics are trained to do—“passing on knowledge and conferring skills”—they commit themselves (with the full support of broad claims in the mission statements of their institutions) to turning students into people who are sensitive, tolerant, creative, and good (though, of course, globally minded) citizens.

In short, they seem to be in the business of offering a “character transplant” to students who thought they had “signed on for something more modest, to wit, a course of instruction.” And I have nearly forgotten the constant praise one hears for teaching that is interdisciplinary rather than (to use what has become almost a term of opprobrium) specialized, thereby providing, as Fish acutely notes, blessed release from the notion that each professor has a particular expertise that ought not be generalized beyond its relatively narrow focus.

These two Fishes sit a bit uneasily beside each other, but it is the Fish of the “other hand” whom I want to take seriously here. He himself recognizes that his chastened view of the academic vocation is a minority standpoint within today’s academy, and I suspect that it has even fewer adherents than he allows himself to hope. But his argument on this point—how to describe the “job” of universities and their faculties—is, I think, largely correct and well worth pondering. Indeed, although this is no part of the case Fish puts forward, it is a view that Christians (and, no doubt, some other religious folk as well) ought to take seriously.

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Fish writes, “of how to help students become creative individuals. And it is decidedly not my job to produce citizens for a pluralistic society or for any other . . . . To be sure, some of what happens in the classroom may play a part in the fashioning of a citizen, but that is neither something you can count on—there is no accounting for what a student will make of something you say or assign—nor something you should aim for.”

This is a good place to start, and it makes clear why “attitudinal” objectives in a syllabus are misplaced. (They are also inappropriate, but we’ll save that for the time being.) It is important to note that the problem surely does not lie with faculty alone. Colleges and universities, and their administrators, have somehow managed to shuck off in loco parentis functions while nonetheless promising to teach values across the curriculum, to make students respectful of “difference,” and to form students as democratic citizens. We should set the annoying “assessment professionals” to work analyzing how well these objectives are met—a task which would keep their hands off our curricula for a while at least.

You can teach students about the moral life, about the creative work of others, but there is no formula or method for producing virtuous or creative people via the classroom. Meno asks Socrates: “Can you tell me, Socrates—is virtue something that can be taught? Or does it come by practice? Or is it neither teaching nor practice that gives it to a man but natural aptitude or something else?” In the course of the discussion that predictably befuddles poor Meno, Socrates eliminates the first and third of these possibilities. We seem to have no natural aptitude for virtue; it has to be acquired. But, alas, one may doubt whether it can be taught; at the least we must say that there are no successful teachers of it. Perhaps, then, virtue is acquired through practice—though, if so, one would think that must happen within a community that encompasses more of life than a few hours weekly in a classroom.

Morality comes in two forms, dubbed Sittlichkeit and Moralität by Hegel. The first is morality as a shared way of life, lived for the most part habitually and unreflectively. One learns it in the same way one learns to speak a first language. As I do not review the rules of English grammar and syntax before I speak my native tongue, so also I do not (most of the time) pause to review a set of moral rules before acting. This sort of moral learning—immersion in a way of life—cannot be transmitted in a college classroom, though we may hope to presuppose it there. For any college or classroom to aim to teach morality so understood would simply be false advertising. Fish is right. We haven’t the slightest idea how to accomplish this, for it is a very mysterious process indeed.

There is also a different, and rather more academic, understanding of morality as the reflective and critical application of principles and rules, the careful delineation of different virtues and vices. One can provide a certain academic training in that—examining various theories and arguments for their strengths and weaknesses. No one learns to speak his native tongue this way, though we might take this approach to learning a language developed for a specific purpose.

The moral life of any person or people must, of course, somehow include both forms of morality. The first is all habit, the second all reflection. Neither, taken by itself, could possibly be adequate. But keeping the distinction in mind will enable us to think more clearly about what can and cannot be done in a classroom. We cannot there inculcate a shared way of life, and attempts to do so very quickly become either cloying or despotic—as in the ethics class that went to the mortuary to lie in the coffins, aiming thereby to think better about our mortality, or the requirement that all papers submitted for class use “inclusive language.”

What we can do in the classroom is, roughly, what Fish says we can (and should) attempt: impart knowledge and develop skills needed to analyze ideas. We can give training in critical reflection about how different individuals and traditions have proposed that we should live. We can, on our good days or good semesters, produce students who think more clearly, critically, and reflectively about such questions. And, if we’ve really done well, we may even produce students who realize that critical thought is by no means the whole of the moral life. It is what can be done in the classroom, what a college professor might be trained to do if he attempts not to save the world but to do his job.

I started down the path of these reflections by noting Fish’s disclaimer—that he hadn’t the slightest idea how to help his students become creative people. Because so much of what is objectionable in the classroom involves moral and political views, I began there rather than with “creativity.” But the two—and the mysteries involved in any idea of forming or shaping character, whether moral or aesthetic—are not unrelated.

When (in 1959) E.B. White published his revised edition of William Strunk’s Elements of Style, the resulting hybrid discussed basic rules of grammar and syntax—the sort of thing that can be transmitted and analyzed in a classroom. But White also added a chapter titled “An Approach to Style,” in which he suggests that writing shapes character and character, in turn, is expressed in writing.

For all the attention he pays to rules of grammar and syntax, White insists that one cannot simply teach good writing. “Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?” He offers as an example possible rewrites of Thomas Paine’s famous sentence, “These are the times that try men’s souls”:

Times like these try men’s souls.
How trying it is to live in these times.
These are trying times for men’s souls.
Soulwise, these are trying times.

What, asks White, makes Thomas Paine’s sentence memorable and the alternatives eminently forgettable? If we could answer that question, we would be on our way to answering another question: What makes moral wisdom or virtuous character so much more than a developed ability to think carefully about morality? Good writing has a certain style that cannot be learned simply from attention to the mechanics of language, however important those mechanics may be. Good writing is transmitted in much more subtle ways, hard to characterize, than are possible in a classroom—quite possibly, mostly through reading. It is passed on, rather, as a way of life is passed on—by being immersed in it.

White, in fact, thinks the matter is even more mysterious than I have let on. He cites two lines from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, lines that he regards as especially excellent, of a cow blown by all the winds that pass / And wet with all the showers. Suddenly, White says, “one cow, out of so many, received the gift of immortality. Like the steadfast writer, she is at home in the wind and the rain; and, thanks to one moment of felicity, she will live on and on and on.”

Notice—he appeals to the Muse. The gulf between careful mechanics and good writing is bridged in a “moment of felicity.” A moment of grace. This might take us back to Socrates and Meno, who decided that—since we have no natural aptitude for virtue and since it cannot be taught—we will have to hope that, by some “divine dispensation,” we hit upon right opinions about how one ought to live. Moments of grace, divine dispensations, cannot be programmed or delivered according to any method within our control. The result of what we do in the classroom, whether we produce students who are creative or virtuous, is, as Fish says several times, a wholly contingent matter.

The typical academician today is likely to think that we should be humble about our ability to know the truth but devoted to programmatic attempts to shape and form students’ characters. Fish thinks, rightly, that this locates humility in just the wrong place, in the process giving us a good conscience about shaping the souls of our students. We should be devoted to the pursuit of truth and, aware that no one can say for sure what the effect of our teaching will be in our students’ lives, humbly prepared to keep our hands off those students’ souls.

It ought to be Christians—and, probably, religious believers of other stripes—who know this. We know that we cannot program grace and that a moment of felicity will be required if what we do in the classroom turns out to shape the character of our students in desirable ways. So we should sharpen the intellect as best we can; we should pursue truth in the matters we teach; we should transmit knowledge and the skills required to gain and extend that knowledge—but we should not try to produce or control what must be contingent and felicitous.

I have been developing the thought that attempts to shape students’ souls in the college classroom are misplaced; such attempts are not humble enough about the process of character formation. But I also suggested earlier that these attempts are inappropriate. Having begun in the last few paragraphs to stray into that argument, I need now to develop it a bit more fully.

“You will never,” Fish writes, “hear in any of my classes the some-people-say-X-but-others-say-Y-and-who’s-to-judge dance. What I strive to determine, together with my students, is which of the competing accounts of a matter (an academic not a political matter) is the right one and which are wrong.” I do not disagree, but I think Fish (especially the “on the one hand” Fish, who seems reasonably content with the state of the academy) might ponder a bit more why it is that many students are drawn to the “who’s-to-judge dance.”

They are drawn to this position for the most understandable of reasons—and one for which we ought to have considerable sympathy. Theirs is, essentially, a posture of self-defense. Knowing that many of their beliefs are being deliberately undermined in their classes, and knowing also that (most of the time) they are not yet in a position to articulate a full defense of their views, they take refuge in tolerance. You are entitled to your opinion, which I ought not criticize. And, thankfully, this means that I am also entitled to my opinion, which you ought not criticize. This is what often passes for tolerance in our classrooms, and it is essentially a self-protective device. Still, as I say, we ought to feel some sympathy for students caught, as they regularly are, in such circumstances. They are being taken advantage of in ways that are often inappropriate, sometimes condescending, and occasionally contemptible. They are entitled to grasp at any raft in a storm, even the “who’s-to-judge dance.”

Christians in the academy and colleges that think of themselves as Christian in character should be especially sensitive to these concerns—they know how essential a “moment of felicity” is in the shaping of souls—and especially ready to try to teach in something like the way Fish prescribes. (This will, though—let’s be honest—mean relinquishing a lot of the talk colleges sometimes like to do, and it may mean that a certain kind of educational “conservative” will need to stop praising programs that probe the meaning of life while criticizing “narrow” specialization.) Unfortunately, Fish himself has an underdeveloped notion of what religion might mean for the life of a college or university, and this limits the usefulness of his discussion.

What is, I suspect, his fundamental view comes to expression in a sentence that seems, on the face of it, to be making a certain place for religion in the academy. Arguing that universities and their administrators misuse their power if they seek to impose a moral vision on all who work and study there, Fish offers parenthetically what seems to be a concession: “It should go without saying that such an accusation would not apply to avowedly sectarian universities: Indoctrination in a certain direction is quite properly their business.” With friends like this . . . .

I think it true that colleges whose character is genuinely religious will want to structure their common life (outside the classroom, I mean here) in ways that give expression to their shared beliefs. Even members of the community not entirely drawn to those beliefs will undoubtedly be affected by these structures and will or should understand that it is part of the package they have accepted in working or studying in that setting rather than another. A way of life will be recommended to all and, in some cases, required of all. Granting all that, Fish might do well to ask himself whether there is not a difference between indoctrination and initiation. Those who use the language of indoctrination today are constantly worried (as Fish is in the sentence just preceding the one I quoted above) that some might “impose” their moral vision on others. But imposition is quite a different thing from initiating others—even through requirements—into a way of life that all in the community share. We initiate others into a way of life when we invite them to share burdens and obligations that we ourselves also accept. In so doing, nothing is “imposed.”

With respect to the place of religion in the classroom, Fish’s view could also use more nuance. By the teaching of religion we may mean three different things: teaching about religion, teaching in religion, and teaching into religion. The first of these should be entirely unproblematic, as Fish clearly sees. “Politics, or religion, or ethics would enter the classroom only as objects of analysis and not as candidates for approval or rejection.” There is, though, something I would call teaching in (or within) religion, which goes beyond teaching about it but which, nevertheless, ought to be perfectly appropriate. One may seek to teach from within a particular religious tradition, thinking within its terms and evaluating in light of its norms. This should make good sense from Fish’s own epistemological stance—according to which thinking from within a particular perspective is what each of us always does. (We may also submit that perspective to a kind of critique, but critique is always parasitic on the perspective already in place.)

That leaves teaching into religion—teaching with the aim of making students adherents of a religious tradition (or, as is at least as often the case, subverting the religious beliefs with which they arrived at college). Clearly, Fish would oppose such teaching, and Christians should as well. It evinces a desire to produce what is beyond our control and—at a less rarefied level—confuses the professorial role with the parental or pastoral.

There are, we should note, ways of attempting this that do not involve specific religious traditions or communities. Fish recognizes the lure of Anthony Kronman’s depiction of teaching as a vocation that guides students—especially through study of great texts in literature, philosophy, and history—in a search for meaning in life. The aim, for Kronman, is that students might experience “the idea of eternity in their lives.” This is a train Christians should be very careful about boarding, lest they find themselves offering sacrifice at the wrong altar.

Granted all that, however, Kronman may see something from which Fish resolutely averts his gaze. It is noteworthy that Fish can offer no justification whatsoever for engaging in the academic enterprise as he has (in such pristine fashion) characterized it. And it makes sense, in some respects, that he should not. Many of the justifications one might offer—to produce students who are good citizens, to develop students who are morally sensitive or artistically creative—would obviously drag into the work of teaching aims that are either inappropriate or impossible to promise to achieve. If those are the only sorts of justifications available, then none should be offered to the skeptic who wonders what the worth of higher education is.

But there is something more to say. Fish sees it in a way but never articulates it. To those who would think of students (and their parents) as “consumers” of higher education Fish offers an alternative. These people are consumers in the sense that they pay for the education, but they differ in a crucial way from ordinary consumers. “When I go to buy a new suit I know in advance what I want and need.” By contrast, and by definition, “the recipients of higher education do not know in advance what they need.”

Would that Fish had pressed just a bit harder on this point. For our students—or, at least, some of them—are drawn by an eros they cannot fully explain. It is ultimately—as Plato knew and Kronman’s language hints—a longing for the Eternal. To see that is, of course, to see why Fish is fundamentally on target. Which of us would be so foolish as to suppose we could package the Eternal and guarantee to transmit it to our students?

What we can do is our job—we can teach what we have been trained to know something about. We can seek the truth in it—which, if it is truth, will have a kind of immortality. Of course Fish cannot explain what makes this sort of study worthwhile. The lover can never really quite say what he wants, and the desire to know ends where no classroom can take us: in contemplation of the Eternal. No one can require that. No one can program it. No credit hours can be given for it.

If a liberal education frees us in this way, we should remember that it is not the only way to such freedom. Were we to remember this, in fact, we might be less inclined to suppose that a college education is for everyone. For there is another path to such freedom in contemplation of the Eternal—we call it worship, and it is open to all.

Gilbert Meilaender holds the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.