Save the World on Your Own Time

Stanley Fish
Oxford University Press

Stanley Fish thinks college professors have two main duties: 1) "introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry they didn't know much about before," and 2) "equip those same students with the analytical skills that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research should they choose to do so." What they should not be doing is precisely what so many of them now openly aim to do: "develop moral capacities," "foster the conditions necessary for a deliberative democracy," "promote social justice," and so on. These duties, Fish argues, are best reserved for "preachers, therapists, social workers, political activists, professional gurus, inspirational speakers." In pressing this distinction, Fish picks apart claims that academic freedom and free speech entitle one (in Fish's words) to substitute a soapbox for the teacher's podium. In one passage that illustrates his point especially well, Fish revisits Columbia president Lee Bollinger's controversial remarks upon introducing invited speaker Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran. When Bollinger told Ahmadinejad that he felt the need to express his "revulsion at what you stand for," he was, writes Fish, "saying implicitly, ‘here's where Columbia University stands.'" A better approach, the author argues, would have been to "academicize" rather than politicize the proceedings, by posing questions and objections "in a way that distanced them from their emotional force"--"Many are worried that... How would you reply to the contention that...?" In short, Bollinger should have "presented himself as someone who was delivering the mail rather than as someone who was making the news." In later pages Fish touches on deeper issues of university governance and institutions' relationships with the tax-paying public. His arguments are strong and his examples illuminating throughout, and they contain lessons for K-12 schools, too. Find the book here.

Coby Loup is a Policy Analyst/Web Editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute