Not caught in Fish’s net

Posted on May 13, 2008


Last night we attended a talk by Stanley Fish entitled “Save the world on your own time – what the university professor should (and shouldn’t) do”. Wrongly assuming the title to be tongue in cheek and meant the opposite, I went along hoping to find some stories to add to 89 reasons. How wrong I was.

I’ll summarise Fish’s argument before giving ten reasons why I disagree with just about everything he said.

Fish starts by asking two related questions: what is the job of higher education?, and what is it that those employed in higher education are trained and paid to do? The answer (to both) is to introduce students to bodies of knowledge and methods of enquiry, and to equip those students with analytical (etc) skills to move confidently in that field.

Nothing else, nothing more and nothing less

It is a “dereliction of duty” to attempt to include anything else. Fish argues that “one does less when you see yourself as a bearer of a higher calling”. He is highly critical of both the individual academic or institution that harbours a role in “other jobs”. Such distractions include: tackling racism; poverty; war; aiming to respect diversity. He criticises institutions that have mission statements aiming to produce “effective and productive citizens …(who)…contribute socially, ethically…”. This, he says, confuses a hoped-for effect with what can actually be taught.

To follow higher noble goals is to abandon pedagogical contract

Instead, Fish argues, class should be value-free. Argument of the day should be “academicised – detached from the context of real world urgency”. This, he argues will “change the inclination (of students) to change the world, into an urge to understand”. His contention is that such “academicisation is the only thing that should happen in the classroom”.

So here’s why I wish I had watched Coronation Street instead.

1. I was stunned at how bad a teacher Stanley Fish is. Sure, he’s a great communicator. But a truly terrible teacher. Fish claimed this talk to be like a classroom, and staged it as a “conversation”: he read a section then allowed some questions which he answered. But a conversation involves equal participants, this was a demonstration of bullying. I have never seen such rudeness, belittling and ridiculing of questioners by a supposed teacher. Fish is clearly of the ‘sage on stage’ variety of teaching, seeing teachers as experts to whom the students are grateful for his knowledge. Indeed, his central premise is one of having expertise the students don’t have. He even gave an example of a student who had read the text before class – “marginalise her as soon as possible” he advises. So much for partnerships and collaborative learning experiences.

(note, Tony points out this may be Fish’s attempt at Socratic dialogue. It didn’t work, it was hideous and uncomfortable).

2. Fish has an extremely narrow interpretation of academia. One passionate drama student in the audience talked about engaging experiences with a teacher. Fish completely dismissed this point as being “irrelevant – drama is not academic” he says. So too for Zoology (you go that brave young teacher who tried to stand up to the bully). In fact, any subject that might have even the slightest connection to the real world is entirely dismissed by Fish. This, of course, supports his circular argument: by defining academic learning as entirely abstract one is free to be critical of any deviation from such abstraction.

3. Fish dismissed a suggestion that some values are inherent to a discipline. The same Zoology teacher suggested that respect for animals was a part of the knowledge/skills/value set students needed to learn in Zoology. Fish rubbished this, arguing that this is an ethical view of our society, but it is not universal.

4. Fish argues that the whole institution should be very narrow. He proudly tells the tale of a university that stated “The university does not have a foreign policy”. He argues that universities “have no role” in climate change or social justice. He is critical of universities who divested funds from apartheid South Africa, or of college sports teams concerned with conditions of the manufacture of their sports equipment. This, he says, introduces a ideological/political/moral stance where the “only policies an institution should have, directly concern academic matters – plagiarism for example”. I think this is abhorrent. An organisation, especially a university, must have values. We should model best practice in all areas, instead of the ‘corporate pirate in all things but academic purity’ Fish seems to suggest.

Interestingly, Fish shows a hole in his argument: “the (institutional) investment manager’s only concerns are financial and legal obligations”. Sure, financial, but why legal? And if legal, why not social justice?

5. The central tenet of Fish’s argument is academisation. He gives the example of the question “is George Bush the worst President in history?”. He would academicise this question by “subjecting it to academic interrogation”, in other words, abstract it until it is irrelevant and meaningless: talk about the US obsession with ranking; ask whether Presidents comment on ranking etc. Proudly, he states “then there is less urgency in the actual question”. I do not know how he would deal with the Holocaust, if I interpret his model correctly, one would explore the historical precedents, the social pressures that brought Hitler to power, etc. Would he use the words “this was bad”? I doubt it.

6. Fish’s notion that to include other material means not doing your job – a “dereliction of duty”. This assumes that all knowledge of importance is somehow abstracted from context. Social justice, is seem as a core organising principle for social sciences, yet Fish argues that

Teaching social justice is an anathema and retrograde

7. Fish’s argument has no room for the Academy as critic and conscience of society. When someone raised this, and pointed out it was a requirement of universities in New Zealand, Fish decried this, saying “get that changed as quickly as possible”. Some of us like that role, indeed hold it dearly.

8. Fish doesn’t follow his own advice. Instead of an academicised discussion exploring both sides of this issue fairly, he gives a value laden invective that argues only his position as rational.

9. Fish derides others’ arguments by pedantic misinterpretations. He calls any intrusion of value “indoctrination”. He delights in pulling apart a critic who argues that “it is possible to teach values without unacceptable indoctrination”. Fish says this proves his point – clearly if there is unacceptable indoctrination there must be acceptable indoctrination, but by definition this is impossible therefore value based teaching must all be unacceptable. By extension of his argument if a ‘situation resulted in a nasty murder’, then that situation would always be bad as there is no such thing as a non-nasty murder.

10. Fish declares passion in teaching to be acceptable, it is alright to inspire students, BUT that passion must not be based on what the subject matter can do for the world. I find this bizarre. Surely the whole point of teaching the arcane subjects that Fish defines as academia is that while abstract and obscure they might be, they can be used to shed different light on the world’s problems – ie be given some relevance and context.

Clearly I was never going to agree with Fish: my institution is vocational; my discipline is practical; my training is contextual; my teaching is participatory and empowering; my job is about education for sustainability. It is a shame Fish is such a good speaker and writer, it gives unwarranted credence to his ideas.