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(Cross-posted from Long Sunday)

Stanley Fish in the NY Times a few days ago:

All you have to do is remember that academic freedom is just that: the freedom to do an academic job without external interference. It is not the freedom to do other jobs, jobs you are neither trained for nor paid to perform. While there should be no restrictions on what can be taught — no list of interdicted ideas or topics — there should be an absolute restriction on appropriating the scene of teaching for partisan political ideals. Teachers who use the classroom to indoctrinate make the enterprise of higher education vulnerable to its critics and shortchange students in the guise of showing them the true way.

Sure, I suppose I agree. In practice even more than in theory. I certainly don’t "indoctrinate" in my classroom. But, on the other hand, I certainly do expose my students to the historical record, positions and representations taken with regard to and within the historical record, and in general a more sophisticated, probing way of viewing the world than the one they brought into the classroom, or so I at least hope. All of which is kosher under Fish’s rules, as everything is always up for argument and discussion, of course. I never, in arguments and discussion, take sides except for pedagogically productive purposes, a play acting of argument to move things along. 

But, I imagine, given the "ideas or topics" that I teach about, and the quality of my non-indoctrinary teaching, there’s a strong likelihood that the students emerge, on aggregate, further "left" than they entered the classroom. In fact, one might well make the argument that the non-indoctrinary approach that someone like me – or perhaps someone like Fish, who knows – takes is nothing more than a subtler, more efficient approach to political conversion – even indoctrination – than, say, the lame dork who shows Fahrenheit 9/11 to his physics class. What if I, in fact, have learned the hidden-in-plain-sight tactics of the mainstream media, constantly staging a debate that in fact is just a show trial, incessantly giving my students the illusion of autonomous participation, when in fact the game is rigged from the start?

It is tough to figure out what Fish would say to this, as he ignores the possibility that the free trade in ideas might itself be deployed in the service of ideological mystification. Is it simply a question of openness to the possibility that the students will truly find their own way? When I was a kid at Catholic school, I learned that the rhythm method was a permissible form of birth control family planning because it demonstrated an openness to pregnancy, whereas the Pill or condoms did not. Fuzzy logic, to be sure. Where does good old fashion coitus interruptus fall on the scale? The nuns didn’t go there, strangely enough.

Last semester, so effectively did I not-indoctinate my class that they found a book whose politics I find very intriguing indeed (William Morris’s News from Nowhere) entirely ridiculous. I couldn’t stop talking about utopia and the limits of fiction and they, almost as a one, took the position that Morris demonstrates through his fiction the absolute impossibility of anarchic socialism. I can’t help but think that they, following their teacher’s lead, underread the book… But perhaps that was just, for me, an acceptable risk, a write-off, in my grand campaign to have my beliefs metastasize through the student body… L’effet du réel, as it were…

In short, I think Fish too is underreading the situation. Or, perhaps, he’s writing in bad faith, fully aware that the free trade in ideas is not only a rhetorical trick, but is in fact the definitive rhetorical trick of our time. "We report, you decide," right? The piece would then be a brilliantly performative piece, engaging in the very tactic of manipulation-via-objectivity that it would be tacticly endorsing.  I wish it were the latter, but I suspect it’s the former. One might so easily imagine an entire army of leftist professors with Fish’s article in hand, bent on ideological domination of the student masses, all in agreement that the best approach is the one of least resistance. Stage debates, employ the silence and cunning of impersonality, shift the goalpost, and reap the ideological benefits in the end. This already, to my mind, is the case (but from a different ideological direction) in US economics departments, where reality itself is conservatively liberal and the price of admission is the acceptance of the status quo.

One other thing: I wonder what Fish would make of politically-polemical or at least engaged writing on the part of academics. Writing occupies such an ambiguous place in our work. The toughest part of my job for my father, who is distinctly not an academic, to understand is the fact that I need to write – that that is what, almost exclusively as I work at a research university, will earn me tenure. There is no way in but to write, and no way to stay but to write, but we are paid to teach. I have to write, but no one is required to read what I write. So where does this fit in his rulebook?

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 27, 2006 at 11:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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