Always Lobotomize

By Cary Nelson

Save the World on Your Own Time. Stanley Fish. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

To Fredric Jameson’s famous motto “always historicize,” which involved, among other things, a call to contextualize the understanding of texts, Stanley Fish has responded with a book rejecting all forms of contemporary political contextualization. The book mounts a giddy, principled, single-minded endorsement of educational irrelevance. Its motto, “always academicize,” is promoted for every course within every discipline. “To academicize a topic,” he tells us, “is to detach it from the context of its real world urgency” and focus on its antecedents, its rhetorical history, and its argumentative claims. Those claims should be “offered as objects of analysis rather than as candidates for allegiance,” “dissected and assessed as arguments and not as preliminaries to action on the part of those doing the assessing.” Faculty who do anything else are not doing their jobs. Fish thus endorses a New York Times op-ed rejoinder that complains, “under Fish’s rule, a faculty member in the South in the 1950s could not embrace and urge the idea that segregation is wrong.” Not only can Fish faculty not advocate for fundamental social justice, but students are to be silenced as well. “Preferring (or dispreferring) values on the part of anyone, teacher or student, is just not a proper academic activity.” As Fish baldly asserts, students have no right to freedom of expression that encompasses advocating for their views: “Students do not have any rights except the right to competent instruction.”

Fish is proud of the results his method will produce: “There will be less and less pressure in the class to come down on one side or the other and more and more pressure to describe accurately and fully the historical and philosophical antecedents of both sides. A political imperative will have been replaced by an academic one. There is no topic, however politically charged, that will resist academicization. Not only is it possible to depoliticize issues that have obvious political content; it is easy.” No one is likely to disagree with Fish that it is beneficial for students to acquire skill at dispassionately dissecting arguments. Nor are many likely to argue that a class rigorously restricted to that and only that would build valuable intellectual discipline. But if the whole enterprise of higher education were to be so constrained, students would be deprived of the benefits of committed debate, of advocating for one point of view, as well as the opportunity to test and learn advocacy skills in preparation for using them in the world outside the university. Higher education would be deprived of its real-world relevance. “Always academicize” would amount to “always lobotomize.”

Fish is not, it is important to realize, saying that competing views need to be balanced in the classroom, an argument he sensibly rejects. He is instead proposing abstract philosophical and rhetorical analysis as the universal and exclusive model for everything we do in higher education. Values as such have no place in higher education save as objects of analysis. To his credit, he follows this logic through and applies it to the campus as a whole. It is here that we realize that Fish’s disinterested, detached, intellectual neutrality does not simply declare the university classroom a place designed for one and only one kind of intellectual activity. Fish’s classroom is intended to advocate for political disengagement as an ideal and a lifestyle.

A key moment is when Fish turns to higher education employment practices and endorses an amoral neoliberalism. Should a university commit itself as a matter of principle to assuring its employees a living wage and health care? His answer: “no.” A university should do so only if the prevailing practices in the industry compel it to do so. “The goal,” he writes, “should be to employ the best workers at the lowest possible wages. The goal should not be to redress economic disparities by unilaterally paying more than the market demands.” With that administrative advice, the classroom has become the campus as a whole, teaching wage slavery and exploitation to students by example. One can agree with Fish that the business of higher education is education while taking a more comprehensive view of the ways a campus educates.

Universities, Fish summarizes, should enforce “the principles appropriate to their mission and not principles that belong to other enterprises.” Trying “to improve the lot of the laboring class . . . has everything to do with politics. . . . It is not an intention appropriate to an educational institution.” What began as an argument against advocacy in the classroom—“agendas imported into the classroom from foreign venues,” presumably Berkeley or Moscow— quickly becomes an argument freeing universities from moral or social responsibility in any of their affairs. Apparently, an employer devoted to disinterested rhetorical analysis is not an employer at all. Yet, in many communities universities set the prevailing wages and benefits. They have nowhere to look for guidance save to themselves and to the history of arguments for and against workplace justice. Fish urges us to study those arguments but refrain from applying them on campus. If a university acts on such values, it is “using the power it has to impose a moral vision on those who do not share it, and that is indoctrination if anything is.” Perhaps Fish should ask cafeteria workers what values they and their unions share before worrying about imposing health-care and retirement benefits on them.

Fish’s self-congratulatory amorality partly reflects the quixotic imperialism of making rhetorical analysis central to everything the university does. Part of what is wrong with Save the World on Your Own Time is thus an exceptional degree of disciplinary blindness. In trying to capture higher education’s core mission, he writes: “An unconcern with any usefulness to the world is the key to its distinctiveness.” While a philosophy professor with the right subspecialization might agree, it is not likely that an engineering or anatomy professor would. Having housebroken the humanities and social sciences, Fish extends the rhetorical regime he prefers for them to disciplines that would find it rather puzzling.

But Fish’s model presents problems for humanities and social science disciplines as well. Thus, when he asserts that “the judgment of whether a policy is the right one for the country is not appropriate in the classroom,” he has weakened debate in history, education, law, medicine, sociology, and political science classrooms. Not all law faculty would agree with Fish that law schools should ignore the “tasks and problems” graduates will encounter as working lawyers. Indeed, Fish’s narrow goal of introducing students to new materials and equipping them with new skills would, for many disciplines, involve real-world applications. Fish avows, in addition, that he does not have “the slightest idea of how to help students become creative individuals,” but many painting, music, dance, and poetry teachers believe they know something about encouraging creativity and drawing it out of their students. “Citizen building,” he adds, “is a legitimate democratic activity, but it is not an academic activity.” Yet many disciplines make crucial—if indirect—contributions to citizen building. One can incorporate such indirection into a curriculum. Fish’s contention throughout the book that poetry makes no claims on us as human beings or social agents is one that I have spent much of my career disproving.

Given that any effort actually to impose this immensely constrained vision of what is appropriate to higher education would violate academic freedom, Fish is effectively compelled to redefine academic freedom to fit his model. He begins, fairly enough, by characterizing it as “a matter of guild protectionism”: “It is the freedom to do one’s academic job without interference from external constituencies.” But of course he has already defined the “job” very narrowly indeed, and thus he is able to offer a uniquely restrictive brief for what academic freedom must protect: “Academic freedom, correctly (and modestly) understood, is not a challenge to the imperative always to academicize; it is the name of that imperative.” “One violates academic freedom,” he adds, offering broad warrant for faculty dismissals, “by deciding to set aside academic purposes for others thought to be more noble or urgent.” He then severs his radical redefinition of academic freedom from all the activities he wants to prohibit: “The moment a teacher tries to promote a political or social agenda, mold the character of students, produce civic virtue, or institute a regime of tolerance, he or she has stepped away from the immanent rationality of the enterprise and performed an action in relation to which there is no academic freedom protection because there’s nothing academic going on.”

Although elsewhere in the book he is careful to reject a number of arguments from right-wing organizations, in this fundamental claim he takes the effort of the political right to housebreak higher education farther, perhaps, than anyone has before. Imagine the regimes of classroom surveillance and review necessary to police the line between “academicizing” and the very broad definition of advocacy Fish assails. Imagine trying to guard against that “moment” when you cease merely analyzing the rhetoric of an argument and allow a moment of affirmation. Then ask yourself this question: since Fish does not always explicitly distinguish between teaching and publication, to what degree does his narrow concept of academic freedom apply to scholarly writing as well?

As a position paper about one faculty member’s vision of higher education, Save the World on Your Own Time is useful in its very monomaniacal consistency. As is the case with Fish’s online New York Times columns, where he drafted most of these arguments, one can readily take issue with the book. Indeed, the best thing about his columns is often the articulate comments readers make. Fish has never, one might add, been noted for having deep convictions. He takes up opportunities for rhetorical intervention and pursues them relentlessly. Yet he is also more than willing to enforce his point of view, and he has offered administrators, trustees, and politicians a series of weapons they can use to police the academy.

The book opens with a charming account of the restless crankiness that, by Fish’s account, took over his life when he stepped down as a dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago. If my colleagues there are to be believed, the crankiness was in evidence earlier. Fish considered himself qualified to defund faculty research when it did not match his own sense of intellectual priorities. I am not certain that is the best use of administrative power when the research agendas in question encompass substantial constituencies and active, ongoing publishing activity worldwide. Those faculty who had research agendas and a sense of mission Fish endorsed loved him. If your letter from the dean concluded with the admonition to “save the world on your own time,” you were less likely to be an enthusiast.

Cary Nelson is president of the AAUP and professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.



With reference to Cary Nelson's review of Stanley Fish's recent book "Save the World on Your Own Time" in the May-June issue of Academe, Professor Nelson has written an informative and critical review of Fish's thought-provoking book.  Certainly Stanley Fish doesn't need anyone to defend him.  However, in the interest of fairness, and with what I regard as the integrity of the academic profession at stake, I feel compelled to reinforce what I believe to be Fish's central point.

That point is evident in his book's title: "Save the World on Your Own Time."  This piece of advice is mandated if we are to protect the classroom environment from becoming the bully pulpit of any disciplinary expert who has a strongly-held opinion on any relevant controversial subject (e.g., a political or religious perspective).

Contrary to what some may contend, the typical undergraduate classroom environment is not always a level playing field where all opinions can be expressed freely without fear of reprisal (e.g., a student's fear of humiliation or grade discrimination at expressing an opinion that directly conflicts with that of the instructor).  A level playing field will be maintained only if the instructor maintains a neutral stance, does not advocate openly for any particular point of view, and stimulates discussion and debate by a variety of pedagogical devices.

However, if instructors decide, often with sufficient justification, that it would be educationally desirable to express a strongly-held personal opinion, they have a professional obligation to not only inform the students a priori it is their own personal opinion, but to also inform them that other qualified experts hold differing opinions, and to insure that these equally valid differing opinions are also presented and discussed adequately. Only then will students be appropriately alerted to the true controversial nature of the matter, and know they are not being indoctrinated into adopting only one among several differing opinions.

Undergraduate college classrooms are necessarily a special place, hallowed educational ground where academic freedom for both faculty and students must not only be permitted but actively encouraged.  The desired environment is one where conventional wisdom, currently accepted knowledge, societal norms and claims of new knowledge can all be questioned and challenged freely without fear of reprisal.  Advocacy, in contrast to the academic's mission of advancing and disseminating knowledge, involves presenting argument and evidence that is favorable to only one among several possible positions on any controversial subject.  Hence, as in the title of Fish's book, advocacy violates a fundamental aspect of the academic's mission, and therefore it should only be included with prior disclosure and full discussion of competing opinions.

James A.

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