Stanley Fish vs. civic engagement

Last Friday, Stanley Fish wrote an essay in the New York Times attacking the “Civic Responsibility of Higher Education” and everything that document stands for. Fish is a brilliant Milton critic, controversialist, and builder of academic empires. It’s said that he’s proud to be the model for Morris Zapp, the cigar-chomping, aphorism-dispensing, fast-car-driving, bed-hopping hero/villain of two David Lodge novels, whose ambitions include being the best paid English professor in the world and saying everything that can possibly be said about Jane Austen, so that everyone else will have to shut up about her. The “Civic Responsibility of Higher Education,” meanwhile, is a sober and idealistic statement of the university’s role in democracy, written by some distinguished members of my organization’s Advisory Board and signed by 528 college presidents.

Fish raises some valid concerns. Those of us who work to enhance the civic purposes of higher education must keep in mind the dangers of that enterprise. Colleges are not necessarily good at creating active citizens. Trying to motivate young people to be active in civil society and politics can undermine the search for truth. Scholars can squander their credibility by opining on issues beyond their competence. Tom Ehrlich, one of the authors of “The Civic Responsibility of Higher Education,” quotes a similar warning written by Judge Learned Hand in his magnificent style:

You cannot raise the standard against oppression, or leap into the breach to relieve injustice, and still keep an open mind to every disconcerting fact, or an open ear to the cold voice of doubt. I am satisfied that a scholar who tries to combine those parts sells his birthright for a mess of pottage; that, when the final count is made, it will be found that the impairment of his powers far outweighs any possible contribution to the causes he has espoused. If he is fit to serve in his calling at all, it is only because he has learned not to serve in any other, for his singleness of mind quickly evaporates in the fires of passions, however holy. (“The Spirit of Liberty,” p. 138)

This is a useful caution, yet I think Fish is wrong to defend the “Ivory Tower” and disparage civic education and engagement in universities. I’d like to respond to four major points in his essay.

1. Colleges should do just one job, the only one for which they are qualified: “performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level.” They should have but one goal: “the search for truth.”

A college that pursued only knowledge and that exclusively hired people qualified for pure scholarship would look like the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton or All Soul’s College, Oxford. It would resemble a university minus the professional schools and occupational training programs, the departments of performing and creative arts, the offices of cooperative extension and tech transfer, the chapels and chaplains, the student centers and dorms, the teaching hospitals and lab schools, the athletic teams and marching bands. Frankly, it wouldn’t admit undergraduates, because education is not itself the “search for truth.”

Such an institution might be a nice place to work, but it’s hard to see how it could be funded. Fish warns, “don’t surrender your academic obligations to the agenda of any non-academic constituency?parents, legislators, trustees or donors.” This sounds right until you realize that these “constituencies” pay our salaries, and they must believe that we are serving valuable purposes. At no time in our history have Americans been satisfied with knowledge as the main purpose of higher education. They’ve paid to train the clergy, to educate young people, to expand access to the middle class, and even to win bowl games, but not primarily to pursue the truth. Consequently, faculty and staff are not (and have never been) solely expert at scholarship and science. They have many other skills.

2. There is a fundamental difference between scholarly argument and what we conventionally call “politics”; and the two should never mix. For example, “a dispute between scholars [about welfare reform] will not be political in the everyday sense of the word, because each side will represent different academic approaches, not different partisan agendas.”

This is a difficult issue, and I’m not satisfied with my own thinking. There is–and should be–an important difference between discussions of policies and issues in the academy, on the one hand, and in the political arena, on the other. But it’s relatively hard to put your finger on the difference. It’s certainly not true that academics take different sides on political issues because of their different academic approaches–as if all those who favored welfare reform were statistical modelers and those who opposed it were ethnographers. Ideology is a major (and appropriate) part of academic debate, as Fish well knows. Conversely, debates in legislatures, courts, and regulatory agencies are not devoid of controversy about research methods.

So there must be a large gray area. Nevertheless, we want scholars to think somewhat differently from activists and politicians: to take a longer view, to be less influenced by immediate tactical concerns, to be less committed to parties, to be more openly engaged with their intellectual opponents, to offer more complex and nuanced views. These values are more attainable in academia than in politics, and we should protect them. Yet they are compatible with “civic engagement,” done right.

3. “Universities could engage in moral and civic education only by deciding in advance which of the competing views of morality and citizenship is the right one, and then devoting academic resources and energy to the task of realizing it. But that task would deform (by replacing) the true task of academic work: the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching.”

Here Fish ignores a form of civic education that’s compatible with the classical liberal belief in personal freedom. He assumes that civic education means herding students along particular paths. It can be something quite different: expanding the breadth of their choices as adults by helping them to experience various forms of political and civic participation (along with various forms of artistic creativity, scholarly inquiry, appreciation of nature, and spirituality). Unless young people are explicitly taught about citizenship, they will not be free to choose to be active citizens, because they will know little except consumerism, entertainment, and careerism.

4. There is a zero-sum relationship between scholarship and engagement. “Performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level is a job big enough for any scholar and for any institution. And, as I look around, it does not seem to me that we academics do that job so well that we can now take it upon ourselves to do everyone else’s job too. We should look to the practices in our own shop, narrowly conceived, before we set out to alter the entire world. …”

Fish is right about certain research programs in certain disciplines. If you’re a student of Milton, you might learn something relevant by participating in current debates about religion. But such participation is equally likely to distract you from your best sources of information, which are in the library. There is, however, such a thing as research that contributes important new methods and knowledge to its discipline as a result of close engagement with communities.

For example, I doubt that Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues at the University of Indiana could have made crucial contributions to the theory of collective action if they had not worked closely with people who manage ?common-pool resources? (forests, fisheries, irrigation systems, and grazing lands) on several continents. They have drawn advice and inspiration from these people even as they have provided technical assistance and derived generalizable lessons. Likewise, Jane Mansbridge?s discovery of regular norms in consensus-based democratic organizations arose from her close and collaborative work with such groups.

These examples of engaged scholarship epitomize the “search for truth.” They also provide a way to address a sense of alienation that professors often feel. Many of us enter the profession with idealistic motivations, but find that we only contribute incrementally to the knowledge of fellow specialists, with whom we interact sporadically at conferences or by email. Engaging with communities can be profoundly rejuvenating.

As a Dean, Fish has clashed with “members of Congress, Illinois state representatives and senators, the governor of Illinois, the governor’s budget director, and the governor-appointed Illinois Board of Higher Education.” He says that he views all these people as “ignorant, misinformed, demagogic, dishonest, [and] slipshod.” They simply refuse to leave scholars alone to pursue knowledge (at public expense.) This kind of relationship with the outside world must be downright exhausting for Fish. He might find that civic engagement is a relief.

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  1. Pingback: Elinor Ostrom, 1933-2012 « Peter Levine

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