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George F. Will

The banal iconoclast

WASHINGTON — In 1892, a Massachusetts court ruled that a policeman's speech rights had not been violated by a law forbidding certain political activities by officers. State Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: "The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman."

That thought is germane to the controversy — a hardy perennial — about the rights and duties of college professors. Concerning which, Stanley Fish has written an often intelligent but ultimately sly and evasive book, Save the World on Your Own Time.

A former dean, and currently law professor at Florida International University, Fish is an intellectual provocateur with a taste for safe targets. While arguing against an obviously indefensible facet of the politicization of higher education, he suggests that a much larger facet is either nonexistent or unimportant.

Some academics, he says, either do not know what their job is or prefer to do something else. He recommends a "narrow sense" of the academic vocation that precludes saving the world, a mission for which academics have no special qualifications. Universities talk about making students sensitive, compassionate, tolerant, democratic, etc., but those bland adjectives often are packed with political agendas. The "focused" academic vocation that Fish favors is spacious enough for actual academic skills involving "the transmission of knowledge and the conferring of analytical skills."

Fish's "deflationary" definition of the scholar's function denies radical professors the frisson of considering themselves "transformative" — because "transgressive" — "agents of change." But he insists that his definition would exclude no topic from the curriculum. Any topic, however pertinent to political controversies, can, he says, be "academicized." It can be detached "from the context of its real world urgency" and made the subject of inquiry concerning its history and philosophic implications.

Suggesting bravery on his part, Fish says his views are those of an excoriated academic minority. Actually, it is doubtful that a majority of professors claim a right and duty to explicitly indoctrinate students. But if they do, Fish should be neither surprised nor scandalized — he is both — that support for public universities has declined.

Fish's advocacy of a banal proscription — of explicit political preaching in classrooms — may have made him anathema to academia's infantile left. The shrewder left will, however, welcome his book because it denies or defends other politicizations of academia that are less blatant but more prevalent and consequential — those concerning hiring and curricula.

Fish does not dispute the fact that large majorities of humanities and social science professors are on the left. But about the causes and consequences of this, he airily says: It is all "too complicated" to tell in his book, other than to say that the G.I. Bill began the inclusion of "hitherto underrepresented and therefore politically active" groups.

Then, promiscuously skewering straw men, he says, "these were not planned events" and universities do not "resolve" to hire liberals and there is no "vast left-wing conspiracy" and inquiring into a job applicant's politics is not "allowed" and "the fact of a predominantly liberal faculty says nothing necessarily about what the faculty teaches." Note Fish's obfuscating "necessarily."

The question is not whether the fact "necessarily" says something about teaching but whether the fact really does have pedagogic consequences. About the proliferation of race and gender courses, programs and even departments, Fish says there are two relevant questions: Are there programs "with those names that are more political than academic?" And do such programs "have to be more political than academic?" He says the answer to the first is "yes," to the second "no."

But again, note his slippery language: "have to be," which he uses like "necessarily." The political nature of such curricula is why they often are set apart from established, and more academically rigorous, departments of sociology, history, etc. This political nature may not "have to" influence — may not "necessarily" influence — teaching. But does it? Fish, who enjoys seeming to be naughty, tamely opts for dogmatic denial.

Genuflecting before today's academic altar, he asserts what no one denies: Race and gender are "worthy of serious study." He concedes that "many of these programs gained a place in the academy through political activism." But he says that does not mean that political activism "need be" prominent in the teaching.

Gliding from "necessarily" to "have to be" to "need be," Fish, a timid iconoclast, spares academia's most sacred icons. People who tell you they are brave usually are not.

George Will's e-mail address is georgewill@washpost.com.

© Washington Post Writers Group

The banal iconoclast 11/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 27, 2008 12:53pm]

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