Fish Tales

The world may not have turned upside down, but it certainly has been knocked on its axis by a recent unprecedented event: Stanley Fish has written an article (link requires subscription) that InstaPundit favorably links and that has even led the redoubtable Eugene Volokh to conclude, “SHOCKING! I almost entirely agree with this article by Stanley Fish.” And yes, this is, apparently, the same Stanley Fish who was once eviscerated here and even put on display on this lowly blog here.

Fish’s new essay, “Save the World on Your Own Time,” is an articulate, calmly and coolly reasoned, and — dare I say it? — principled argument that academics, both faculty and administrators, who speak out on controversial public issues unrelated to the academic mission of teaching and research violate “academic morality” and undermine the university’s claim to independence. He quotes with favor a famous 1967 Report of the Faculty to the President of the University of Chicago, written in large part in response to faculty and student protests against war and racism:

The 1967 report declares that the university exists “only for the limited … purposes of teaching and research,” and it reasons that “since the university is a community only for those limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.”

Always fearless, Fish follows his new principles wherever they lead, such as opposing opposition to sweatshops that make university-purchased products and favoring paying the lowest wages the market will allow.

It is the obligation of the [university’s] investment managers to secure the best possible return; it is not their obligation to secure political or social or economic justice. They may wish to do those things as private citizens or as members of an investment club, but as university officers their duty is to expand the endowment by any legal means available. The general argument holds also for those in charge of maintenance and facilities. The goal 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. If you want to work for economic reform, pressure Congress to raise the minimum wage or otherwise alter conditions you could not and should not try to alter as an educational institution.

Fish argues forcefully that universities exist in a separate sphere, with their own “academic morality” that requires strict neutrality regarding political matters of public controversy. Crossing that line endangers the academic mission and academic freedom itself.

I am not saying that putting pressure on South Africa or Israel and agitating for workers’ rights are not legitimate political actions. I’m just saying that political actions are what they are, which means that not everyone (either in the polity or the academic community) would approve them, which means that in endorsing them a university aligns itself with a partisan position, which means that sectors of the general public will come to regard the university as a special-interest lobby and decline to support it.

What gives? Who knows. Maybe Fish has turned Zebra and changed his spots. (Although if spots be thought of as principles, then Stanley Fish — or at least the old, familiar Stanley Fish — is spotless. See his THE TROUBLE WITH PRINCIPLE, Harvard U. Press, 1999.) If I were a cynic, I might be tempted to conclude that Fish, now that he’s moved into the upper reaches of Deandom, has cast his eye upon a university presidency as a nice, next move, and has begun concocting a balm of responsible, trustworthy institutional loyalty to put out some of the fires ignited by his highly incendiary arguments in the past, arguments he employed against his opponents with all the intellectual subtlety and precision of napalm.

Whatever Fish’s purpose, this principled argument that academic freedom requires academics to refrain from injecting themselves, and hence their institutions, into public controversies that do not involve the academic mission of teaching and research is powerful. The problem is not with Fish’s argument; it is with Fish. What are we to make of this argument, coming as it does from the same person who argued, in the same publication, only a little over two years ago, that academic freedom is bunk? (Link requires subscription)

Academic freedom is a bad idea, a dubious principle that:

* Confuses eccentricity with genius and elevates pettiness, boorishness, and irresponsibility to the status of virtue.

* Evacuates morality by making all assertions equivalent and, because equivalent, inconsequential.

* Empties history of its meaning, so that actions proceeding from entirely different motives and agendas become indistinguishable as instances of individual preference and free choice.

* Promotes a regime of relativism by refusing to make judgments, on the reasoning that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Of course, in typical Fishian fashion Fish then added:

These are deliberately provocative statements, but before elaborating and defending them I want to complicate them by saying that I am in favor of academic freedom and would do anything in my power to protect it.

But even his defense of academic freedom, less than ringing in any event, here conflicts with his recent defense of it discussed above.

But why would I want to protect something I have just called a bad idea? The answer is that it is the idea or ideology of academic freedom I oppose, not the practice. Or, rather, I oppose the rhetoric that usually accompanies it, the rhetoric of evenhandedness, open-mindedness, neutrality in the face of substantive conflict, autonomy of thought and choice. It will be my contention that these honorific phrases are either empty and therefore incapable of generating a policy (academic freedom or any other) or are covertly filled with the very partisan objectives they supposedly disdain. I will argue, in short, that the vocabulary of academic freedom (or at least the vocabulary of its pious champions) is a sham and a cheat.

In the end, as usual, arguments are evaluated not on the basis of their intrinsic merit but rather on the basis of what is good for … Fish.

I am an academic professional and, like any member of any profession, I want the norms governing my labors to be devised by me and people like me, not by outsiders. I want, that is, to be free of interference, and if the mantra of academic freedom will help to keep my would-be wardens at bay, I’m all for it, not as a morality but as a guild practice; and I am for it even as I set myself the task of debunking the argument it offers to the public.

Fish then proceeds to debunk the desirability, or even the possibility, of the principle that underlies most arguments for academic freedom, which happens to be same principle that underlies colorblindness, the principle of official neutrality.

This is where liberal neutrality, academic freedom, and the principle of “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” get you, to a forced inability to make distinctions that would be perfectly clear to any well-informed teenager….

What should we make of all this … inconsistency, this elevation of no principles into a principle? I suspect, nothing. Fish himself has told us what to make of his arguments. As I quoted in my first discussion of him:

The passion I display when debunking the normative claims of neutral principle ideologues is unrelated to the passion I might display when arguing for affirmative action or minority-enhancing redistricting. To be sure, there might be a contingent relation in a given instance if the outcome I dislike was brought about in part by neutral-principle rhetoric; I might then attack the rhetoric as part of my attack on what it was used to do. But I might turn around tomorrow and use the same rhetoric in the service of a cause I believed in. Nor would there be anything inconsistent or hypocritical about such behavior. The grounding consideration in both instances . . . would be my convictions and commitments; the means used to advance them would be secondary, and it would be no part of my morality to be consistent in my handling of those means. (THE TROUBLE WITH PRINCIPLE, p. 8)

As I concluded in that post, which seems even more apt now, I’ve never understood why anyone bothers to argue with Fish. Since he’s announced in advance that he doesn’t necessarily believe what he says, why should anyone listen to him?

UPDATE – See more Fishing here.

Say What? (5)

  1. Kevin Drum February 5, 2003 at 3:41 pm | | Reply

    I blogged about this yesterday and was puzzled.

    What’s your take: was Fish condemning only advocacy in the classroom, or advocacy generally by academics?

    I can understand the former, but the latter seems pretty unsupportable.

  2. John Rosenberg February 5, 2003 at 6:59 pm | | Reply

    I read him to mean both, at least when the public speaking is in any way associated with the university.

  3. John Holbo February 5, 2003 at 9:32 pm | | Reply

    Hi, I suppose this whole Fish story is starting to seem small, after Powell revealed to the UN what a big fish got itself caught. But I blogged at some length yesterday about a possible motive for Fish to be saying what he is saying (besides the desire to move up from dean to president, which is a very plausible motive.)

    It all goes back to the infamous Sokal affair.

    Check it out if you are curious.

  4. Porphyrogenitus February 6, 2003 at 10:57 am | | Reply

    One of the reasons I was surprised was that it seemed different from what he’s said in the past.

    But I’m willing to let a guy change his mind. In and of itself, the column seemed fine. (I tried to be careful in my closing, but probably should have written “would include anyone *holding* the views Fish is *voicing* here”, rather than “would include anyone voicing the views Fish is voicing here”, which is a distinction, when I wrote this post:

    I also wrote a reply to John Holbo’s post, here:

    Perhaps, also, it’s true that Fish doesn’t necessarily believe what he says. But I was engaging the ideas more than the man. If he expresses contra ideas later, then well I’ll either adress those or ignore them (as the case may be).

    In some ways there’s nothing wrong with someone who provokes debate on important subjects even if he’s simply an Advocatus Diaboli; Fish may not believe anything (there’s a reason why I expressed surprise that a Po-Mo such as himself was making such an Aristotelian argument as he was in that article). But that’s a matter for him and his integrity. It’s possible, IMO, to adress ideas expressed by someone one would otherwise have distaste for, even.

  5. […] of healing, divination, and control over natural events.] For discussion of Chief Fish, see here, here, here, and […]

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