May 2, 2005

Dissing Fish

It's time to come out of the closet, I suppose: I've just finished redrafting a book proposal on academic freedom after 9/11, which was going to focus a few years ago on the Sami Al-Arian case here at USF. But publishers made clear they were not going to be interested in a book just on Florida universities (no matter how interesting, and I received a very nice compliment from one publishing director during that process), and in the meantime we've had Ward Churchill, MEALAC, the subpoenas hanging over Drake University for a few weeks, David Horowitz, and Jonathan Bean at Southern Illinois University, as well as others. So the book project is now Citizen-Scholar: Defending Academic Freedom and Principles in Today's America, and, yes, I know this is coming on top of a bunch of good books on the corporatization of universities, works focusing on the internal dynamics on campuses (such as speech codes), and Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt's Office Hours as well as Michael Bérubé's forthcoming Liberal Arts, but I have my own perspective on this.

Today, I've been working on the last chapter to include in my pitch, a chapter where I firmly disagree with Stanley Fish on the definition of what I call the intellectual fiduciary of colleges and universities. A snippet in the full entry...

Here is an excerpt from the chapter's current form:

Milton scholar Stanley Fish has long argued that "there's no such thing as free speech, and it's a good thing, too," as the title of his most famous essay on the subject claims. Fish's argument has three parts. First, he points out that speech is not without context; it does not exist absent some disagreement or attempt to use the speech to promote to end. Second, he argues that no one really believes in completely free speech; everyone has their limits of toleration for unpopular content. Third, he claims that the First Amendment has historically only been concerned with political speech, to provide safety for political dissent. According to Fish (and Robert Bork), only in the last four or five decades have courts expanded the First Amendment to privilege non-political expression; to him, the older test balancing interests is preferred. Thus, he argues, it is legitimate for colleges and universities to ban some definition of hate speech on campus, if a university defines the content as both untruthful and harmful. The logical consequence of these arguments is that the purpose of a university is divorced from the democratic assumptions of our society. In a 2005 column attacking the idea of intellectual diversity, Fish argued that the job of a university is unrelated to democratic citizenship:
Citizen building is a legitimate democratic activity, but it is not an academic activity. To be sure, some of what happens in the classroom may play a part in the fashioning of a citizen, but that is neither something you can count on—there is no accounting for what a student will make of something you say or assign—nor something you should aim for. As admirable a goal as it may be, fashioning citizens for a pluralistic society has nothing to do with the pursuit of truth.

While Fish and I share similar concerns about the ideological attacks on colleges, universities, and their faculties, we disagree on campus free speech and the foundations of the intellectual fiduciary. To Stanley Fish, the sole goal of a university is to seek out truth.

But Fish is wrong on several counts.... [three reasons and then]

Finally, Fish's reasoning removes colleges and universities from their political context. In the United States, we have a far greater notion of free speech than anywhere else in the world, and it is part of a deep-rooted political culture. In the middle of World War II, the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring schoolchildren to say the pledge of allegiance and explained, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." Decades before the creation of modern tests for restraint of speech, the Supreme Court recognized the broader principle. To remove academic freedom in the U.S. from this context cuts faculty off from the greatest possible political support for their work.

This is the first chapter that will be finished, because it doesn't require nearly as much resesarch as the others. With some luck, it will be finished along with grades next Monday. And then wish me luck with publishers! In any case, I think I'll be driven to finish much of it during the summer.

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Posted in Academic freedom on May 2, 2005 12:52 PM |