July 23, 2006

Spanking Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is perfectly entitled by academic freedom and our more general freedoms in this country to believe that There's No Such Thing as Free Speech... and It's a Good Thing, Too, but he's not entitled to misstate the record on Kevin Barrett without expecting some criticism. Fish claims that there is a dichotomy of views on Barrett's adjunct teaching at U. Wisconsin this fall, with supporters who

insist that it is the very point of an academic institution to entertain all points of view, however unpopular. (This was the position taken by the university’s provost, Patrick Farrell, when he ruled on July 10 that Mr. Barrett would be retained: “We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.”)


In the rest of the column, Fish argues that the primary determinant of Barrett's future should be whether he would focus on teaching, not propagandizing—implying throughout that there was no such question raised. Bzzzzt! Thanks for playing, but that's a clear misreading of Farrell's statement, according to the U. Wisconsin press release from July 10:

"There is no question that Mr. Barrett holds personal opinions that many people find unconventional," Farrell says. "These views are expected to take a small, but significant, role in the class. To the extent that his views are discussed, Mr. Barrett has assured me that students will be free—and encouraged—to challenge his viewpoint."

Maybe I'm not the postmodernist reader that Fish is, and there may be some hidden differance that redistributes power somehow in those words, but I think Farrell said that he asked Barrett if he'd spend his time propagandizing or teaching, and Barrett promised that he'd be teaching. In other words, Barrett met the criterion Fish established.

So where did Fish pull the quotation from? There's a passage at the end of the press release where Farrell does discuss the pressure exerted from the outside based on Barrett's ideas. In most of the world, we call this context. Was Farrell factually incorrect that the pressure was politically motivated or based on Barrett's ideas? Should a university resist such pressure? Put simply, Fish cherry-picked a quotation, ignored what didn't fit his theory, and wrote the column.

One shouldn't be too surprised by Fish's larger argument, since his thesis fits with his other writings on academic freedom: To Stanley Fish, there is no such thing as free speech, academic freedom has nothing to do with our society's system of political freedoms anyway, and faculty should keep their politics out of their jobs.

This perspective on the politics and history of academic freedom leads Fish to a convoluted definition of academic freedom as the right to define one's area of study or teaching.

But in fact, academic freedom has nothing to do with content.... Rather, academic freedom is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis.

Miraculously, this definition is entirely divorced from what one may conclude from study, which Fish doesn't consider to be covered by academic freedom. Fish's redefinition is the immaculate conception of academic freedom, somehow removed from the potential taint of actual ideas.

Not only does it cut colleges and universities off from a rich source of political support—viewing faculty as society's whistleblowers—but Fish's redefinition is ultimately a sterile view of faculty. As Timothy Burke has noted many times, we shouldn't strip faculty of the passion that motivates them in teaching or research.

Hat tip to Keith Hoeller, an AAUP member from Washington State, for pointing me and others on the AAUP list to Fish's column. See my earlier comments about Barrett if you want more of my blather on this topic. Update: Ann Althouse has more. ACTA blog takes 70% of Fish's article to say that, yes, by golly, we need to uphold academic standards, and aren't we glad Fish finally recognized the limits of academic freedom. Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom on July 23, 2006 11:08 PM |