I like it when a book surprises me. I was prepared by the title not to like this book but discovered that I appreciated the clear thinking and fundamentally sound argument Fish makes in this book. The argument is that professors in higher education should devote themselves to doing the best work possible in teaching students the content and skills outlined as objectives for a particular course, and to pursue their chosen lines of research–nothing less, nothing more, nothing else, at least in the context of their employment in a college or university.
Fish writes this book as a vigorous response to pressures to justify the work of colleges and universities in an increasingly “bottom line” conscious environment. He sees universities responding with language about education for citizenship, promoting respect for diversity, developing student ethics of service, and so on and so forth. He strongly contends that faculty who are doing any of this are not doing their job, which is to teach their discipline. He would contend that when faculty attempt to do this, they are shifting from teaching to indoctrination. And this is what I particularly appreciate in his argument–the honest admission that many of these efforts are thinly disguised attempts at indoctrination that most students readily recognize and dislike.
Fish even goes so far as to argue that efforts to use this kind of rhetoric with state legislators in the context of public university funding is counterproductive toadying. Legislators just keep cutting funding and complaining about high university costs (so how are universities to pay for the cost of education if not enabled to raise tuition or secure state funding or other funding sources, which often bring their own “strings”?). Fish would argue that the academic exploration of one’s discipline and instruction of that discipline with students who choose to take these courses is its own justification.
Between chapters on “doing your job” and “not doing the job of others” and “not letting others do your job” he has a surprising chapter in praise of the work of administrators when it is well done. Equally, he skewers administrators who fail to be zealous advocates for what he sees as the academic enterprise and fall into the temptation of “sucking up” to legislators and the critics of higher ed from the world outside the academy who he sees as not understanding the real work of higher ed.
There was one point where I felt that Fish was disingenuous in his argument. In his response to David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” he argues that you can somehow be intellectually even handed even when a department’s political (and religious?) makeup is heavily skewed in one direction, even if readings appropriate to the subject being taught reflect that bias, so long as the professor does not advocate for a particular political perspective but keeps things on academic terms. It is true that no good hiring or tenure process can ask about these things. However, any candidate, unless they are consciously deceptive in their writing and online presence, can easily be identified as sharing or opposing the departmental consensus in these matters and would have, I believe, a difficult time getting hired, no matter how good one’s scholarship. Likewise, the “intellectual flavor” of a department heavily skewed in one direction cannot help but communicate to students what points of view are “out of bounds”, even if no formal advocacy or indoctrination takes place.
He also takes on Anthony Kronman, whose book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life I recently reviewed. He would argue against Kronman that it is not the professor’s role to encourage the personal reflective enterprise on “great questions and great ideas” that Kronman advocates. The professor’s role is only to teach the conversation. Student’s may do with it whatever they will. And this is another place where I might part with Fish. While it is wrong, I believe, for a professor to advocate that a student adopt a particular view on ultimate questions, I wonder whether the intellectual detachment he promotes to be equally problematic. Should not students have the opportunity to personally engage the ideas and research they are doing? Is there never a place where they be given the opportunity to articulate their own conclusions, even tentative ones, to what they are learning? In this, the result shouldn’t be to privilege or sanction certain conclusions but to promote engagement with the academic material presented. It seems to me that Fish promotes a university free from ideological indoctrination, which I favor, but one that seems “soulless”. So my question for Fish is “why must we sacrifice the soul of the university to obtain the academically pure enterprise you are advocating?”
(My review of Education’s End may be found at: https://rtrube54.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/review-educations-end-why-our-colleges-and-universities-have-given-up-on-the-meaning-of-life/)