Fish Tales: Teaching Stanley How to Read

Peter Wood

Stanley Fish in his New York Times education blog on Sunday, November 30, considers “Views from Both Sides” on the issue of “political correctness.”  One side is represented by AAUP president Cary Nelson’s new book, No University is an Island:  Saving Academic Freedom.  To represent the “other” side, Fish nominates the new volume published by the American Enterprise Institute, The Politically Correct University: Problems, Scope, and Reforms.  Fish is in his newfound temperate, Solomonic mode, finding much to praise on both sides.  Is the university awash in excesses of political correctness, or is this an illusion fostered by right-wingers dissatisfied with their inability to win intellectual battles on the merits of their arguments?

I will let the article speak for itself on most points, but since Fish singles me out among the contributors to the AEI volume, I’d like to respond.  He cites me seemingly as an exception to the general amity he proclaims.  Cary Nelson concedes that political correctness, while blown up out of all proportion by conservatives, is nonetheless a real phenomenon and, “We can do better.”  The editors of the AEI volume, Robert Maranto, Richard Redding, and Frederick Hess are likewise congratulated by Fish for work that is non-hysterical, moderate, and “soberly statistical.”  Fish is happy to endorse the conclusion that “the predominance of liberals in the academy is not ‘the result of intentional discrimination.’”  The dearth of conservatives is all the result of “personal preferences.” 

That brings him to the topic of “intellectual diversity” and my essay, “College Conformity 101:  Where the Diversity of Ideas Meets the Idea of Diversity.”  Here is what Fish says: 

The call for intellectual diversity is, as the volume’s authors acknowledge, less philosophical than strategic; it is designed to embarrass liberal academics who are dedicated to what Peter Wood calls the “diversity regime” in academia. Liberals, says Wood, “cannot repudiate the value of intellectual diversity without kicking the traces out from under their own doctrine” in which race, class, and gender become proxies “for intellectual differences.” Wood frankly embraces the “appropriation” by his side of a term that he says (correctly) is already “an aggressive ideology that stigmatizes and attempts to drive out anyone who does not … support it.” Why not turn it to our advantage, he implies, and hoist them on their own petard? The answer is that it would be better if all sides acknowledged that “diversity” is a word that has lost whatever usefulness it may have had and has become an umbrella rationale for importing political criteria into the process of academic decision-making. We should be done with it.

“Why not turn [diversity] to our advantage, he implies.”  Interesting.  What I actually said, as opposed to “implied,” is that: 

As broad as our enthusiasm for diversity now is, and as entrenched as it has become in the universities, it remains at odds with our deepest moral intuition.  We remain a republic founded on ideas of freedom and equality.  In subtle but profound ways, Powellian diversity contradicts both these principles.  Most Americans cannot quite express the contradiction, but they sense it.  And in the end, this intuition will be diversity’s undoing.

Powell being Justice Lewis Powell, who laid out the current diversity doctrine of mutually enhancing, educationally enriching group identities in his opinion in the 1978 Supreme Court decision in, Bakke v. Regents of the University of California

So Fish thinks it would “be better if all sides acknowledged that ‘diversity’ is a word that has lost whatever usefulness it may have had” and that, “We should be done with it.”  And Wood (c’est moi) says… pretty much the same thing.

So why does Fish attribute to me the view that we should keep “diversity” going just to torment the campus left?  Fish is an immensely gifted reader, at least of Milton, but perhaps he was scanning the pages of The Politically Correct University a little too hurriedly.    He says Wood “frankly embraces the ‘appropriation’ by his side of a term” diversity.  I don’t embrace it, frankly or otherwise.  He attributes to me the idea that conservatives should “hoist [diversiphile leftists] on their own petard” by insisting on intellectual diversity on campus.  I don’t.

I did, in one paragraph of the essay, mention that David Horowitz and some others had called for this approach.  But then I added my dissent.  Embracing “diversity” in that kind of maneuver, I wrote, puts “the battle over core principles” into the “the rhetoric of relativism.”  Instead of speaking in favor of the pursuit of truth, it puts conservatives on the side of speaking for variety for the sake of variety.  And I added that, as a tactic, it had proven barren.  “So has the intellectual diversity argument forced a new debate about the nature of diversity on campus?  I don’t think so […] so far it has made little headway.” 

How Fish can read this as a call to appropriate the term “diversity” to advance opposition to racial preferences and identity politics on campus is baffling.   I presented an analysis to the effect that “diversity” was sinking under the weight of its own contradictions and its variance with more deeply held American values.   Out of this he has conjured an imaginary essay in which I call for clever subterfuges to steal the vocabulary of the campus left.  Go figure. 

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