Night Makes Right: Stanley Fish's Candelabra of Truth

Peter Wood

                Stanley Fish’s clever new book, Save the World on Your Own Time, continues a set of themes he has enunciated in his New York Times education blog. Principally he argues that liberal education is an end in its own right and ought not to be confused with other ends such as improving students’ moral character, changing their political views, or equipping them for a career. If we follow his great injunction, “Do your own job,” he promises we will free the university both of left-leaning faculty members using their classes to agitate for social reform and right-leaning critics who thrive on scare stories. 

                Fish packs numerous errors and misjudgments into these pages and I won’t be the only reader who would like to arm-wrestle him point by point. Few writers can be as consistently irritating as Fish and he has an unmatched talent for making the preposterous sound reasonable. For example, he argues here that liberal education can have no effect (or no predictable effect—his qualifiers always bear scrutiny) on the character of students. That is indeed preposterous. Colleges and universities almost inevitably shape the motivations, the ambitions, and the sense of what is worthy or unworthy of their students. These are matters of character, and a college puts its stamp on them whether it wants to or not. Every time we notice some distinctive set of qualities as characteristic of the graduate of Bryn Mawr, Chicago, or Antioch we are noticing something that Stanley Fish says cannot exist. 

                Of course, add enough qualifiers, and we would have to grant Fish’s point. No college can completely determine the stamp it puts on the character of its students. Some students will be touched lightly or not at all, and shaping of motivations, ambitions, and moral attitudes is inevitably influenced by other factors as well: by the wars, politics, and cultural movements of a particular time and place. Fish is adroit at creating strawman versions of the positions he attacks, thrashing them to pieces, and then declaring victory. 

                While strawmen must tremble at his passing, clay-footed idols don’t have much to worry about. Fish is expert at appearing to be a provocative dissenter from the status quo while actually supporting it. Ostensibly Save the World on Your Own Time chastises the gung-ho politicizers of the college classroom—the sort of professors who would begin each class with a venomous put-down of President Bush. Fish indeed finds some exemplars of this kind of avidity and smartly raps their knuckles for misunderstanding the proper role of the college professor. He finds a splendidly doltish foil for this in the final chapter: a Kent State English professor, Mark Bracher, who vibrates to the notion that English professors need to do much more to advance the cause of social justice. There is some pleasure in watching America’s leading sophist peel the leaves off Professor Bracher as though he were an overcooked artichoke.

                But this is largely a feint. It turns out by the end of the book that, if Fish is peeved when opinionated Leftists try to sell their views to students, he genuinely loathes traditionalist critics of the contemporary university, who he depicts as both ignorant of liberal learning and profoundly hostile to the university as an institution. The greatest danger to the university in Fish’s view is the threat of trustees and legislators intruding on work that is rightly the domain of the faculty. Remember the great injunction, “Do your own job.” The faculty job is to teach and pursue research. The trustees’ purpose, if they have any legitimate purpose in Fish’s view, is to raise money. His corollaries to his first principle are, “Don’t try to do someone else’s job,” and, “Don’t let anyone else do your job.”   In Fish’s view, the category of those who are impermissively trying to do someone else’s job are legislators who ask colleges to do more and more while cutting state subsidies, and “governors, trustees, donors, newspapers, etc.” 

                What exactly does Fish want in higher education? Save the World offers two possibilities: a surface reading and, possibly, a deeper set of claims. The surface that Fish offers is the straightforward claim that “the task of higher education” (by which he means only liberal arts education, not, for example, business school) is to do two things: “introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience; and equip those same students with the analytical skills—of argument, statistical modeling, laboratory procedure—that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research after a course is over.” A few pages later he adds, “If you’re not in the pursuit-of-truth business, you should not be in the university.” 

                That’s a surprising claim coming from Stanley Fish, who is widely—and I think accurately—seen as a kind of academic sportsman, always seeking to be on the leading edge of the next intellectual trend, regardless of whether it advances the pursuit of truth.   Fish is known more for ingenious argument than scrupulous regard for the effort to discover how things really are. And in that respect, Save the World on Your Own Time, doesn’t disappoint. It has characteristic Fish-ian maneuvers such as an extended passage that turns postmodernism into “a perfectly ordinary description of how knowledge is established” identical to “the scientific method,” which has unfortunately been exaggerated by “some postmodern thinkers” into “an unearned conclusion that nothing that has been established as knowledge is to be trusted.”   The same passage includes an account of proponents of intelligent design as “relativists” for their desire to keep a debate open that evolutionary biologists have ruled closed. 

                We are clearly in the hands of an author capable of feats of prestidigitation beyond the scope of most academics. And precisely for this reason, it is hard to escape the sense that Save the World on Your Own Time doesn’t mean what Fish lays out as his ostensible argument—or doesn’t mean only that. The deeper set of claims I think he is putting across have to do with his vision of liberal learning. He favors the “pursuit of truth,” but the truth he holds up as the rightful quarry of the academic hunter is a caged rabbit. Professors ought to be able to teach about any subject, he argues, provided they “academicize” it. Academicizing runs through the book as the constant counterpoint to politicizing. “To academicize a topic is to detach it from the context of its real world urgency, where there is a vote to be taken or an agenda to be embraced, and insert it into a context of academic urgency, where there is an account to be offered or an analysis to be performed.” [Italics in the original]

                He gives numerous examples of academicizing, but the one he starts with is perfect. You academicize the question, “is George W. Bush the worst president in our history?” by studying the question, rather than the answer. “You might begin by inquiring into the American fascination, even obsession, with ranking.”

                Oh. So in the Fish-ian version of liberal arts, it is perfectly within bounds to focus a class on the question, “Is George W. Bush the worst president in history?” Students won’t interpret that as a transparent ruse by which a professor asserts his political views, provided that the professor pretends to be interested in the topic of “ranking” as an American cultural phenomenon. The purposes of liberal education that Fish has endorsed—to introduce students to knowledge and traditions of inquiry and equip them with analytical skills—will not be harmed by this device. To the contrary, the example is irrelevant as long as the academicization proceeds a pace. And the “pursuit of truth?” Well, if the only truth involved is fidelity to the procedures of academicization, we are safe on that score too. 

                This is quietly to shunt aside almost every question that people might actually want to answer. What is the best regime? Is marriage a worthy institution? How best should society deal with those who break its laws? How should I live my life?   What do I owe my family? My friends? Is science the only reliable path to truth? 

                We might pile up hundreds of such questions and look to higher education as the place where they are rightly posed as questions, and as a place where we might reasonably hope to move towards the right answers. But not in Stanley Fish’s university. There we can only hope to examine such “questions” as specimens of rhetoric that can perhaps be analyzed into their parts and connected to other cultural preoccupations.

                At several points in this book Fish accuses traditionalist critics of “bad faith,” but the term seems much more applicable to Fish himself. He ostensibly upholds traditional academic values such as teaching knowledge and pursuing truth, but bit by bit, he subtracts the substantive meaning of these words. By the end, they seem nothing more than empty proceduralism. The profusion of “studies” that seem most ideological and least committed to a come-what-may pursuit of truth—“women’s studies, African American studies, Chicano studies, Latino studies, cultural studies, gay and lesbian (and now transgender) studies, postmodern studies, and poststructural theory”—are not a source of worry for Fish. They are rather “the source of much of the intellectual energy in the liberal arts.” Moreover, since “race, gender, and class are serious topics and as such worthy of serious study,” these fields have an abundance of “legitimate academic projects.” He allows a mild observation that the identity politics departments “gained a place in the academy through political activism,” but now that they are established, there is no reason why they can’t join in academicizing their subjects. 

                Thus Fish’s notion of truth-seeking is so porous as to permit virtually everything, and he is willing to countenance as the sort of “knowledge” that colleges should teach matters that are trivial, debased, or propagandistic, provided they are dressed in a suitable academicized fig leaf. 

                At one time, I would have characterized Fish’s quick resort to using the resources of the university to get his way as a version of the might-makes-right argument. At the bottom of many of his arguments was a grin that said, “because I can.” Save the World on Your Own Time seems to move beyond that to a different kind of claim, or perhaps one more profoundly nihilistic. Fish stills wants what he wants and uses his considerable rhetorical talents to get it. But he is now arguing that on matters of deep human significance, the university has nothing at all to say. It has only a hermeneutic circle in which it can go round and round, forever polishing itself and admiring its own gleam in the darkness. Fish’s new position is an assertion of the power of not knowing and ruling even the desire to know as off-limits. He seems to have moved to the idea that night makes right.   

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