Stanley Fish for Conservative Chair

Ashley Thorne

His latest entry in his Sunday New York Times blog niche has drawn 528 comments so far. That’s not unusual for Stanley Fish; on a good day, Think Again has been known to reel in 600-800. Here's ours.

In his current post Fish ponders University of Colorado Boulder’s proposal to appoint a chair of conservative thought and policy. NAS has also opined on this unhappy idea. He argues that political diversity has no bearing in the classroom, for:

Even in courses where the materials are politically and ideologically charged, the questions that arise are academic, not political. A classroom discussion of Herbert Marcuse and Leo Strauss, for example, does not (or at least should not) have the goal of determining whether the socialist or the conservative philosopher is right about how the body politic should be organized.

We agree with the statement in parentheses: courses and professors should not try to advance a political agenda. Or at least we think we agree. With Fish, it is sometimes hard to tell. Courses and professors should not advance a political agenda, but shouldn't they provide the student an opportunity to search for the truth? The classroom that presents Marcuse (the Marxist theorist who gave us the idea of "repressive tolerance") and Strauss (a philosopher who is not easily modeled as a conservative) would seem to be the right place to weigh the merits of contending views of personal freedom. Fish seems to be offering a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater solution: to keep the classroom free of political indoctrination, eliminate intellectual seriousness altogether.

There are better approaches. The professor, for instance, can teach both Marcuse and Strauss fairly, accurately, and without taking sides. But the students should realize that Marcuse and Strauss offer diverging paths, and both can't be right. The goal should be to enable students to make wise judgments, not to make those judgments for them, or worse, to say that judgment itself is impossible or meaningless. Fish, as usual, beckons us into the void of nihilism.

Still, we stand (cautiously) by Fish’s “this-is-how-it-ought-to-be” position, to the extent that he eschews using the classroom as a tool of political pronouncement. We believe that no amount of scale-adjusting will bring about true intellectual diversity. Indeed, the disjointing of liberal and conservative academic thought reminds us of Calvino’s fable, The Cloven Viscount, in which the viscount is sliced down the middle by a cannonball. The halves go their separate ways, each one believing itself independent of the other.

In order for universities to be whole, not half-bodied, they need some serious stitches to mend the now open wounds of political partisanship in college courses. Although we don’t agree with UC Boulder’s throw-the-conservatives-a-bone strategy, perhaps this is a moment of opportunity.

Of the University’s president G.P. Peterson, Fish writes, “He acknowledged that the professor of conservative thought didn’t have to be an actual conservative… Taking him at his word, I hereby apply for the job.”

For his conservative political thought and conservative aesthetics curriculum, he lists the fundamentals: Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, T.S. Eliot, Allan Bloom, etc. “The only sticking point,” Fish writes, “might be the salary. The suggested figure is $200,000…That, I’m afraid, is pretty low-end.”

If he can get past the low-end wages (or if UC Boulder can be persuaded to raise them), we think Stanley Fish is the man for the job. Not because he represents conservative thought well, but because he himself is something of a cloven viscount. He is a master at arguing passionately for one issue, then a heartbeat later, taking up the opposite stance with as much sincerity. At one point, he devoted1 himself to building the Duke University English Department out of the most politicized savants that he could find, while simultaneously denouncing those who demurred as "racist, sexist, and homophobic." At another point, he champions unbiased education. He moves adeptly from position to position, and though he’d never call himself “balanced,” Fish certainly personifies two halves of the body of perspectives on academia.

 Perhaps in him we find all in one person that quality so spare in higher education: intellectual diversity.

1"In recent years, the Duke English department has hired some of the nation's most prominent scholars, many of whom specialize in politicized approaches to literature, including feminism and Marxism. In a letter to the campus newspaper this semester, Stanley Fish, the department's chairman, warned the university community about the NAS chapter, calling the national organization 'racist, sexist, and homophobic.' Later, he suggested in a letter to the provost that NAS members, with their "illiberal" attitudes toward new scholarship, should not be appointed to university committees that deal with promotion and tenure matters.

Scott Heller. "Colleges Becoming Havens of 'Political Correctness.'" The Chronicle of Higher Education. November 21, 1990. 

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