Stanley Fish's Postmodern Take on Academic Freedom

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on October 24, 2014.

Whatever their ostensible subjects, Stanley Fish’s books tend to be about Stanley Fish. His new one, Versions of Academic Freedom, extends the conceit.

Which is not to say that the book is only a “Version of Stanley Fish.” It is also a succinct, well-informed, and often elegant essay.  Fish’s great talent is compression.  In this case he reduces the overgrown jungle of debate about academic freedom in America’s colleges and universities to a lucid list of five alternative positions:

1. The “It’s just a job” school

2. The “For the common good” school

3. The “Academic exceptionalism or uncommon beings” school

4. The “Academic freedom as critique” school

5. The “Academic freedom as revolution” school

These are “ideal types” in Max Weber’s phrase.  Fish no sooner names them than he admits that in the real world the lines blur and people are inconsistent.  Nonetheless, the five-fold typology provides both a map of the larger territory and a path to specific destinations.

It could use up the better part of a review just to explain the five alternatives, so at the risk of further compressing Fish’s compressions, I will leave it at this.  “It’s just a job” treats academic scholars as professional workers who, because they are hired to advance knowledge, need a certain amount of workplace latitude to do their jobs. This is the form of “academic freedom” that Fish says he upholds.  His position on this is consistent with his 2008 book, Save the World on Your Own Time, which I reviewed on my own time as “Night Makes Right.”

“For the Common Good” refers to arguments that granting academic freedom to professors within their disciplines contributes to self-government by militating against facile enthusiasms that can lead to the tyranny of public opinion.  “Academic exceptionalism” extols academic freedom by treating professors as people set apart from everyone else by their unusual talents and therefore deserving of privileges that are denied to ordinary people.  “Academic freedom as critique” projects the freedom of the professors beyond their disciplines to the rest of the social order.  “Academic freedom” in this view is almost synonymous with dissent.  “Academic freedom as revolution” holds that the whole purpose of education is to advance radical reform of society.

Fish’s typology is impressive, but the moment he applies it, it breaks down.  That moment comes straightaway with the case of U.C. Santa Barbara sociology professor William Robinson who got into hot water by sending an email to his students “comparing Israelis to Nazis and asserting that Martin Luther King would have stood with the Palestinians had he been alive.”  Fish proceeds by showing that the proponents of each rationale for academic freedom other than his own (“It’s just a job”) would have (or actually did) side with Robinson.  Fish’s position, by contrast, is that Robinson erred because his explicit goal was to advance a political cause rather than to stimulate “vigorous discussion” of an academic issue.  For Fish, the key question is motive.  He quotes Robinson speaking to the Seventh Annual International Al-Awda Convention in 2009 explaining that he acted out of “growing horror” at the “siege of Gaza,” and he intended, plainly, to advance his own judgments to his students.  In Fish’s view, this crosses the line.  If the conclusion is “ordained” before the inquiry begins, the inquiry is “not academic” and does not enjoy the protection of academic freedom.

In this case, Fish has set himself up rather nicely.  Every other “version” of academic freedom called to the witness stand has given the anti-Semite professor an alibi.  Only Fish can provide unambiguous and principled grounds to say why Robinson abused his privileges as a professor.

But surely something is missing from Fish’s account.  Might it be this?  Academic freedom concerns the pursuit of the truth. There are numerous situations in which the truth is not well-established, or established views are open to reasonable objections, or there are well-argued but mutually incompatible views.  A deep reason why we want academic freedom is to create a context in which reason and evidence on all sides of a contentious issue can be brought forward for thoughtful consideration and debate.  Without such debate, knowledge settles into stultifying orthodoxy.  Because “settled opinion” or orthodoxy is the natural state of opinion on most things, we have to take care to create some special conditions where people are encouraged to look further, question assumptions, and seek evidence that might not otherwise come into focus.  Academic freedom is what we call that special condition.  It is undermined when someone purloins its name not to seek the truth but to propound an opinion or enforce an orthodoxy.

This is a “version” of academic freedom which Fish never mentions.  It may be a distant cousin of his “just a job” school, with which it shares a recognition that the college professor’s role is limited by his professional obligation to raise questions rather than pronounce answers.  The “just a job” approach and the “pursuit of truth” approach, however, differ profoundly on the question of purpose.  Fish argues that every imaginable opinion on every imaginable subject can be “academicized” by posing it as a question.  “Are Israelis just like the Nazis?”  Here are the similarities in this column; here are the differences in this column, and academic freedom is safe.  The “pursuit of truth” version will have none of that.  It is perfectly legitimate in a course on Middle East politics to examine the arguments for and against Israeli policies and Palestinian policies, but posing tendentious historical analogies has nothing to do with pursuing the truth.  It is a tactic for arousing un-reason, for stirring passions, provoking outrage, and treating evidence as the trailing edge of thought.  Contrary to Fish, putting a question mark at the end of rhetorical sledgehammer doesn’t make the sledgehammer into an instrument of genuine academic inquiry, any more than tying a red ribbon around the handle of a real sledgehammer would turn it into a hobbyhorse.

When you think about academic freedom in this light, something in Fish’s account suddenly becomes clear.  His version of academic freedom suits the intellectual temperament that feels no special need for a fixed point or foundation.  He is among those academics and intellectuals who self-consciously detach themselves from the idea that the larger goal is to climb out of Plato’s cave to discover how-things-really-are.

We have various names for this rejection of the search for truth.  The current name is postmodernism, and Fish can indeed be understood as a figure among the postmodernists: ironically detached, smirking at the success of his provocations, and shrugging at the whole game.

It isn’t clear, however, that Fish would accept that appellation.  He likes to think of himself as heir to an older tradition, associated with American pragmatists, who likewise attempted to distance themselves from overarching philosophical syntheses.  Sticking to the local facts is the byword of the pragmatists, though it always seems to turn out that the ambition to stay philosophically modest somehow joins up with the willingness to become an advocate of politically progressive causes.  When Fish casts around for the great thinkers who license his approach, the most recognizable name is Richard Rorty.

Thus when Fish leaves “the pursuit of truth” out of his five-part typology of “positions” on academic freedom it isn’t because he somehow forgot about the idea.  Rather he spends the whole next chapter explaining why the pursuit of truth is irrelevant to the whole issue. This makes it the most interesting chapter in the book—effectively a sophist defending sophistry.  It might be called deep sophistry, if “deep” and “sophist” weren’t at war.

The argument goes something like this:  practice always and everywhere precedes theory. Theory is just abstract afterthought, big questions that mean nothing.  The real action lies at the level of experts who know how to do things and who share with each the inside knowledge that comes from experience.  “A good historian does good history,” the way a good blacksmith makes good horseshoes.  To understand an occupation, look to its basic purposes, which the practitioners understand implicitly.  “This is what we do; others do something else.”

This has a robust tone of no-nonsense.  America is a land of doers, not a garden of abstract dreamers. Fish’s guiding analogy comes from the field of legal studies.  If you want to understand what tort law is, you look to the “goal of redressing wrongs suffered by an individual because of the negligent actions of another,” not to some abstract theory of justice or a branch of economics.

So if you want to understand what “academic freedom” is you likewise look to what professors do (they profess) not to some abstract theory such as “pursuit of truth.” Fish recognizes perfectly well that this is a recipe for humbling humanity.  He knows that people will “fear that without a grounding in some transcendent truth or universal rationality, academic freedom means little more than the freedom of professors to promote whatever ideas they like.”  And that, in that light, “academic work” become “no more than a branch of rhetoric.” And he puts the tombstone on the grave he has dug:

An academic who doesn’t believe in truth, objectivity, and a mind-independent reality, it is said, can’t possibly be serious.

Fish would like to deny this observation, of course.  He is “serious” in some sense, and he uses the word “truth” in some sense.  But the sense in which he deploys such words are the nickels, dimes, and pennies of conversation.  On the larger questions, Fish is resolutely mute.  “When I offer an interpretive judgment, I’m not declaring a position on truth.  I’m just pronouncing on a question that has arisen in the course of my engaging in the practice of literary criticism.”

Fish is, in his own phrase, an exponent of “disciplinary competence.”  We can trust the licensed practitioners (the duly appointed university faculty) to uphold the only standards that count because they are the only ones that know what those standards are.

This is, of course, a clever argument up to a point.  But mere cleverness never really wins an argument. In the end, we are all quietly asking the question that Fish denies is legitimate:  Is it true?

We ask that question because we have a restless need to know that isn’t satisfied by the posturings of experts.  Good historians sometimes write bad history, and better history can be written by non-historians.  Academic literary critics often miss the mark and rank amateurs sometimes have much keener insights into books and poems.  The tort lawyer who knows everything about redressing wrongs due to negligence and nothing about actual justice is a menace to society.  Think of John Edwards.

Versions of Academic Freedom tells us much more like this about Fish’s peculiar view of himself and his world.  It is a short book—a 128 pages, not including a brief coda and an appendix in which Fish provides the text of a speech he gave at Rice 2012. It is testimony to his skill as a writer that nearly every page invites the reader to argue back.

Some conservatives I know are seduced by Fish’s hard line against using the classroom for political advocacy and for “doing justice.”  They mistake him as an ally in the fight to restore genuine academic standards to America’s colleges and universities.  The mistake is profound.  Fish’s bulwark against the politicization of academe is made of balsa wood and paste.  Without a foundational idea of truth, the idea of academic freedom can be appropriated for any kind of advocacy, however pernicious.  Fish is no fool.  He admits this, describing his position as “a monster”—

I combine an antifoundationalist epistemology with an insistence on maintaining a foundational structure that is, by my own admission, artificial, historically emergent and, therefore, challengeable; and I do so in the conviction that without such as foundation—supported by nothing but itself—a certain mode of experience will be lost.

Fish’s one great worry is that the life of the detached academic could be troubled if the politicking goes too far.  This makes him an opponent of some of the things I too oppose, such as the movement among many American academics to boycott Israel.  But that hardly makes him an ally.  A man who can accommodate any idea merely by punctuating it with a question mark is no one’s ally, nor even a very good academic.

Image: Screenshot from Youtube

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