Monday, May 24, 2004

Stanley Fish argues here, in a New York Times op-ed that people from the academy should stay out of politics:

Marx famously said that our job is not to interpret the world, but to change it. In the academy, however, it is exactly the reverse: our job is not to change the world, but to interpret it. While academic labors might in some instances play a role in real-world politics -- if, say, the Supreme Court cites your book on the way to a decision -- it should not be the design or aim of academics to play that role. ...

My point is not that academics should refrain from being political in an absolute sense -- that is impossible -- but that they should engage in politics appropriate to the enterprise they signed onto. And that means arguing about (and voting on) things like curriculum, department leadership, the direction of research, the content and manner of teaching, establishing standards ? everything that is relevant to the responsibilities we take on when we accept a paycheck. These responsibilities include meeting classes, keeping up in the discipline, assigning and correcting papers, opening up new areas of scholarship, and so on.

For example:

Analyzing welfare reform in an academic context is a political action in the sense that any conclusion a scholar might reach will be one another scholar might dispute. (That, after all, is what political means: subject to dispute.) But such a dispute between scholars will not be political in the everyday sense of the word, because each side will represent different academic approaches, not different partisan agendas.

But analyzing welfare reform, if done properly, involves analyzing the consequences -- it will lead to the conclusion that some approaches work well, and others don't. Else, why do it at all? And those conclusions will necessarily feed directly into political debates -- at least if the political debates themselves have any integrity (which, these days, is open to doubt).

Now, there is still a difference between academic studies of an issue, and pure policy advocacy -- between studies that test whether something works, and polemics that start from the premise that it does, and proceed from there. But Fish goes farther than pointing out that difference; he advocates complete disengagement from the political process. It should not be the "design or aim", he says, of academics to "play a role in real-world politics" -- any role, not even the role of keeping politicians honest.

Even the task of educating kids to be good citizens is too political for Fish:

The idea that universities should be in the business of forming character and fashioning citizens is often supported by the claim that academic work should not be hermetically sealed or kept separate from the realm of values. But the search for truth is its own value, and fidelity to it mandates the accompanying values of responsibility in pedagogy and scholarship.

This, then, is Fish's view on "why we built the Ivory Tower": as a place to search for pure truth. And, as a place where truths can be kept in splendid isolation, lest someone in the grubby real world actually benefit.

And this is a particularly odd thing to read coming from a Dean of the University of Chicago -- a school whose faculty, particularly the Straussians, are hardly shy about dabbling in politics. Though they certainly do make a practice of holding their particular ideas about truth very close to the vest... Oops! Got my Chicago schools confused -- Fish was a dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which is a different school. Darn. I hate when that happens; thanks to my email correspondant for the correction.


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