March 06, 2004

Fighting Words from Fish

In the past few months I have been saying nasty things in these columns (and also on radio and television) about members of Congress, Illinois state representatives and senators, the governor of Illinois, the governor's budget director, and the governor-appointed Illinois Board of Higher Education. I have called these people ignorant, misinformed, demagogic, dishonest, slipshod, and have repeatedly suggested that when it comes to colleges and universities either they don't know what they're talking about or (and this is worse) they do know and are deliberately setting out to destroy public higher education.

-- Stanley Fish, "Make 'Em Cry"

Stanley Fish takes on the Republican legislators (see this and that) and gets taken out for lunch:

In response they have sent me nice notes, trekked across the state to visit me in my office, invited me to talk with their colleagues, gone out and bought my books (and actually read them), taken me to lunch, and promised to arrange a dinner with the governor. (Not likely to happen, for, as far I can see, there's nothing in it for him.)

For Fish, the lesson is clear: university administrators and academics must abandon their defensive posture in favour of something more aggressive and perhaps even more offensive:

They have been diplomatic, respectful, conciliatory, reasonable, sometimes apologetic, and always defensive, and they would have done much better, I think, if they had been aggressive, blunt, mildly confrontational, and just a bit arrogant.

I admire his spirit.

And I agree that academics should be more assertive, and support the idea of "allowing no false statement by a public official to pass uncorrected and unrebuked."

But though I concur with Fish's suggestion that "defending the academy in bottom-line terms is a losing proposition unless you want to reach the conclusion that most of what you do should be abandoned," I'm troubled by the all-or-nothing stakes of the game he wants to play. If you're going to go down, Fish suggests, it's better to go down fighting:

Well, maybe nothing [will work]. Maybe we'll just have to learn to live (and perhaps die) in this brave new world where money is withdrawn from public higher education at the same time that ever more strict controls are imposed.

The problem is that Fish can imagine only two possible positions. On the one hand, the failed strategy of timid acquiscence to the bottom line: "redescribing the enterprise in the vocabulary of what they do" by "retelling it in the vocabulary of business or venture capitalism." Fish is surely right that this won't work for the humanities: let's face it, English literature will never be a money-maker. On the other hand, an outright refusal to even attempt to translate the language of the academy into terms that might be understood by those outside academe:

Instead of trying to justify your values (always a weak position), assume them and assume too your right to define and protect them. And when you are invited to explain, defend, or justify, just say no.

I have to believe in the possibility of a compromise between these two positions.

Again, I believe Fish is right to insist that the first strategy doesn't work, and I think it's about time someone said so. Sure, academics can attempt to redefine the academic enterprise as a type of business enterprise, but nobody will really believe them (they probably won't really believe it themselves), and when the axe falls, the humanities will be on the chopping block. But the second strategy won't work either. Yes, it might work for a celebrity academic, who might get to have dinner with the governor. But institutional viability depends on sustaining supportive relations over the longer term. And if academics don't even try to explain what they do to those from whom they seek support, how can they expect that support to continue? If the language of venture capital doesn't fit, does it then follow that there are no other languages and vocabularies available with which to explain the value of the academy to the world outside its doors?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 6, 2004 10:29 AM

The assumption seems to be that this is simply a sales & marketing problem...that is, that academia is doing things right and the ignorant world outside fails to understand the deeper values. Isn't it worth considering that at least part of the problem is that much of academia's current activity is misdirected?

When an institution is challenged, it is often wise for it to engage in a little self-examination, not simply assume that the challengers are ignorant fools.

Posted by: David Foster at March 6, 2004 11:27 AM

David, Self-examination only goes so far. It seems that many on the right will not be satisfied until the academy (at least in the humanities) "admits" that its entire enterprise is misguided and rotten to the core. I don't think it's fair for anyone to be asked to "admit" that or "self-examine" oneself into that position.

Posted by: Adam Kotsko at March 6, 2004 03:27 PM

Wait! You mean it's not misguided and rotten to the core?

Hmmm ...

Posted by: Chris at March 6, 2004 04:38 PM

I'm surprised this hasn't inspired more discussion. Perhaps because there's not much to add to IA's great post.

Posted by: DJW at March 6, 2004 10:09 PM

"Isn't it worth considering that at least part of the problem is that much of academia's current activity is misdirected?"

I certainly think it's worth considering the possibility that part of the problem lies in the academy. I suspect that some of academia's current activity is misdirected. I don't really believe that academia is rotten to the core, though of course I have some serious issues with graduate education and the academic labor system.

"that is, that academia is doing things right and the ignorant world outside fails to understand the deeper values."

Studying Shakespeare doesn't pay the rent. So if the world outside says that something has value only if it has direct pragmatic use value, what can the academy offer in defense of Shakespeare? It will be difficult to avoid some kind of "deeper values" argument that will sound suspiciously elitist and, well, academic. Attempts to defend Shakespeare on bottom line grounds will generally ring hollow (or comical) and will probably fail.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 6, 2004 10:23 PM

IA, I don't think that many mainstream conservatives have a problem with fact, I expect that most would rather see a lot *more* teaching of Shakespeare.

"Conservative" and "philistine" are not synonyms.

Posted by: David Foster at March 6, 2004 10:51 PM

Yes, well. Stanley Fish is Stanley Fish, and as such is probably risking less by talking to legislatures that way than the "we" whom he advises to emulate him would be. If he were to lose his post for his antics, it'd be in The New Yorker; if the president of Bumfuk State or even more prominent public universities were to behave that way, the universities could do anything to them with impunity. Heck, I've seen it happen to presidents of prestigious private schools who tried to buck the trustees. So I'm wary of his "we should."

Posted by: Mr Ripley at March 6, 2004 11:14 PM

"Conservative" and "philistine" are not synonyms.

You try telling that to Lynne Cheney.

Posted by: chun the unavoidable at March 6, 2004 11:15 PM

If you want to sway over neo-cons, remind them the British administered their empire with a force of Classics and History majors.

Posted by: kd5mdk at March 7, 2004 01:02 AM

I would need a flow chart to figure out when Stanley Fish proposes to stand on principles, which principles he proposes to stand on, and when he's arguing for clever versions of expediency, or that expediency is principles.

What I don't need a flow chart for is to know that Stanley Fish has a ham-fisted grasp of the working art of politics, and therefore ought to recuse himself from it. He's right that mere timidity will not help public universities at this moment, but neither will damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Even a suicide charge can be a winning tactic, but only if it gains you enough public sympathy to have your martyrdom reverse your political condition.

At this juncture in history, the problem is not state legislatures, insensitive to academic realities as they may be. It's the gulf between civil society and academic culture, between the public sphere and intellectual labor, between the people and the professors. Fish doesn't take that gap seriously at all, and therefore doesn't see how urgent the need to renew a covenant with American society is, how much we have to explain again, with fresh eyes and confident voice, why higher education matters, why the liberal arts makes our citizens stronger, why our economic future is tied into critical thought. That will take humility, it will take acknowledging where we fall short, where we have settled for the dull compulsions of social inevitability, where we have come to doubt ourselves, where we have become hopelessly inward turning. It will take a combination of mea culpas and unyielding challenges.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at March 7, 2004 09:18 AM

Chun...of all the conservatives you could have picked to argue this point, why Lynne Cheney?

from the official bio:

Mrs. Cheney earned her Bachelor of Arts degree with highest honors from Colorado College, her Master of Arts from the University of Colorado, and her Ph.D. with a specialization in 19th century British literature from the University of Wisconsin...."A system of education that fails to nurture memory of the past denies its students a great deal," Mrs. Cheney wrote: "the satisfactions of mature thought, an attachment to abiding concerns, a perspective on human existence."...Mrs. Cheney announced a new initiative to encourage historical knowledge in April 2003. She launched the James Madison Book Award Fund, which presents a yearly award of $10,000 to the book that best represents excellence in bringing knowledge and understanding of American history to young people.

Posted by: David Foster at March 7, 2004 11:52 AM

I have no idea what I was thinking. Oh, it was that business at the NEH and all. And look closely into that James Madison fund, I suggest.

Posted by: chun the unavoidable at March 7, 2004 02:50 PM

Universities are far more central to American culture than they are in Britain or Australia. Academia is held in particular low regard in the UK. I remember my boss (management/marketing consultant) saying "he wants to be an academic" like I was completely crazy or a total loser. Though actually he was into "academic respectability" and wanted to think that his activities were "scholarly" so it was more complicated than that. But it was rare in the British media to see the academic credentials of an "expert" played up (unlike in Israel say).

What interested me is that the Rand McNally Road Atlas marks the locations of colleges. A UK road atlas would never do this.

So actually I think that academia is held in quite high regard in America. But maybe that is why there is a lot of interest in debating what is taught and researched there.

Posted by: moom at March 7, 2004 03:17 PM

David Foster: before you get chuned again see this thread.

Let's see, Fish builds a career on the idea that there are no principles and now he wants to make a pricipled stand. Worst thing is that is dealing with politicians who really have no principles, and who will buy him lunch, make nice to him, slip a shiv in his side, roll him up in a carpet and drop him into the river all without breaking their stride.

Put a fork in him, he's done.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 8, 2004 09:45 PM