Stanley Fish, Wrong Again

May 26, 2008

I generally don’t agree with Mr. Fish much.

Today is no exception.

Fish writes about the University of Colorado at Boulder, which is proposing to create a “Chair in Conservative Thought and Policy.” Fish then quotes a local newspaper which says the University is going to bring in high-profile conservatives. While these are similarly worded, it should be noted that a program to teach conservative thought and another to hire conservatives could be very different things.

But how left-leaning is the University and its environment?

How then does it lean left? The answer appears a little further down in the story when it is reported that emeritus professor Ed Rozek surveyed the Boulder faculty and found that out of 825, only 23 were registered Republicans.

Stanley Fish then goes on to basically say that good professors don’t let their politics into the classroom, so it doesn’t matter whether the instructors are liberal or not. Bullshit.

I just spent five years in an institution where almost all of the professors are conservatives–politically, socially, and theologically. On all three of those points the personal views of my professors inevitably affected what was taught and how it was taught. This has not always been a negative–I think there is great educational benefit to being educated in an environment where you are profoundly uncomfortable, though the social benefit is less stellar.

I imagine that my experience somewhat resembles that of a conservative student at a left-leaning institution of higher education. One interesting difference is that at Christian U, where I went to school, many of the professors and students vociferously decry the left-leaning nature of state schools and the lack of freedom of thought. This is of course ironic because they have chosen to teach at an institution that redresses that balance by creating an educational environment that is even less balanced.

Of course, there were instructors at my school who didn’t fit the mold politically (some), socially (a few more possibly?) and maybe theologically. Of course, those who were out-of-the-box theologically were only so in narrow terms, as my school required a specific Church membership for all its faculty, so anyone holding too diverse of views would have to be lying to themselves or to Christian U to teach there. To be fair, the professors and administrators with the largest number of differences with the institutional status quo tended to be the best teachers inside and outside the classroom. I think that’s in part because the type of person who chooses to teach at an institution where their view is in the minority likely has a lot of moral and intellectual integrity.

I think it is as important for a university dominated by liberal faculty to encourage the hiring of conservatives and the teaching of conservative thought as it is for places like where I went to school to diversify their points of view. Stanley Fish is dead wrong in thinking that one can keep one’s biases from showing through in your teaching.

For a more intelligent perspective on the issue, check out some writings by Dr. Burke at Swarthmore:

They’re motivated to groupthink by the institutional organization of academic life. The same forces that help academics to produce knowledge and scholarship are the forces which produce unwholesome close-mindedness and inbred self-satisfied attitudes. These forces would act on conservatives as well were we to magically remove the current professoriate and replace them with registered Republicans. They do act already on academics who operate in disciplines where certain kinds of political conservatism are more orthodox, or in institutional contexts, like religious universities, where conservative values are expressly connected to institutional missions.

And another:

I was and remain surprised at how reluctant many people participating in this discussion are to just say, “Yes, in some disciplines, an identifiable conservative may be treated very poorly”. Most importantly, in most of the humanities there’s a default assumption that everyone around the table more or less broadly can be classed as a liberal, and a certain stunned incredulity when someone departs from that assumption.

I think this is a perfectly good explanation for why institutions like Christian U need to exist in the first place:

Why do conservatives care about the humanities at all? The answer might be that for both the cultural right and left, the humanities or more broadly, mass culture, are an important alibi for explaining their failure to outright win the culture wars of the past twenty years. Rather than asking, “What about our views is just not appealing and may never be appealing to the majority of Americans”, they would prefer to assume that those views would be appealing if not for some partisan interference in the natural course of events. For the cultural right, higher education in general and the academic humanities in particular are the boogeyman of choice, to which I can only suggest that they’re vastly, gigantically overstating the possible influence of those institutions. I think the same thing is thought about mass culture in the other direction. In both cases, there’s a systematic effort here to avoid thinking the unthinkable thought, that maybe, just maybe, the majority of people have thought about your view of things and they just don’t like it, for good and considered reasons.

Of course, there are reasons why one could never admit this to oneself.

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