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A Farewell Message From Stanley Fish: “Good Professors Do What They’re Told”


Some ZNet readers have by now caught a whiff of the putrid Stanley Fish droppings that floated to the top of the New York Times editorial page last week. Fish’s May 21st New York Times commentary, marvelously titled “Why We Built the Ivory Tower,” is dedicated to the proposition that academics need to quit messing around in areas where they don’t belong, like the struggle for a just and democratic society.

Fish, an academic mini-celebrity who will thankfully step down this June as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, thinks that all good little professors need to remember where their bread is buttered and what they are “qualified” to talk about. They need to focus more on “the responsibilities [they] take on when [they] accept a paycheck…meeting classes, keeping up in the discipline, assigning and correcting papers, opening up new areas of scholarship and so on.”

Good little academics in Fish’s ideal university respect “the injunction to police the boundary between academic work and political work.” They do not “surrender [their] academic obligation to the agenda of any non-academic constituency,” like say, the more than 1 million black children who live in “deep poverty” – at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level – in the United States. Fish can find many of those children by taking short ride from his Near West Side Chicago campus in his expensive sports car – one of the many accoutrements of the academic good life he publicly loves to enjoy.

Good UIC professors receive their departing Dean’s approval when they understand that the appropriate and responsible academic vocation is to turn Karl Marx on his head: Their “job,” he says, “is NOT to change the world, but to interpret it.”

Good academics don’t mess with foolish efforts to instill democratic values, public morality, and global and social justice in their students and the wider community. The politics that ought to concern them is “the politics appropriate to the enterprise they signed onto. And that means arguing (and voting) about things like curriculum, departmental leadership, the direction of research,” etc.

Good academics stick to “their job.” They do what their employers pay them to do. And “while academic labor might in some instances play a role in real-world politics [imagine! PS] – if, say, the Supreme Court cites your book on the way to a decision [now there's a feather in your academic cap! PS] – it should not be the design or aim of academics to play that role.”

In Fish’s ideal higher-educational system, people like historian Howard Zinn (who let students obtain credit for undertaking activist causes to change history), Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, Henry Giroux, and Robert McChesney – to name a few of my favorite public-intellectuals-activists who receive academic paychecks – are dangerously deluded. They are renegade, wrong-headed boundary crossers.

Has their painstaking work of research and interpretation into difficult and relevant topics – for example the theft of the 2000 presidential election (completed by Fish’s noble Supreme Court), the concentration of the communications system into ever fewer media hands, the encroaching dismantlement and re-segregation of public education, the mass-murderous economic sanctions imposed on Iraq (1991-2003), the dangerous Bush Doctrine, the disastrous and illegal US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the corporate neo-liberal assault on living and working standards and sustainable ecology, or emergent neo-fascism in the world’s most powerful nation – led them to the conclusion that “modern” America and indeed the world is in need of dramatic democratic transformation of the sort that involves massive, many-sided citizen engagement?

“Too bad” and “wrong answer,” says Fish. “Return to your offices, libraries, and department meetings, lowly professors,” says the openly materialist (Fish once claimed that the only reason he read poetry was to get rich as a literary critic) dean.

“It is not your role – and we don’t pay you – to concern yourselves with such issues and to hold such opinions. You must control your ideas and feelings on these and other matters and insert them gently into a clever, carefully crafted lecture, monograph, or article, one that is sensitive to the latest developments in your specialized academic field. You should be content to see the product of that labor collect dust on an academic library shelf, unless it happens to be benevolently rescued from the condescension of posterity by a wise high-state official. This, my dear little professor, is the limit of your appropriate political ambition as long as you are privileged to toil in the ivory tower.”

One wonders what Fish might have told a hypothetical German academic whose research in the 1920s led her to believe that her homeland was heading towards a fascist-totalitarian takeover that would culminate in the racist mass executions. By Fish’s “aim low” standard of appropriate academic focus, this academic would have needed to “stick to the tasks she was paid to perform,” keeping her terrible knowledge within proper academic boundaries. If a leading German state official saw fit to read one of her books or hear one of her lectures on the matter, well, perhaps that would be her good and appropriate chance for political relevance.

By the middle and late 1930s, of course, it would have been too late as her wise policymakers would happen to be Nazis. But oh well, politics and policy are what Fish calls “someone else’s job,” and so good professors are like good Germans, content to leave policy to those who are “qualified” to conduct high state affairs – people like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.

It is interesting in the context of this analogy to note the strong parallel between Fish’s thesis and a much more robust and impressive (if equally toxic) argument made by the German sociologist Max Weber, who also warned academics not to “outrageously” advance democratic ideas in the sacred realm of the lecture hall (see Weber’s 1918 lecture on “Science as a Vocation” http://www2. pfeiffer.edu/~lridener/ DSS/ Weber/scivoc.html).

It is interesting and revealing that Fish makes Karl Marx – western academia’s and modern social science’s favorite defining whipping boy (Weber’s field was formed to throw bourgeois social-scientific cold water on Marx’s dangerously social-democratic theories) – the symbol of what he opposes in academic behavior.

If he was looking for intellectual giants who thought differently than him, he could just have readily and far more relevantly cited the heralded mainstream American educational philosopher John Dewey. Dewey thought that the basic purpose of education was precisely to produce a genuinely free and democratic society, one that is not controlled by the wealthy few and does not tolerate such outrages as the simultaneous and geographically proximate existence of super-affluent deans alongside desperately poor ghetto children. Such in large measure was the core democratic and historical mission of American public education, a system Weber disdained.

Ironically enough, most academics function in pretty much the narrow, anti-Marxist/anti-Deweyite lines that Fish prescribes. Where ARE all these excessively, hyper-activist and democracy- and social/global-justice obsessed academicians that Fish bemoans? Chomsky and Zinn et al. are very much the ivory tower exceptions as far as I can tell. Intellectual radicals like me – a former academic turned left public intellectual (as in “for the public,” not simply “in the public”) – often end up doing what we see as academics’ real jobs (including much of what Fish abhors) at teach-ins, public lectures, and the like.

What a sad and curiously anti-intellectual and authoritarian testament Stanley Fish has chosen to leave for all to see in the nation’s leading newspaper of record.

Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois.

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