Fish on academic freedom

Phil Ford

My old student Eliot pointed out this op-ed by Stanley Fish. He's reviewing a book called "For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom" by Matthew Finkin and Robert Post. Their main point is that academic freedom isn't the same sort of general right that the first amendment guarantees, but flows only from a specific conception of academic labor. "It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs." Watch for the sneaky passive voice verbs! Who is doing the determining and specifying and figuring? The academic profession, is Fish's answer, but this seems rather too abstract. In practice, it means academic administration — in other words, him. And why wouldn't that suit him? "Administrators Seek Authority Over Professors" — not exactly a newsworthy story. (Sort of like "Violence Erupts in Middle East.") "An Authoritative Word On Academic Freedom" — ah, that's more like it. It sounds authoritative!

I actually do agree with Fish that there are a lot of abuses in classrooms (politicized professors who see their classes as indoctrination centers), but it's not as if the students are helpless and passive here. If they were, Fish wouldn't need to high-five the authors for writing that while professors should "'respect students as persons,' they are under no obligation to respect the 'ideas held by students.'"* (Not that I disagree with them on that.) I'm not sure what the point here is, except to give Fish another opportunity to style himself a Legal Thinker Whose Opinions Might Surprise You. Everybody knows there are toxic, unprofessional professors — most people have taken classes from one or two. Every academic administrator dreams of ways of getting rid of them. No-one yet has come up with a way of doing it that doesn't gut universities and put them at a competitive disadvantage. Would I apply for a job at a university that had abolished tenure? No, and neither would any other self-respecting, non-desperate professional. This has come up about 134568 times, and every time the logic of unilateral disarmament reasserts itself. So what are we doing here, fantasizing vaguely about making professors more accountable? Oh, I remember: Stanley Fish is a legal thinker whose opinions might surprise me. Only no, on closer inspection, they don't.

*"Way to go!"? Hey Stanley Fish — the 1980s called, and they want their stale hortatory exclamations back.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to Fish on academic freedom

  1. Jonathan says:

    Yep. Fish still refuses to disappear downstream. I note that (not for the first time) the people seeking authority over or limits upon others’ speech tend to be those who benefited from freer speech all their professorial lives, but now seem to long—with Plato—for the “magistrates’ rod.”

  2. mark says:

    I remember when Stanley Fish seemed cool, writing pieces with titles like “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos.”
    At the same time, there always seemed to be a bit too much ego in the equation: “Stanley Fish dreams of academic free agency.”
    Now he seems like a reactionary. Who would want the word “authoritative” in their title, anyway?
    Yeah, I’ve had some of those professors you mention; they weren’t so bad, even though I made a point of not becoming one of them.
    I would like to believe that there are pragmatic reasons to foster academic freedom. The good stuff emerges from situations where people follow their instincts in what they research and pursue, and in what they say and teach. Ad hoc education, directed from above, is bound to stagnate.

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