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May 21, 2004
The Ivory Tower

Stanley Fish, retiring dean of Liberal Arts at the University of Illinois-Chicago, argues in a New York Times op-ed that academia dilutes and warps its raison d'etre when it attempts to play active roles in partisan politics. Instead, Fish exhorts his colleagues to focus on the truly academic roles of analysis and scholarship:

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.

While academics in general will agree that a university should not dance to the tune of external constituencies, they will most likely resist the injunction to police the boundary between academic work and political work. They will resist because they simply don't believe in the boundary they believe that all activities are inherently political, and an injunction to avoid politics is meaningless and futile.

Unfortunately, while Fish hits all of the structural arguments in reserving academic efforts for academia, he addresses none of the most corrosive damage done by academics who insist on dragging partisanship into their work. Fish misses the best argument of all for his point, which is that continued partisanship on the part of professors and college administrators fatally undermines the weakness of their autonomy and the trust that had been built into their independent viewpoint over centuries of scholarly and scientific approach to issues, large and small. Advocacy destroys credibility, and without credibility, a university becomes nothing more than an expensive partisan think tank.

Academics simply can't have it both ways. If they insist on taking an active part in the partisanship in either the official capacities of their roles as academics or leaning on those credentials for greater personal impact, then they move the partisan battlefields to the campuses of the universities and colleges whence they come. How often do we hear from professors taking active roles in partisan debates on issues like the war on terror, welfare reform (an example noted by Fish), economics, and the like, in their capacity as academics? Protests against war and globalization and other pet causes would not be complete without lectures from local and national academics. And yet when studies demonstrate the overwhelmingly leftist bias in higher education, academics cry "McCarthyism" and accuse their critics of attempting to sabotage the independence of the universities and stifling free debate. They want the freedom to engage in partisanship without the consequences of having their qualifications and motivations called into question, while they routinely do the same to their partisan targets. It's not McCarthyism, it's politics, and if they find it distasteful, they should avoid it as Fish implores.

Fish makes a number of good points in his article, but in my mind, he missed a golden opportunity on his way to retirement to tell his friends exactly how badly they're damaging the institutions they serve. Perhaps they will read between the lines, but I suspect most of them will miss the real danger. It's a message they don't want to hear, and for Fish's part, one he didn't want to communicate.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 21, 2004 7:13 AM

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» Crawl back under your ivory tower from SCSU Scholars
Captain Ed notes that Fish has " missed a golden opportunity on his way to retirement to tell his friends exactly how badly they're damaging the institutions they serve." I don't agree: The quote below is as good a damnation as you will find. [Read More]

Tracked on May 21, 2004 1:14 PM

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