Save The World on Your Own Time

Book CoverSaw this book on my friend’s bookshelf, he explained Fish’s argument, I thought it sounded interesting-but-not-quite-right, and so decided to give it a read.

Some of my notes:

  • Things I like: I agree that if we think the best justification for higher education is an instrumental one (e.g. it results in more productive worker bees), then it shouldn’t be a surprise that outside forces continue to criticize universities using that same premise. That said, I think Fish has to do a lot more to explain what makes education good/worth funding (esp. if one thinks, as I do, the public funding only 20-25% of public university expenses is, if it is truly to be a public university, too low). I would like to know what he’d say to an objection like the following: you’re right, Fish. Education isn’t good for the broader world in some obvious way. It’s good for those individuals who like it and/or need it to flourish. But for that very reason the state should not be funding it any more than it should be funding dance lessons or trips around the world. It’s just another way the elites have coopted the machinery of the state to further a particular conception of the good.
  • Issues:
    • The claim he bases his entire argument on doesn’t grip me at all. The claim is that “both the coherence and the value of a task depend on its being distinctive” (Chapter 2 (if I remember correctly), p 168, etc.). But is that really the case? What about the role/tasks of a friend versus the role of a romantic partner? Or the role of a parent? They all seem to have overlapping tasks and that doesn’t in any way seem to diminish the value of the tasks, or the persons filling the roles. So why must higher education have just one task and that task has to be distinct? And putting aside the role of the university, what about the role of a teacher? Or maybe a different question: maybe the role of a university is singular/special, but why not think the role of individual teachers is broader? [to be clear: true to Fish, I’m not necessarily saying I take a side here, just I think his grounding premise is unconvincing. There are certainly other sorts of premises that could do better.]
    • He says we should have no concern for the ideological makeup of a school because that’s not the business of a school. (p 146) But doesn’t the ideological makeup signal something important to the world, similar to the signaling that happens when there are no women or lesbians or blacks or alternative lifestyle(ish) people on a faculty? Perhaps this goes back something deeper I’m committed to: that each action we take can be described in a variety of different ways and, importantly, being aware of and responsive to those different descriptions and corresponding signals is what some sorts of virtue seem to require.
    • He strikes me as confused on the legitimacy of the heckler’s veto (which itself is just a form of consumer demand/discrimination).
      • Passages I noted:
        • Re: Larry Summers fiasco: “Summers offered serial apologies for his comments but accompanied them with a defense that took them back. I was, he said, just being provocative. But being provocative is not in the job description. If straight-talking, with no concern for the fall-out that may follow, is what you like to do, you may not be cut out to be a university administrator. Not ever virtue … is pertinent to every practice, and it is surely part of your responsibility to know what virtues are appropriate to the position you hold.” (92-93)
        • “There is a big difference between ‘I don’t like what that guy said, and I’m going to fire him’ and ‘I don’t like the effects brought about by what he said, and I’m going to fire him.’ The first raises constitutional issues (at least in some contexts); the second doesn’t. It’s just a judgment on job performance.” (93).
        • When discussing a controversy at the University of South Florida re: the dismissal of a prof who apparently said some unacceptable things about 9/11, he says “The reason given by the university for its action was that the hostile response to the professor’s appearance disrupted day-to-day business (this is the heckler’s veto argument, firmly rejected by a succession of Supreme Court decisions), but the real reason was that the president, rather than being true to her obligation to defend the academic enterprise, had given it over to the very political forces from which she should have protected it.” (104-05).
      • My questions
        • Is the idea that Summers’ comments on women leading to his resignation isn’t an example of a heckler’s veto because the comments on women had understandably bad consequences on his ability to do his job whereas objecting to/firing a professor who says 9/11 was [fill in the blank] might be a heckler’s veto because we want more room for debate there? Why?
        • If administrators can be reasonably fired for expressing comments that the majority finds objectionable because being provocative isn’t part of their job, why is that not true of professors? On his view, professors are just teaching people how to see the mechanics etc. of arguments, understand all the sides of arguments, etc. But nothing about his view on what makes teaching and universities special qua teaching have anything to do with being provocative. So perhaps my issue is: either you think the pressure leading to Summers’ resignation was misguided (because his views on women had no effect, you’d argue, on his role as an administrator) or you think professors also have no special right to be provocative without risking being fired because what they say makes the classroom a less good place to learn, even if (like Summers, we can hypothesize) there’s no evidence the profs views influence their teaching at all — it’s just hostile in virtue of the fact that a person in an authority position has a view that you find offensive.
        • What might all this mean for our views on the Mozilla case, where the CEO was fired after it came to light he donated money in the past to support opposition to gay marriage in CA? [article with a position here]
    • Fish seems to take the position that we can read literature and evaluate its arguments without that process having an effect on us as moral beings/on our normative commitments.  If that’s a fair characterization of Fish, I think he’s wrong. Think of The Dispossessed! Or East of Eden! Beggars in Spain! Or the Fountainhead! You can surely assign that book in an ethics class and spend class time deconstructing the arguments to see how they fare, but to act as if an average person can do that without then contemplating what that philosophy means to them as a normative guide is just untrue. A philosophy professor friend of mine said the few times she’s had students read Ayn Rand, it’s amazing how the class divides. They cannot help but respond as moral beings to the arguments, even though the class is about just understanding different moral frameworks and arguments. I don’t think that counts in favor of anything like indoctrination in the classroom but I think his understanding of human psychology is wrong and I think that wrongness may result in prescriptions for classroom behavior that aren’t ideal. Or perhaps I should say: teachers should be attuned to this psychological fact and that awareness should mean something for how we teach.
    • Relatedly, Fish says: if you write a poem glorifying x, that does not mean you endorse x. Fair enough, but I do think you bear some responsibility for the fact that your poem promotes x as good to the world. We are storytelling (and listening) beings – that is how we learn. Think of children and the stories we tell them as ways to guide and habituate them to good behavior. Maybe you don’t actually endorse x but who cares? I don’t endorse punching someone in the face but I do it anyway – what does my endorsement in these cases have to do with the bigger questions of whether I should punch the person in the face? Or, if I do, what responsibility I bear for doing it?
    • That all said, I do agree that my interpretation of the works of others does not mean I endorse the ends I think the other adopted. I can write an article explaining what I think Ishiguro endorsed in The Buried Giant and in doing some I’m trying to explain something I see happening out in the world. I may not like what’s happening, but I’m simply trying to report on it.

Worth a read.

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