Leave the hobby horses at the classroom door

Universities need to remember what they are there for: to provide students with the intellectual tools to understand the world, not to provide a platform for the partial interests of academics.

Alex Standish

Topics Books

This timely book by Stanley Fish, professor of law at Florida International University, has one main task at hand: to remind the world of the educational purpose of colleges and universities.

One might imagine that such a task would not be necessary. Many people would think that colleges and universities are institutions where people seek a higher understanding of knowledge through education and research. However, as Fish points out, a trawl through some mission statements of educational institutions and journals reveals a mélange of aims, many of which are unrelated to education. These include:

  • ‘To foster awareness, respect, and appreciation for a diversity of experiences, interests, beliefs and identities (Wesleyan University);
  • The development of students’ moral, civic and creative capacities to the fullest (Yale) ;
  • To produce an effective and productive citizen (Michigan State) ;
  • Help young people to learn to speak in their own voices and to respect the voices of others (Journal of Liberal Education) ;
  • Shaping ethical judgment and capacity for insight and a concern for others (Journal of Liberal Education) ;

These and other aims for colleges and universities illustrate the extent to which the purpose and nature of higher education has become confused in today’s world. Should higher education be nurturing moral capacity and empathy, citizenship, preparedness for the world of work, political awareness, a concern for the environment or a sense of social justice? Fish responds: ‘no, no, no, no and no’.

Fish points out that the above list of aims are better suited to preachers, therapists, social workers, political activists and professional gurus (one might add parents here as well) rather than academics. Instead, he sets out to explain what is distinctive about institutions of education. What is it that separates them from other institutions in society?

His answer, in simple terms, is that: ‘colleges and universities (legitimately) do two things: 1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience; and 2) equip those same students with the analytical skills – of argument, statistical modeling, laboratory procedure – that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research after a course is over.’

Here, Fish makes the strongest point in the book: that the coherence and value of a task depend upon it being distinctive. This approach and the simplicity of Fish’s answer to the question are especially helpful for the reader.

That said, one might add that the mission of higher education institutions has been different at different times and that they have rarely been free from some instrumental objective or another. Until the latter stages of the nineteenth century, religious morality was an integral part of education in American colleges and universities. Nevertheless, with the separation of state and church at the end of the century, higher education in America became more focused on intellectual values (with the exception of some private institutions).

Once the aim of higher education has been elaborated, the ‘obligations and prohibitions’ of those who will carry out this task necessarily follow. Fish lists the obligations as setting up courses, preparing a syllabus, devising exams, assigning papers or experiments, giving feedback, holding office hours, etc. The prohibitions are that an instructor should do neither less nor more. Here, he means that instructors should neither shirk their pedagogical responsibilities nor should they take on tasks that are the job of others (preachers, therapists, political leaders etc). To do so not only clouds the task of education, but would also be a disservice to students who enter through the door to learn from the discipline at hand.

The logical way in which Fish lays out the distinctiveness of higher education is decidedly refreshing. However, as he points out, his view of education is a minority one and out of kilter with just about all American institutions of higher education, although certainly not all academics. Yet, Fish is undeterred in his argument and situates the problem with the difficulty many instructors have in drawing the line between education and advocacy. Drawing upon socially constructed theories of knowledge, Fish suggests that many instructors find it difficult to separate teaching from their personal political perspective. Some have asked what is wrong with academics teaching in a political direction they view as positive. With the growing acceptance of the notion that all knowledge is political, and hence the impossibility of remaining neutral in class, many educators have reached the conclusion that it is okay to teach young people how to be better individuals and shape a more progressive tomorrow.

But as Fish observes, politics means different things in different contexts (office politics, departmental politics, party politics) and that people frequently compartmentalise their beliefs and commitments, such as withholding information about religious affiliations in certain social circumstances or not expressing personal viewpoints at work when to do so could reflect adversely on an individual and/or company.

So how does an instructor know when they are crossing a line from education to advocacy? Fish suggests that one crosses the line when a topic is being discussed in order that students make a pronouncement for non-intellectual reasons. In other words, is the purpose of the activity educational, such that students are seeking to better understand an idea or policy, or is the purpose to make them view the idea or policy in a positive or negative manner? If it is the latter, then the class has moved from an intellectual pursuit to some political agenda. Fish argues that it is not the place of instructors to pronounce on moral issues and which vision of future society is more desirable. To do so is nothing short of indoctrination, he says.

However, this does not mean that political, moral, ethical and social issues must be avoided in the classroom. On the contrary, they should be discussed openly, but from an academic standpoint, not one of partisanship. For example, students should learn about global warming, not so that they can take a position on it or because they need to learn how to reduce their contribution to greenhouse gases. These questions are appropriate to the political arena, but not an educational setting. In the classroom, an issue such as global warming should be treated as an object of study. It should be interrogated from a scientific, historical, social, economic and even a political point of view. The arguments put forward in relation to the object of study should be dissected and assessed as arguments, based on their intellectual merits.

Fish calls this process of intellectual interrogation “academicising”, which he describes thus: ‘To academicise a topic is to detach it from the context of its real world urgency, where there is a vote to be taken or an agenda to be embraced, and insert it into a context of academic urgency, where there is an account to be offered or an analysis to be performed.’

Of course, some disciplines, notably in the humanities, are dedicated to an investigation of moral, ethical and philosophical questions. Anthony Kronman, professor of law at Yale, has recently written about the decline of the humanities in American colleges and universities (see Put the ‘human’ back
in the humanities
, by Alex Standish). Kronman rightly observes that because of political correctness and a pure focus on narrow research ideals, higher education institutions in the latter decades of the twentieth century pulled away from the pursuit of the key ethical and intellectual questions of our time (1). Kronman argues that colleges and universities have the potential to help provide moral and intellectual guidance in today’s spiritually impoverished times.

On this matter he is right; students should be engaging with the key issues of our times and furthering our collective understanding of the human condition. But Fish also spies the instrumental kernel in Kronman’s account. While Kronman provides a compelling defence of education in pursuit of truth and meaning, he also sees this as a solution to the loss of moral direction for individuals, rather than standing up for education in its own terms.

For Fish, the purpose of studying classics is not necessarily the answers they give to moral and philosophical questions, but understanding the logic of their arguments. Students should study Plato, Aristotle, Kant or Hobbes not to learn about what person they should be, but what kind of person these men thought they should be. How did they think about humanity and life? The point is not to utilise their logic for personal direction, but rather, Fish suggests, the exam question might be ‘If you were to find yourself in such and such a situation, what would Plato, Hobbes, Rawls or Kant tell you to do and what are the different assumptions and investments that would generate their different recommendations?’

Undoubtedly, students may well walk out of a classroom having learnt about Aristotle’s notion of civitas or about global warming for that matter having formed strong opinions and decide upon this or that course of action or political debate. That is their personal prerogative. However, if teachers are doing their job, and not someone else’s, then this is a by-product of education, not its objective. It can also be argued that education helps people to better understand how the world works and hence to make more informed decisions politically and personally. It may also provide them with some moral guidance. But again, education should not be in the service of such objectives; to do so only erodes its distinctive qualities and confuses the purpose of learning. For this reason, Fish argues that teachers should not be drawn into a justification of what they do. To do so only places the discussion in the terms of those seeking external agenda for education.

While the strength of Save the World on Your Own Time is the clarity of its account of the distinctive potential of institutions of higher education, its weakness is its attempt to account for the confusion surrounding the purpose of higher learning today. While Fish does point to those on the left who have attacked the values of truth and knowledge as relative, he downplays the role postmodernism has played in undermining values which are central to the idea of liberal education. Postmodernism, argues Fish, is simply an epistemological argument that has been utilised in intellectually destructive ways.

However, as others have noted, postmodernism is much more than this. In elevating the social context in which knowledge is produced over its relationship to reality, postmodernists deny its commensurability from one context to another and hence the universal potential of knowledge. For instance, Jean-Francois Lyotard defined postmodernism as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (2). Effectively, it is the intellectual expression and justification for a wider social loss of faith in human reason and authority since the 1960s. At the very heart of postmodern theory is a profound skepticism towards human potential to comprehend the world and to act purposefully within, often summed up as the ‘death of the subject’ (3).

The destructive attacks upon the values of truth, reason and progress by those on the left, and the failure of the right to defend them, have contributed to the relativisation of knowledge and truth, eroding their social importance. The outcome is today’s depoliticised climate in which ideas and grand narratives are viewed as of little consequence. It is this challenge to the value of knowledge and truth that has undermined the rationale for colleges and universities.

As Ron Barnett explains,: ‘Liberal higher education has rested on the assumption that objective knowledge and truth are attainable… this assumption has recently been put into doubt with modern developments in philosophy, such as relativism, critical theory and post-structuralism.’ (4) Barnett correctly surmises that this ‘amounts to an epistemological undermining of higher education’.

This is why many academics have retreated from engaging with the big intellectual and moral issues of our times and the pursuit of truth, instead focusing on their narrow specialism. The consequence is that students are likely to take many disparate courses about potentially interesting topics like black history or Polynesian culture, what has been called knowledge with a small k, but less frequently do they get to learn theories that can account for the true contemporary state of the world, be it economically, politically or culturally; that is, Knowledge with a capital ‘K’ (5). Deprived of the tools required to develop a broader understanding of reality, students are again left with the impression that knowledge and truth are of little importance.

Yet, the crisis of faith in knowledge and truth as universal values is not confined to those on the left. As Frank Furedi notes, ‘cultural elites are themselves reluctant to affirm any transcendental cultural values and truths’ (6). In the US, the political right have recently responded to the rise of social justice and political correctness in higher education by launching an academic Bill of Rights. Yet, as Fish observes, while the bill sounds well intentioned in that it argues for education to be focused on the pursuit of truth, it only does this in service of ‘intellectual diversity’. The argument is that both of the intellectual positions in the culture wars should be presented to students. This is a denigration of the meaning of education. Instructors are not there to air all views, but to offer a course that provides the best insight into the subject matter. The Academic Bill of Rights is also a politicisation of education, rather than an attempt to reverse this trend, suggests Fish.

Lacking societal belief in the importance of knowledge, ideas and the feasibility of truth, it is no wonder that colleges and universities have been reinventing themselves as institutions for vocational training (7), counselling (8), social inclusion (9) and, with Save the World on Your Own Time, political activism. Fish may well be right about the distinctive nature of higher education for a good part of the history of its institutions. However, it is no wonder that his argument for a return to this rationale falls on deaf ears when society sees little benefit from the relative knowledges and truths.

Only by claiming its central values through political debate, and educating students about the world, can higher education institutions regain their intellectual credentials and social status. Academics themselves have a key role to play here by returning to Knowledge with a capital ‘K’ and helping people to understand the important questions of our time. Without an understanding of the value of knowledge to society, people will continue to demand this or that instrumental goal for education. And, as Fish concludes, a valuable lesson for our times is to beware of ends: ‘Beware, that is, of doing something for a reward external to its own economy.’

Alex Standish is an assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University and author of Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the Moral Case for Geography, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Save the World on Your Own Time, by Stanley Fish is published by OUP USA. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life, Anthony Kronman, Yale University Press, 2007.

(2) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Manchester University Press, 1984, (p. xxiv).

(3) Media, War and Postmodernity, Philip Hammond, Routledge, 2007 (p.5).

(4) The Idea of Higher Education, Ron Barnett, Open University Press, 1990 (p. x).

(5) Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Frank Furedi, 2004, Continuum (p.70)

(6) Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Frank Furedi, 2004, Continuum (p.6)

(7) The McDonaldization of Higher Education, edited by Dennis Hayes and Robin Wynyard, Greenwood Press, 2002

(8) The Dangerous Rise of Therapuetic Education, Dennis Hayes and Kathryn Ecclestone, Routledge, 2008

(9) Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Frank Furedi, Continuum, 2004

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