Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Review of: Save the World On Your Own Time, by STANLEY FISH

Oh what a weird little book is this 2008 polemic from Stanley Fish, the man who once wrote, "Academics like to eat shit and in a pinch, they don't care whose shit they eat." (See There's No Such Thing As Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing, Too. 1994, p. 278)
Save the World On Your Own Time (Oxford, 2008) opens with a string of anecdotes in which the author confesses to shocking feats of rudeness, usually addressed to his social subordinates. These confessions are offered in a spirit of self-criticism mixed with righteous hostility, culminating in Fish's announcement that he considers himself afflicted-or-blessed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Nowhere does he speak of apologizing to anybody, because in each case he thinks he was right. While I agree that he was often right, his character as presented in these pages seems to me solipsistic and boorish. His book argues (e.g., p. 14) that good character is a desirable trait, but not one that higher education ought to try and conjure or instill.

I delivered an even longer lecture to the blameless fast-food workers who routinely handed me a bagel along with a small container of cream cheese and a plastic knife that couldn’t cut butter. I said, "Look, if I wanted to put my own bagel together, I would have bought the ingredients and taken them home; when I go to a restaurant I expect service; I don’t expect to be asked to do your job; and besides there's not enough cream cheese here to cover the bagel's surface; what's the matter with you guys?" (p. 4)

It's nice that he now perceives the "fast-food workers" as "blameless." If they get wind of his having written that, I'm sure they'll be pleased. But whoever was working that cash-register was poor, and perhaps not socialized to fulfill the expectations in Dr. Fish's head. S/he probably came from a milieu where people may well be unaccustomed to giving, receiving, or "expecting" what Fish calls "service." When you work for dirt wages at a greaseburger franchise, you cannot really be expected to provide much "service." People who appeal to principle and insist otherwise will be correct, but the cultural formation in which their correct position has any weight is long gone.

Suppose you are a member of at least one outgroup, maybe three. In front of you is a member of all three ingroups: America reads him as "White"; he's a man; and he's about old enough to be a Baby-Boomer. He orders a bagel, so you give him exactly what your boss has instructed you to give everyone who orders a bagel. But the old guy starts ranting at you, ending with the question, "what's the matter with you guys?" Does that experience make you feel inclined to give better service to people who resemble this customer, or does it reinforce any prejudice you may have about such people as entitled, pushy, solipsistic old fools who need to be taken down a peg?

I don't consider Fish's behavior in this story hateful or even bigoted. But I consider it reasonable (indeed, defensible) only in two different frames of reference (and not this one): (a) an actual restaurant with a waiter, or (b) a fast food joint in about 1965 0r before. To act this way in a fast-food joint in the year two-thousand and something, however, is to err.

That anecdote is one among a whole bunch; in some of them Fish appears more sensible, and in others he's just as whacked-out.

Continuing down the halls, I found the panels separating two elevators festooned with announcements of lectures that took place two years ago. I proceeded to rip the leaflets down. Halfway through I decided that no one should be posting anything there anyway; so I removed every announcement, no matter how current, and, for good measure, I tore away the surface the announcements adhered to and threw all the thumbtacks and push-pins into the trash. I noticed that someone had left a small carton of books, intended no doubt for impecunious graduate students who might have made good use of them. I didn't care; into the trash they went, too. (p. 5)

This is dinosaur behavior. Taking down flyers for past events is prosocial; taking down flyers for future events is profoundly antisocial. This, they apparently do not teach in Stanleyfishland. Throwing away perfectly good office supplies like thumbtacks and pushpins is bad for the university and bad for the planet. Not to know this at a deep level is very LBJ-era. Throwing out books is despicable. Not to know this at a deep level is just ugly (and especially surprising in a Jew, I might add). The tone does imply a repudiation of these behaviors, but that's all it does. Next:

I told [my students] that I hadn't the slightest interest in whatever opinions they might have and didn't want to hear any. I told them that while they may have been taught that the purpose of writing is to express oneself, the selves they had were not worth expressing... (5)

But then:

What could I do aside from harassing innocent people who would have had every right to have me committed? Write this book was the answer. (7)

Trouble is, "committed" is the wrong word; it's rhetorical; it's a bad-faith bit of self-effacement. What his students would have had the right to do is not to have Fish committed to some mental institution but fired from an institution of higher learning. How long does he think he (tenured, ingrouper) would last as an adjunct (exploited, outgrouper), treating the paying customers this way? How does this compare with "I expect service," Fish's own attitude when he's a paying customer?

Then we're given the armature of the book, the central endoskeleton on which its flesh is hung: "...problems pretty much go away when you understand and act on a simple imperative--do your job--which comes along with two corollary imperatives--don't do somebody else's job and don't let someone else do your job." This is a sensible-looking proposition, a logical engine whose nifty vehicle of argumentation might get us pretty far, depending on the direction in which it's driven. Stanley Fish is no fool; he's perhaps the greatest Miltonist of his day. But in Save the World on Your Own Time, he is not writing within his area of specialization.

Fish continues: " is part of my argument that the coherence of tasks depends on their being distinctive. Think of it in consumer terms; you need something to be done, and you look in a phone book or search the Internet until you come upon a description of services that matches your need. What you want is a specialist, someone with the right training and credentials, and you might be suspicious if someone told you that he or she could do just about anything... you will feel most comfortable when you find a person or a company with a skill set that is reassuringly narrow: 'this is what we do; we don't do those other things; but if this particular thing is what you want done, we're the people to turn to.' This narrow sense of vocation is shunned by many teaching in the academy today, and it was not popular in the 1960’s when I was a young faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley. (8) [my emphasis]

The narrow sense of vocation is shunned by many teaching in the academy today. When Fish says that, he means (as his book's next pages and title make admirably clear) that today's academics are not narrowly focused on teaching a single discipline, but are unfocused, attempting to improve students' morals, shift their political beliefs, and in general, "save the world."

Fine. But when I came to that sentence in Fish's book I was struck by how different its meaning would be in any context other than there, in Stanley Fish's book. Chez moi, y'see, [A]
narrow sense of vocation is shunned by many teaching in the academy today is laughably false. Today, the narrow sense of the vocation is well-nigh mandatory: the motto of the successful applicant is: I study X and nothing else; I teach X and the courses everyone teaches (comp, Lit 101, etc.) and nothing else. Therefore, my label is accurate. "Many teaching in the academy today" (in the department of, say, English -- the discipline Fish and I share) are highly suspicious of scholar-teachers with eclectic interests. Not even tenure can fully allay the anxiety some professors experience in the presence of persons who are intellectually alive, strong-willed in their pursuit of lifelong learning, motivated by authentic fascination with the world and its peoples, and capable of teaching what they know, keeping literature central while venturing beyond it in relevant and compelling ways. "Many teaching in the academy today" prefer to hire timid, hidebound, hyper-professionalized joiners who lack the stamina or the curiosity to try and connect the subject of their dissertations -- Charlotte Bronte's relationship with her sister Emily; the young Auden's leftism; X in the work of Y , whatever -- with the larger picture of world literature, science, philosophy, and history. "Many teaching in the academy today" are one-trick ponies, unlikely to put in a bid for the Shakespeare course, since they know little about Shakespeare; they will not compete with others for the best courses, since they only know one sub-field of the discipline. They will not inadvertently make colleagues look shallow and unlearned by publishing work in five or six specialist journals, each in a completely different field, including those of the aforementioned colleagues. They will not (wittingly or unwittingly) make colleagues feel inadequate by teaching through a richer and more coherent world picture than they can. Pusillanimous specialists know their place. That's why they get a place.


In the wake of the Free Speech Movement a faculty union had been formed and I had declined to join it. Some members of the steering committee asked me why, and I asked them to tell me about the union's agenda. They answered that the union would (1) work to change America's foreign policy by fighting militarism, (2) demand that automobiles be banned from the campus and that parking structures be torn down, and (3) speak out strongly in favor of students' rights. In response I said (1) that if I were interested in influencing government policy I would vote for certain candidates and contribute to their campaigns, (2) that I loved automobiles and wanted even more places to park mine, and (3) that I didn't see the point of paying dues to an organization dedicated to the interests of a group of which I was not a member. How about improvements in faculty salaries, better funding for the library, and a reduction in teaching load? 'You, sir, I was admonished, do not belong in a university.'

It is a good bet that among the goals of the faculty union was an improvement in faculty salaries, and that Fish's unionist colleague happened to take it for granted that all faculty members would be quite aware of that already; after all, everyone already knows salary increases are a central part of what unions exist to seek. Fish's additional three goals are excellent, but since he claims to find them desirable goals, he ought to have joined the union in order to help accomplish them.

Now to the three goals that were offered and Fish's three responses.

Although he was there and I wasn't, it's as if Fish does not know that "in the 1960’s... at the University of California at Berkeley", a majority of reasonable adults shared a rather urgent goal: "work to change America's foreign policy by fighting militarism." Now, a narrow construction of the job of an English Department is to teach literature, writing, and rhetoric. Since antiquity, rhetoric has been taught by the use of paradigmatic exemplars. The Declaration of Independence is such an exemplar. It begins: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life..." But during "the 1960's," until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (written mostly by RFK, though Johnson got all the credit), the first clause of that exemplar was still a festering sore of hypocrisy on the body politic, Jim Crow's sarcoma.

As for inalienable rights, the students in the classrooms and the sit-ins were living under a constant death-threat called the draft. If called to "serve," they would almost surely die in spirit, body, or both; tens of thousands came back broken, homeless men addicted to heroin (thanks, CIA) or alcohol, and unable to rebuild. Somehow Professor Fish expected them to be able to concentrate on Milton anyhow. I imagine he also kept Paradise Lost alien and distant from their real position in the world, by refraining to point out the resemblances between the arbitrary power of Milton's autocratic God, and the awful randomness of the draft. Like the Lottery in Shirley Jackson's oft-taught story of that name, the draft was not unfair (except in that some fortunate sons could shirk it unscathed), it was unjust. Milton is a good place to learn that and conversely, that is a good thing to learn from Milton. Professor Allen Grossman of Brandeis University, one of the few people who is smarter than Stanley Fish, risked everything to harbor draft resisters in his home. That was a way of being a Jew; it answered the righteous gentiles of Europe who took the same risk to save some of us from the Nazis. It was a way of being American; it took the Declaration seriously. It was a way of being a professor of English: if the students are to learn from books and professors, they must be alive and on campus.

Fish's response to the problem was quite different:"if I were interested in influencing government policy I would vote for certain candidates and contribute to their campaigns." Did he not notice that the most popular candidates who supported an end to the war in Vietnam were murdered by the CIA and the Pentagon? His colleague at Berkeley-in-the-1960's was Peter Dale Scott, professor of both political science and English (not a specialist). Scott did the best work in the country on the real-world use of political assassination as a tool of militarist control over domestic policy in the U.S. I guess Dr. Fish did not notice. And in the Presidential election of 1964, there was no anti-war candidate for whom to vote. There was LBJ, who turns out to have been well aware that President Kennedy was to be murdered for inhibiting the Vietnam War, and who then gave us the War on a vast new scale, and there was Goldwater, whose solution was "bomb them into the Stone Age." Vote, my foot.

To the effort to ban cars on campus, Fish responded: "I loved automobiles and wanted even more places to park mine."' If he were less of a specialist, and more curious about the world as it is (in addition to imaginative literature), he might have become aware that cars were destroying the American landscape, locking the country into a suburban infrastructure that was completely unsustainable, and setting us all on a course toward devastating energy scarcity: world petroleum discovery peaked in 1964, and the Lower 48 peaked in 1971 just as Marion King Hubbert had predicted it would. Having almost forgotten the safety, warmth, and humanity of a walkable place to live and work, people wanted to try making one of their university. Fish's mobility is more important, so pour more blacktop for more places where he can park his car. Happy motoring.

To the notion of a faculty union advocating students' rights, Fish responds: "that I didn't see the point of paying dues to an organization dedicated to the interests of a group of which I was not a member." His own education may have imprinted upon him the expectation that everybody's education ought to be just as denuded of its ethical dimension, and just as compartmentalized. There's such a thing as altruistic concern for the young people you're supposed to be helping, but never mind the mushy stuff. The man said he wanted the union to advocate for larger faculty salaries. It turns out that solidarity with students is an important element in the successful pursuit of that goal.

"...better funding for the library, and a reduction in teaching loads" would be easier to achieve as a member of a union than as an isolated monad behind the wheel of one's own little car. Those two goals would also be a thousand times more feasible if the government was compelled to arrest the militarization of the budget and invest in things like education instead. But one doesn't notice such things unless one feels driven to assemble a big picture, fitting the pixilating tiles from each discipline into the greater mosaic of reality's grand image to the best of one's ability. Students should see that process modeled in front of them by older, better educated adults who have achieved that ability.

There is never a shortage of narrow specialists, nor of shallow generalists. Of deep generalists
, there is always a shortage.

Here's Fish on "The Task of Higher Education": "I'm all for moral, civic, and creative capacities [a phrase from Yale's mission statement], but I'm not sure that there is much I or anyone else could do as a teacher to develop them. Moral capacities (or their absence) have nothing to do with the reading of novels, or the running of statistical programs, or the execution of laboratory procedures, all of which can produce certain skills, but not moral states." (11) What the hell?!? The reading of novels has everything to do with the cultivation of the capacity for decency of impulse, as well as for the ability to perceive principles, evaluate, revise, and commit to them. "Moral complexity" and "moral imagination" are the major rubrics under which much scholarship and teaching of the novel is predicated, an approach which can bear more fruit than an exclusive focus upon the structure of the plot (as though literature were a poor approximation of sculpture).

The best book I've ever read about the task of higher education is a study from 1970 called Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years: A Scheme by William G. Perry Jr. Its thesis, borne out by statistical evidence from a partly quantitative longitudinal study, is that the uneducated mind assumes that all important elements of the human world are to be described in nuance-free propositions whose truth value is either complete or nothing; with a little education, the student moves on into new uncertainty -- a crisis position from which the inbound assaults of nuance and ambiguity can no longer be repulsed. Then, when and if the student meets the "task of higher education," he or she becomes capable of tolerating complexity and ambiguity -- especially of the moral kind -- and sees all knowledge as circumscribed by human limitations, but not meaningless on that account. I can hardly imagine teaching Hamlet without mentioning this.

Hold in one hand the work of Lawrence Kohlberg on "moral development" and in the other Huckleberry Finn, or Anna Karenina, or Richard II, and notice that each illuminates the other.
Triangulating the pair is the student's need to orient himself to the world as it is.

"But if an idea or a policy is subjected to a certain kind of interrogation -- what is its history? how has it changed over time? who are its prominent proponents? what are the arguments for and against it? with what other policies is it usually packaged? -- then its partisan thrust will have been blunted, for it will have become an object of analysis rather than an object of affection." (20) The claim that it can't be both, is false.

Here's Fish on a line from the mission statement of Wesleyan U., which aims to:

"...'foster awareness, respect, and appreciation for a diversity of experiences, interests, beliefs and identities..' Awareness is okay; it's important to know what's out there. But why should students be taught to 'respect' a diversity of experiences, interests, beliefs and identities in advance of assessing them and taking their measure? The missing word here is 'evaluate.' That's what intellectual work is all about, the evaluation, not the celebration, of interests, beliefs, and identities; after all, interests can be base, beliefs can be wrong, and identities can be irrelevant to an inquiry."

Before answering Fish, let me agree that mission statements, invariable written by committee, are the last place in the world to look for good prose. Moving on:

I agree with Fish and disagree with most academics, in that I believe respect should not be taken as the axiomatic endpoint of any inquiry into a culture. I disagree with Fish in that I believe respect should be precisely the starting point of cultural inquiry, assumed "in advance." What books go on the syllabus of my favorite kind of course, the "Great Books" humanities survey? The variations teem like minnows, but usually there is some Homer, some Greek tragedy, and some Bible. Given the parties to the mayhem of the past eight years, it seems foolhardy to disinclude a look at the Koran. As I taught that book, I was horrified by the figure of a sadistic, bullying, trap-laying authoritarian father-God (not so different from the tyrant of Paradise Lost). My right to say so, and my ability to manage the class, came from my having paired this text-based observation with very similar assessments of comparable moments in the Torah and the Book of Revelation. I taught my students to respect Islam, but not in the way most Muslims seem to insist that it be respected, nor in the uncritical way that a lazy multiculturalist (there are other kinds) would. I distributed that respect, along with the critique that qualifies and even undermines it, evenly across the monotheist field. No narrow specialist can do that.

"interests can be base..." Yes. Interests do have to be evaluated. But understanding them is easier from a standpoint of initial respect than from an Olympian distance.

"beliefs can be wrong..." Yes. But this use of the word "wrong" locks you into a corresponding sense of the word "beliefs," and I suspect it is not the sense in which Welseyan is using it. Remember Wittgenstein on James George Frazer's Golden Bough? If you do, you're a step ahead of Fish: "Frazer's pesentation of the magical and religious views of men is unsatisfactory... It makes these views appear as errors."

"identities can be irrelevant to an inquiry..." Yes. And the best way to find out if there's a hidden, identity-related factor inflecting the inquiry or its object, is to take a look.

No review can do justice to a book if it stops at page 25. So I don't claim to have fully reviewed Save the World On Your Own Time, but I do feel I've pointed out the sources of my misgivings about the book as I read on. Until next time, gentle readers, au frickin revoir.

1 comment:

  1. Our restaurant reserves the right to refuse service to anyone, and "anyone" is looking very much like Stanley Fish right now...


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