Saturday, April 18, 2009

Kubrick Throws Bone/Rocket At Sky, Hits Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish’s magic charm (“do your job; don't do somebody else's job; don't let someone else do your job”) defines as someone else’s job the business of deliberating the urgent moral questions of the day. At first this seems sensible:

"I am urging professors to remain silent on important political issues only when they are engaged in teaching. After hours, on their own time, when they write letters to the editor or speak at campus rallies, they can be as vocal as they like about anything and everything. That distinction is not likely to satisfy a critic like Ben Wallace, who complained on (in response to a New York Times op-ed) that 'under Fish’s rule, a faculty member in the South in the 1950’s could not embrace and urge the idea that segregation is wrong and that students should act to remedy the situation.' That’s right. In the 1950’s the legal and moral status of segregation was a live political question working its way through legislatures and courts, which were (and are) the proper venues for adjudicating the issue. Faculty members were free to air their views in public forums and many did, but those who used the classroom as a soapbox were co-opting a space intended for other purposes. Today the situation is quite different. Segregation, at least the non-voluntary kind, is no longer a live issue; it has been settled and there is no possibility at all of reviving it. Consequently it would now be entirely appropriate to discuss it in a classroom and even appropriate for a professor to declare (as some have declared of slavery) that it really wasn't so bad. (29)"

This business about an imaginary professor saying Segregation “really wasn’t so bad” is a dead giveaway that here Fish is playing a game of bait the hippies, which might be fun but is not terribly interesting. This is the crux: “In the 1950’s the legal and moral status of segregation was a live political question working its way through legislatures and courts, which were (and are) the proper venues for adjudicating the issue.” The trouble is that these real institutions are not adequate to their ideal function. Fanny Lou Hamer marched to Washington DC with her Mississippi Delegates, but they were not seated. Legislatures and courts were indeed among the “proper venues” for settling Segregation, but had debate occurred only inside those institutions, there would have been no change, as I am sure Professor Fish would agree. He also accepts various “on your own time” avenues of political expression for teachers and students, and those would contribute to legislative and judicial progress in aggregate.

Like Fish, I believe paying customers have every right to expect a course on calculus to remain silent on the question of the Vietnam War. Within that right I insist that academic freedom must protect the professor who tells a classroom of thirty students, “Here is the mathematical formalism governing catapult ballistics. It arises in, for instance, the biophysics of an eighteen year old man throwing a baseball in Newark, or a hand grenade in Afghanistan. To do so is to enter the students’ mental library and deactivate the Hollywood imago of the “geek”: the notion that because math itself is cold, people who pursue it tend to be cold, detached figures. A vibrant professor who included this sentence in her introductory calculus lesson would be removing obstacles to student motivation, drawing students in toward the subject, and modeling the figure of the lifelong learner who pursues unity of knowledge.

Academic freedom takes on form and contour when a teacher’s classroom utterance both (1) remains within the boundaries of the advertised academic discipline and (2) sheds light on urgent public questions of the day, but (3) without taking a position on them. Would Stanley Fish object to that? I wonder.

When I teach Hamlet, I bring home to my students the creepy presence of the unspeakable in the murder of King Hamlet the Elder by showing them the story of the Assassination of President Kennedy. In fact, for two semesters at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, I taught an entire course based on four texts: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, by Peter Dale Scott. Students were stirred by the that experience, because it merged areas of the psyche that had been compartmentalized by the ideology of the culture of capital. In other words, the students got excited, grew morally, and turned in strong academic performances because the course was electrifying. It was so for many reasons, but the most important is the mutual reflection of past art and present life. From a pedagogical point of view, “deep events” like 9/11 and 11/22 (the First Kennedy Assassination) are ideal for connecting students’ inner lives to the texts at hand. It is not difficult to prove that the very issues that govern Elizabethan drama are also at the heart of current affairs—provided that one knows something about Elizabethan drama, and about current affairs.

Around 2000 I started writing a book based on that course. I keep meaning to get back to it...

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