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Save the world on your own time

by Stanley Eugene Fish

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2 of 2 people found this review helpful.
Educate, don't indoctrinate   (2008-11-30)


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by DenverJeffrey

Stanley Eugene Fish is a teacher, scholar, university administrator, and public intellectual, but mostly he's a teacher. In this work, he proposes that teaching faculty should refrain from trying to indoctrinate college and university students and should instead, "academize" their work; that is to say, they should teach about topics, methods, and content rather than trying to save the world by getting their students to adopt certain dogma. In his words:


Of course one is free to prefer other purposes to the purposes appropriate to the academy, but one is not free to employ the academy's machinery and resources in the service of those other purposes. If what you really want to do is preach, or organize political rallies, or work for world peace, or minister to the poor and homeless, or counsel troubled youths, you should either engage in those activities after hours and on weekends, or if part-time is not enough time, you should resign from the academy, as Paul Street did, and take up work that speaks directly to the problems you feel compelled to address. Do not, however, hi-jack the academic enterprise and then justify what you've done by invoking academic freedom. The moment a teacher tries to promote a political or social agenda, mold the character of students, produce civic virtue, or institute a regime of tolerance, he or she has stepped away from the immanent rationality of the enterprise and performed an action in relation to which there is no academic freedom protection because there's nothing academic going on. (p. 81)  


I've been a cataloger in academic libraries for over 18 years, and I have cataloged thousands of books, like this one, to which I have assigned the subject heading "Education—Aims and objectives—United States." This work stands out among all the rest, and it's among the few that I've felt motivated to read completely.


Fish's writing is compelling; he convinces with his examples and his logic, and he's not afraid to use humor to make his points. The work has several chapters that deal only indirectly with the work's main thesis. I think the work is really a selection of some of the author's recent writings on higher education that were stitched together to make this book. I particularly liked his chapter "Administrative interlude," which sings the praises of university administration (the author spent many years working as a department head and dean).  


In his conclusion Fish writes:


You know you are being academic (rather than therapeutic or political or hortatory) when the questions raised in your classroom have the goal of achieving a more accurate description or of testing a thesis; you know that you are being (or trying to be) something else with the descriptions you put forward are really stepping stones to an ideological conclusion (even one so apparently innocuous as "we should respect the voices of others"). The academic enterprise excludes no topic from its purview, but it regards any and every topic as a basis for analysis rather than as a stimulus to some moral, political, or existential commitment. Not to practice politics, but to study it; not to proselytize for or against religious doctrines, but to describe them; not to affirm or reject affirmative action but to explore its history and lay out the arguments that have been made for or against it.  (p. 169)


Fish is right. The best college teachers –the ones you learn the most from—are those that teach you to be an expert in a subject rather than to believe a certain way about the subject. Fish is a natural teacher, but his students (members of the academy) are doctrinaire.  It will be interesting to observe what impact, if any, this work has on the aims and objectives of higher education in the United States.  

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