May 21, 2004

Stanley Fish and the good old ivory tower.

Stanley Fish, in an op-ed in today's NYT, says the search for truth should be the university's only mission. Our job as academics, he says, is to interpret the world, not to change it. He's disagreeing with people who assume it is the role of academics to "consider civic responsibility as an explicit and important aim of college education" (former Harvard president Derek Bok) and "provide students with the knowledge and commitments to be socially responsible citizens" (the Association of American Colleges and Universities).
The idea that universities should be in the business of forming character and fashioning citizens is often supported by the claim that academic work should not be hermetically sealed or kept separate from the realm of values. But the search for truth is its own value, and fidelity to it mandates the accompanying values of responsibility in pedagogy and scholarship.

Performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level is a job big enough for any scholar and for any institution. And, as I look around, it does not seem to me that we academics do that job so well that we can now take it upon ourselves to do everyone else's job too. We should look to the practices in our own shop, narrowly conceived, before we set out to alter the entire world by forming moral character, or fashioning democratic citizens, or combating globalization, or embracing globalization, or anything else.

My university is openly dedicated to the opposite notion, so dedicated to it that for a long time we've called it "The Wisconsin Idea":
The Wisconsin Idea shows the concept of a preeminent research university functioning as an ivory tower to be hopelessly outdated and wildly inaccurate.

Now, what Fish is most concerned about, however, is academics engaged in partisan politics, especially if they subvert the search for truth in the process. But he's probably taking his desire for a return to the ivory tower too far. Some of us would enjoy the ivory tower only too much, and there is plenty of self-interest on the part of academics who want to return to it. But the search for truth? Yes, let's do that again.


Anonymous said...

The recent spectacle of Fish and his preoccupation with Truth is highly amusing.

To me, Fish is the Dick Morris of the academy--well spoken, always fascinating, but about as trustworthy as a blind weasel.

Anonymous said...

Some professors wouldn't know the truth if it bit them on the butt.

Harsh Pencil said...

It's nice to hear that Fish now believes that truth exists (if he, in fact, does).