Fish to politicians: eff off

When I first heard about Stanley Fish’s new book, Save the World on Your Own Time, I though, oh great:  another book perpetuating the myth that most professors are Leninist ecoterrorist feminazis.  He agrees that the vast majority of us are much more worried about teaching our students to think and write more clearly, and to master the basics of the Regency novel, the Scottish Enlightenment, or the Smoot-Hawley Tarriff Act, than we are about forcing our ideologies on them.  In an interview with Inside Higher Ed published today, Fish says:

I think the perception is that college campuses these days are populated by liberal/radical faculty who are always imposing their loyalties on the students in an attempt … to recruit students into a political agenda.

The reality is that the percentage … who do something like that is perhaps small, I would say, at the most, 10 percent, probably more like 5 or 6 percent. But the success of the neoconservative public relations machine has implanted in the public mind this idea of a university simply permeated by political ideologues masking as pedagogues….

Well, maybe writing a book called Save the World on Your Own Time isn’t the best way to puncture that myth?  (But that title will probably move more books off the shelves than a book called Faculty Are Just Doing Their Jobs, So Just Leave Them Alone.  You can’t say the guy doesn’t know his marketing!)  But, being Stanley Fish, he’s just full of surprises.  I particularly liked his advice for public universiity administrators seeking funding from state legislators.  In short–do it the Chicago Way:

My response was, look, higher education administrators go hat in hand … they’re always in a begging or petitionary posture, and that just doesn’t work. People don’t in fact respond well to that, and I found what they did respond well to was confrontation of an aggressive kind…. If you say to state legislators, “You guys don’t know what you’re talking about! What if I came to your offices and told you within five minutes and without having any experience … what it is you should be doing, you’d throw me out, laughing me out of the room.” Well that’s what we should be doing…. “What do you know about 18th-century French poetry? …”

If you embarrass people … if you make them afraid of you, you are in a better position than you are if you go to them on your knees.

BAM!  I love it.  After all, what do public universities have to lose?  As Fish notes at another point in the interview, “The interesting thing, or actually distressing thing … is that at the same time that the legislature of many states takes the money away from universities, the legislatures seek to impose more and more curricular and faculty control over the universities, so it’s a very unhappy situation in which colleges are being told we’re going to take your money away and we’re going to increasingly monitor every single thing you do.”  Personally, Historiann thinks that the major state universities in Colorado, which now receive between 9 and 11 percent of their funding from the state, should strip the word “Colorado” from their names and offer up the naming rights to any person or corporation who’s willing to fork over 20 percent of our annual budget.

In the end, it sounds like the book has some very good advice for faculty, even if he picks out some obvious targets for criticism (Ward Churchill and Larry Summers in particular).  He says “the three-part mantra which organizes the book” is “[d]o your job, don’t try to do someone else’s job and don’t let anyone else do your job.  And I think that if we as instructors … would adhere to that mantra, we would be more responsible in the prosecution of our task and less vulnerable to the criticisms of those who would want to either undermine or control us.”  And that seems like a really good place to start.

0 thoughts on “Fish to politicians: eff off

  1. Or sell the rights to the name “Colorado” to, say, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which could jettison another literal but local and obscure name for a state university (like Edinboro or Bloomsburg), and add to its curious collection of exotic names, viz. “Colorado University of Pennsylvania.” Maybe we could do some sort of mutual in-state tuition swaps arrangement to seal the deal?


  2. NY Times columnist Fish came to town last year and proceeded to berate a large roomful of us on how important it is to focus on limited research agendas rather than take up political questions. It was a highly charged political diatribe, and thus the title of his book — not so much a publisher-induced attention-grabber as an over-the-hill Fish wagging his finger at the likes of you, historiann. So I’m surprised that you give him a pass. The book is part distillation of his vapid Chronicle columns and the ruminations of a retiree. And we brought him only because he has old friends in my department. Yes, they’re old. He’s old. And they have bully tendencies too. “If you embarrass them and make them afraid of you” you are a bully, right?

    I kept waiving my arm during his lecture but he didn’t call on me — because what I wanted to say was, you’re like a parent who spent his youth in an opium den telling his kids just say no. If he had followed his own advice, we’d have at least one more great book on Milton or reader-response theory and a lot fewer third-rate newspaper columns.


  3. “You’re like a parent who spent his youth in an opium den telling his kids just say no.”

    Excellent line! But, isn’t that always the way with the Baby Boomer generation: dissipation for me in my youth, but you Gen Xers and Gen Yers still have to respect my authoriTAY now that I’m an old coot! Thanks for the up-close and personal look at Fish. (BTW, I wasn’t going to spend money on the book–I just liked the advice about dealing with state legislators!) His advice to faculty seems to run counter to what we’re told by everyone else–that we need to make our research “relevant” and “broader.” Oh well, Fish is nothing if not a contrarian, as well as someone who’s never taken the brand of home cure he’s peddling now.

    As for the bullying stuff: if Fish (or anyone) behaved that way to his colleagues, then it’s bullying. But if he slapped around some state legislators in an effort to get them to respect his professional expertise, then I’m OK with that. I think it’s just fine to take it to The Man–but never to those near you or especially not below you on the hierarchy of the Great Chain of Academic Being.


  4. Pingback: The bookless library : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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