Friday, May 05, 2006

Fish Hooks Horowitz

Stanley Fish has never been a favorite of mine. I first became aware of him when he appeared on a panel at a Modern Language Association convention over twenty years ago. I don’t remember the topic, but one of the other presenters said things that Fish did not like. Instead of arguing the facts, Fish belittled the man—something that he, with his comfortable stage presence, could easily do (especially since the other was comparatively inarticulate). I didn’t think Fish treated the man fairly, intellectually or otherwise.

And then there was Alan Sokal’s 1994 hoax that made such a fool out of many “theory” aficionados. In a New York Times op-ed on May 21, 1996, Fish tried to brush aside what Sokal had accomplished (he had managed to get a gobbledy-gook article accepted in one journal, debunking is and exposing the hoax in another soon after), in part by comparing observation of science with watching baseball, concluding that:
A research project that takes the practice of science as an object of study is not a threat to that practice because, committed as it is to its own goals and protocols, it doesn't reach into, and therefore doesn't pose a danger to, the goals and protocols it studies.
Uh… Perfesser, that ain’t what was gnawin’ at Sokal.

Nor was it simply that baseball and science are both, to some degree, ‘social constructions.’

Yet I have always respected Fish. He can find the weakness in an argument faster than anyone, and he knows how to express his views with clarity and the appearance of ease. He’s even good when he is wrong (most annoying!).

On May 2nd, in another New York Times op-ed, he was anything but wrong.

This time, he was writing about David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights,” doing so with a deftness that I can only admire:
The strong suggestion [in the “Academic Bill of Rights] is that academic freedom and intellectual diversity go together, but in fact they pull in opposite directions. Academic freedom is the freedom to go wherever an intellectual inquiry takes you without regard to directives proclaimed in advance by a regime of prior restraint. Intellectual diversity is a prior restraint; it tells you where to look and what you must look at—you must take into account every point of view independently of whether you think it is worth considering—and it tells you what materials you must include in your syllabus. The number of viewpoints you decide to consult or present to your students should be determined by the shape and history of the academic task rather than by a general imperative which may or not be pertinent to a particular line of inquiry.
What can I say, but “Bingo!”

Fish goes on:
The truth is that despite the packaging of its name, intellectual diversity is not an intellectual requirement, it is a political one. It is at base a demand for proportional representation, for it asks that we take a census of the perspectives and theories vying for attention and take steps to assure that each of them is accorded space in our lesson plan. Intellectual diversity is not a device for winnowing the true from the false, but a device of inclusion.
This is what has gotten so many of us up in arms against Horowitz. No matter how often he may try to claim otherwise, his is an attempt to insert politics into the classroom. The very fact that he is trying to institute his “Academic Bill of Rights” through legislative action makes this clear. Fish’s point, that it is also inherent within, is simply further proof.

Anyone interested in Horowitz’s movement (whatever their view of it) really should read Fish’s piece. Yes, there is a lot of junk out there that doesn’t need to be read, but this article is not one of them. A complaint of the right is that their work is not often considered in academia (Daniel Flynn, for example, doesn’t like that I refuse to even read his books Intellectual Morons and Why the Left Hates America). Fish counters them:
If I am persuaded that a dispute in the field has been resolved beyond any reasonable doubt, why should I waste class time telling my students about approaches rejected by the vast majority of researchers? (Yes, I know that an approach rejected today may be revived in 10 or 30 or 50 years and prove triumphant, but I am paid to teach the present state of the discipline, not to speculate about what it will look like in an indefinite future that may never arrive.) This does not mean that challenges to prevailing orthodoxies should not be mounted, only that they should be mounted for good disciplinary reasons—like the emergence of new evidence or the discrediting of old evidence—and not for the blanket reason that we must have intellectual diversity.
As we Quakers say, “Friend speaks my mind.”

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