Save the World on Your own Time
reviewed by Perry L. Glanzer
According to Stanley Fish’s recent book, Save the World on Your Own Time, “No university, and therefore no university official, should ever take a stand on any social, political or moral issue.” Of course, Fish does not mean that the university’s professors should not claim to know what a good teacher is or should do. That would put universities out of business. Instead, he argues that universities and the professors employed by them should not offer definitive answers to moral questions or shape students’ characters in accord with some larger vision of the good.
The moral authority for Fish’s normative claim stems from what he pronounces should be the only two purposes of the academic profession and the university: to “(1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry they didn’t know much about before; and (2) equip those same students with the analytical skills that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research should they choose to do so.”
Those who join universities, Fish believes, should take a monastic sort of pledge to abide by these missions and form their lives accordingly. He writes that “it is the professional, and in some sense moral, obligation of faculty members to check their moral commitments at the door.”
He applies the same thinking to the moral education of students, arguing that the university should not attempt to form a student’s character as a whole or teach him how to be a better citizen. Instead, he says, it should only promote a specific moral vision, one rooted in the students’ vocational identity. “No doubt, the practices of responsible citizenship and moral behavior should be encouraged in our young adults,” Fish admits, “but it’s not the business of the university to do so, except when the morality in question is the morality that penalizes cheating, plagiarizing and shoddy teaching, and the desired citizenship is defined not by the demands of democracy, but by the demands of the academy.”
Limited Moral Vision
Thus, Fish’s vision of moral formation for the university community is limited to those principles and virtues necessary for realizing its educational mission, such as “the integrity of scholarship, the evil of plagiarism, [and] the value of liberal education.” For professors, this means that “job performance should be assessed on the basis of academic virtue, not virtue in general. Teachers should show up for their classes, prepare lesson plans, teach what has been advertised, be current in the literature in the field, promptly correct assignments and papers, hold regular office hours, and give academic (not political or moral) advice.” For students, it means penalizing cheating and plagiarism, and promoting such intellectual virtues as “thoroughness, perseverance, [and] intellectual honesty.”
Fish sets forth two reasons for promoting this limited moral vision within universities. First, he thinks these purposes are the only ones universities can actually achieve. He claims that “teachers cannot, except for a serendipity that by definition cannot be counted on, fashion moral character, or inculcate respect for others, or produce citizens of a certain temper.” Moreover, he argues, you cannot find such tasks in their contracts. Second, any other approach would lead to the corruption of the university, because it would mean that the university’s “resources have been appropriated for a nonacademic purpose.”
Fish recognizes that he’s swimming against the current by making this argument, but he claims to have some old allies. He even claims to have John Henry Newman on his side. I find this doubtful, however, since Newman saw the Church as indispensable to the work of the university. Fish appears to think that the Church would likely be a corrupting influence.
Although he allows in one parenthetical remark that sectarian institutions should be allowed to indoctrinate, his whole argument implies that a university’s attachment to any religious, political, or ideological identity will corrupt it. He claims that, in order to achieve their purposes, universities must even throw off the shackles of various versions of the liberal democratic story that compete to control them, since “democratic values and academic values are not the same and . . . the confusion of the two can easily damage the quality of education.”
Fish is certainly correct that universities can be corrupted by political traditions. The institutions of higher education in post-Communist countries are notorious for their academic corruption. Having taught a year in Russia, I can attest that cheating, plagiarism, bribery, and academic fraud are rampant. Whether or not such corruption is the direct result of Communism could be debated, but Communism certainly did not improve the situation.
But what is a professor supposed to do when it is the university and not the world that needs saving? While Fish wants professors to save the world on their own time, he also wants to save the university. Apparently, he believes either that the university is not part of the world, or that one should only save the part of the world toward which he has a professional obligation. Since Fish appears to support what I call the professional moral tradition, the latter must be the case. In this respect, he exemplifies what Bruce Wilshire describes in The Moral Collapse of the University: “Professionalism emerges as a quasi-religion, our only way, apparently, of holding ourselves together after the disintegration of religious myths and pre-industrial traditions.”
For those inhabiting the professional moral tradition, saving universities requires administrators and professors to obey the first commandment of the tradition: “Thou shall be professional.” After all, every moral tradition needs to place limits upon the individual community members’ autonomy in order to ensure faithfulness. But I have my doubts that corrupt university practices in, say, post-Communist or developing countries will be solved simply by giving such a command or by setting forth the academic ideal behind it.
What Fish fails to recognize is that while certain moral traditions may corrupt the academy, other moral traditions may enhance it. If hopes for returning virtues to a corrupted professional environment often require that communities be concerned with larger human goods and virtues, then we need a grander vision for higher education. At the very least, we need one that opens the door for universities to be sustained by moral traditions other than the professional tradition suggested by Fish.
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“Purely Academic” first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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