Academic, Notable, Politics

Stanley Fish has an op-ed in the New York Times entitled Why We Built the Ivory Tower in which he argues that academics should stay out of politics.

Marx famously said that our job is not to interpret the world, but to change it. In the academy, however, it is exactly the reverse: our job is not to change the world, but to interpret it. While academic labors might in some instances play a role in real-world politics — if, say, the Supreme Court cites your book on the way to a decision — it should not be the design or aim of academics to play that role.

The first thing that struck me about Fish’s piece is how sad it is that such an esteemed scholar is unable to advance his argument beyond that of Weber’s 1918 talk at Munich University.

To the prophet and the demagogue, it is said: Go your ways out into the streets and speak openly to the world,’ that is, speak where criticism is possible. In the lecture-room we stand opposite our audience, and it has to remain silent. I deem it irresponsible to exploit the circumstance that for the sake of their career the students have to attend a teacher’s course while there is nobody present to oppose him with criticism. The task of the teacher is to serve the students with his knowledge and scientific experience and not to imprint upon them his personal political views. It is certainly possible that the individual teacher will not entirely succeed in eliminating his personal sympathies. He is then exposed to the sharpest criticism in the forum of his own conscience. And this deficiency does not prove anything; other errors are also possible, for instance, erroneous statements of fact, and yet they prove nothing against the duty of searching for the truth. I also reject this in the very interest of science. I am ready to prove from the works of our historians that whenever the man of science introduces his personal value judgment, a full understanding of the facts ceases.

But even Weber understood that it is possible to be political without it necessarily interfering with one’s academic duties:

And if he feels called upon to intervene in the struggles of world views and party opinions, he may do so outside, in the market place, in the press, in meetings, in associations, wherever he wishes.

Fish, on the other hand, seems to feel that politics is distracting people from doing the job that they are paid to do:

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.

The real issue should be whether or not we are truly able to do our job without engaging in the political implications of what we do. I personally believe Weber was mistaken to believe that a scholar could be completely objective. The answer, I believe, is to be found in this passage from Weber’s famous speech:

The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize inconvenient’ facts–I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others. I believe the teacher accomplishes more than a mere intellectual task if he compels his audience to accustom itself to the existence of such facts.

What Weber misses is that political opinions themselves belong to the class of inconvenient facts.” Rather than trying to suppress such facts so as to maintain the myth of scientific objectivity, it is better to try to understand their role in the process knowledge production. Much of what I consider to be the most interesting scholarship done since World War II is work that explores this issue. I’m not going to give a full account of it here, but suffice to say that such scholarship does not all fall into a single category of scholarship, such as Marxism or Post-Structuralism. Personally, I believe that Fish has his own political agenda — a desire to attack such scholarship; but, instead of critically engaging with inconvenient facts,” he chooses to attack it in a rather round-about fashion, hiding his true purpose.

UPDATE: Here is a quote from an earlier piece by Fish, in which he starts out talking about how great identity-politics has been for academic scholarship, but then concludes that it has really done more harm than good:

Now if intellectual diversity is not an academic value, adherence to it as an end in itself will not further an academic goal; but it will further some goal, and that goal will be political. It will be part of an effort to alter the academy so that it becomes an extension of some partisan vision of the way the world should be.