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Universities need new mission statements, Fish says

Profs. overstep their purpose, Times blogger argues

By
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Halfway through his lecture Monday afternoon, Stanley Fish, author of the New York Times blog “Think Again,” told a mostly filled Salomon 101 that universities have their stated goals all wrong. University mission statements are “all unbearable,” Fish said, and “they should all be burned.”

A professor of law and humanities at Florida International University, Fish based his presentation on his new book, “Save the World on Your Own Time.” The event was sponsored by the Graduate School and structured as a lecture-debate. Fish read “a discarded introduction” to his new book a few paragraphs at a time and paused between sections to solicit questions from the audience.

Fish’s main premise was that college professors can “legitimately do two things: first, introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry” and second, “equip those same students with the analytical skills” they need to “move confidently within these new traditions and to engage in independent research.”

“That’s all there is to it,” Fish said, “nothing more and nothing less.” But according to Fish, university professors often try to do a lot more than their job entails.

“If you read the mission statements put out by some colleges and universities, you would think that every ill mankind had ever suffered was to be cured by the right curriculum and by a visionary instructor,” Fish said.

Fish said Wesleyan University pledges in its mission statement “to foster awareness, respect and appreciation for a diversity of experiences, interests, beliefs and identities.”

“Awareness is okay – I can buy that,” Fish said. “But why should students be taught to respect a diversity of interests, beliefs and identities in advance of assessing them and taking their measure? The missing word here, I believe, is ‘evaluate.’ That’s what intellectual work is about.”

These qualities need to be questioned first, according to Fish. “As we all know, interests can be base, beliefs can be wrong and identities are often irrelevant to any inquiry.”

Fish said Michigan State University’s mission statement aspires to shape “graduates who perform admirably as citizens.” But he said this conflates what is to be hoped for with what can be taught.

The academy has a “limited, focused” aim of “passing on knowledge and conferring skills,” Fish said. Professors abandon their contracts when they attempt to “fashion moral character, or inculcate respect for others or produce citizens of a certain temperament,” he added, noting that such effects are “contingent” to the mission of the academy.

Fish, who opened by acknowledging the “polemical” nature of his thesis, faced challenging questions from the audience during his presentation.

One student asked where character comes from – if not colleges and universities – and what the purpose of the study of the humanities is if not the development of character.

“I don’t know,” Fish said in answer to both questions, adding that it was not his responsibility to know. But he added that it is “a mistake to ask or answer the question, ‘What justifies liberal arts education?'”

“The justification question always is asked from someone who is outside the enterprise” and therefore requires subjugation to “someone else’s sense” of value, Fish said.

Liberal arts education exists because “for some reason, society is willing to pay some of us to engage” in communal academic work, Fish said, and “we find it pleasurable and we like to do it.”

One attendee challenged Fish. “You’re attacking the mission statements. But the university can have a more holistic mission than the narrow training of the faculty.”

In response, Fish took his argument a step further. “Universities sometimes do, in fact, take moral stances or political stances. I think they are wrong to do so,” Fish said, adding that schools were “wrong to divest” from South Africa and Israel, “wrong to monitor the factories” that produce their apparel and wrong to take any positions on social or economic issues.

“Universities do not stand for anything except the integrity of the pedagogical, intellectual enterprise,” Fish said.

Though he said “there are no limits … on the kinds of topics, or questions or issues that can be introduced in college or university classrooms,” Fish did set limits “on what can be done” about those issues.

It is the job of professors to “academicize” any issue by removing the topic from “the context of real world urgency where there is a vote to be taken or a policy to be implemented” and moving it “into a context of academic urgency where there is a description to be given, or an account to be offered or an analysis to be hassled,” Fish said.

“In other words … you leach the political and moral interests out of the subject and, again, make it into an object of academic interrogation.”

At the conclusion of his lecture, Fish returned to the theme of justification and the difficulty colleges and universities face when they are “unconcerned about the public yield” of their activities and devoted to “the asking of questions for their own sake.”

“It may seem paradoxical to say so, but any justification of the academic enterprise is always a denigration of it,” Fish said. “The honest thing to do whenever someone from the outside asks, ‘What use is your venture, anyway?’ is to answer ‘None whatsoever.'”

Fish said he had “no idea” how to defend higher education without subordinating it to higher ideals of justice, morality or economic growth. But he added: “Then again, it’s not my job.”

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