Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Skewering the Straw Man

Stanley Fish is a verbally clever man but he uses his abilities to obfuscate

In 1892, a Massachusetts court ruled that a policeman's speech rights had not been violated by a law forbidding certain political activities by officers. State Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: "The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman." That thought is germane to the controversy -- a hardy perennial -- about the rights and duties of college professors. Concerning which, Stanley Fish has written an often intelligent but ultimately sly and evasive book, "Save the World On Your Own Time."

A former dean, and currently law professor at Florida International University, Fish is an intellectual provocateur with a taste for safe targets. While arguing against an obviously indefensible facet of the politicization of higher education, he suggests that a much larger facet is either nonexistent or unimportant.

Some academics, he says, either do not know what their job is or prefer to do something else. He recommends a "narrow sense" of the academic vocation that precludes saving the world, a mission for which academics have no special qualifications. Universities talk about making students sensitive, compassionate, tolerant, democratic, etc., but those bland adjectives often are packed with political agendas. The "focused" academic vocation that Fish favors is spacious enough for actual academic skills involving "the transmission of knowledge and the conferring of analytical skills."

Fish's "deflationary" definition of the scholar's function denies radical professors the frisson of considering themselves "transformative" -- because "transgressive" -- "agents of change." But he insists that his definition would exclude no topic from the curriculum. Any topic, however pertinent to political controversies, can, he says, be "academicized." It can be detached "from the context of its real world urgency" and made the subject of inquiry concerning its history and philosophic implications.

Suggesting bravery on his part, Fish says his views are those of an excoriated academic minority. Actually, it is doubtful that a majority of professors claim a right and duty to explicitly indoctrinate students. But if they do, Fish should be neither surprised nor scandalized -- he is both -- that support for public universities has declined.

Fish's advocacy of a banal proscription -- of explicit political preaching in classrooms -- may have made him anathema to academia's infantile left. The shrewder left will, however, welcome his book because it denies or defends other politicizations of academia that are less blatant but more prevalent and consequential -- those concerning hiring and curricula.

Fish does not dispute the fact that large majorities of humanities and social science professors are on the left. But about the causes and consequences of this, he airily says: It is all "too complicated" to tell in his book, other than to say that the G.I. Bill began the inclusion of "hitherto underrepresented and therefore politically active" groups.

Then, promiscuously skewering straw men, he says, "these were not planned events" and universities do not "resolve" to hire liberals and there is no "vast left-wing conspiracy" and inquiring into a job applicant's politics is not "allowed" and "the fact of a predominantly liberal faculty says nothing necessarily about what the faculty teaches." Note Fish's obfuscating "necessarily."

The question is not whether the fact "necessarily" says something about teaching but whether the fact really does have pedagogic consequences. About the proliferation of race and gender courses, programs and even departments, Fish says there are two relevant questions: Are there programs "with those names that are more political than academic?" And do such programs "have to be more political than academic?" He says the answer to the first is "yes," to the second "no."

But again, note his slippery language: "have to be," which he uses like "necessarily." The political nature of such curricula is why they often are set apart from established, and more academically rigorous, departments of sociology, history, etc. This political nature may not "have to" influence -- may not "necessarily" influence -- teaching. But does it? Fish, who enjoys seeming to be naughty, tamely opts for dogmatic denial.

Genuflecting before today's academic altar, he asserts what no one denies: Race and gender are "worthy of serious study." He concedes that "many of these programs gained a place in the academy through political activism." But he says that does not mean that political activism "need be" prominent in the teaching. Gliding from "necessarily" to "have to be" to "need be," Fish, a timid iconoclast, spares academia's most sacred icons. People who tell you they are brave usually are not.


Australia: University education still beyond the reach of many (?)

The great unmentionable is not mentioned below. As Charles Murray and others have shown long ago, poorer people tend to have lower IQs. So that alone will mean that fewer get to university -- and there's not much you can do about it. My parents were poor and I paid my own way through university, when there was a lot less help available than there is now. Why cannot the "deprived" soul mentioned below do the same? It's just spoilt people whining. There is absolutely no reason why the young woman cannot take a government HECS loan at least

Wealthy students remain about three times more likely to go to university than those from poorer backgrounds, despite more than 15 years of government policy to widen access to tertiary education. While the causes are complex, going back to poverty, family attitudes, aspiration and disadvantaged schooling, data shows that an expensive private school remains the best way to maximise the exam results needed to get into the top universities.

As thousands of school leavers sweat on their exam results, the federal Government is facing a huge challenge to boost the participation of the economically disadvantaged at a time when the Government's capacity to effect change has been hit by the financial crisis punching a hole in future tax revenues.

Adrienne Moore, 18, wants to study biology and genetics and is hopeful she has got into Deakin University in Geelong. But her mother, Christine Richardson, 49, worries how she is going to afford it. "I sit up in bed every night and have that knife turning, wondering how I am going to do it," Ms Richardson told The Weekend Australian. A mother of six who was plunged into bankruptcy and poverty by a marriage break-up and is now battling breast cancer, Ms Richardson has already had to say no to the university ambitions of her three elder children. One of those is now unemployed when a degree is likely to have kept him in work.

Ms Richardson, whose disability pension doesn't cover her rent, is relying on Learning-For-Life scholarships and student mentoring from the Smith Family to try to give Adrienne and her younger brother and sister the opportunities she couldn't give her elder children. "It (university) was just one of those things that couldn't be done. I just couldn't have done any more than I did to keep the family afloat, and I regret that to this day."

Living in Hoppers Crossing in Melbourne's lower-income outer west, Adrienne got through school without a computer and by borrowing books and scientific calculators from her teachers. Earlier this year she couldn't afford to go into Melbourne to attend special exam information sessions that her friends went to. "That was stressful ... but what can you do about it?" she said.

Despite the Dawkins reforms of 1989 creating a mass university system and the introduction of income contingent loans, students from the bottom 25per cent of postcodes ranked according to wealth and education make up only 15per cent of university admissions. In contrast, the wealthiest 25per cent claim a disproportionate 37per cent of places. While the numbers of low-socio-economic students getting into university grew to 43,383 last year from 36,150 10 years ago, there has been little progress in denting their chronic underrepresentation.

Promoting access is set to be central to recommendations from Canberra's Bradley review of higher education that will be released next month. Universities are likely to be given more incentives to widen access at a time when more and more vice-chancellors are also looking to base this access beyond narrow statewide exam results to take into account background and broader achievements.

"Through no one's fault, the universities are complicit with schools and the state Government in running secondary school education tests that necessarily disadvantage sections of the population," La Trobe University vice-chancellor Paul Johnson told The Weekend Australian. Macquarie University vice-chancellor Steven Schwartz has said: 'Unless we believe that students from low-income families lack the ability or the motivation for university-level study, the absence of talented students from our campuses represents not only a loss to them but also to society".


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