Monday, July 24, 2006

Stanley Fish on Barrett

The NYT (reg. required) published an editorial by Stanley Fish today, arguing that both sides are incorrect in their positions about academic freedom.

He argues that the key issue is freedom to do your job without external interference--in this case objectively studying the causes of 9/11--but no freedom for prostyletizing.


lammers said...

That seems a reasonable view to me, on its face. But I worry about that that word "proselytizing." It carries the connotation of a view held by few, and often unpopular, which zealots seek to make better known. We don't really use the word when talking about widely held views. Therefore, it seems to say that it is alright to quash minority opinions.

I am very emphatic in my classes that there is no objective evidence to support Divine Creation or Intelligent Design, that if one chooses to lend credence to such ideas, it must be solely on the basis of faith, not on a rational analysis of the data. Some polls suggest that a majority of Americans are dubious of the veracity of evolution. Does this then mean I am proselytizing?

I think the entire issue boils down to one of respect. I have had almost no complaints about my emphatic teaching of evolution because I make it clear that I respect the rights of individuals to disagree. I make it clear that their grade will not depend on them swearing fealty to my views, that all I expect is for them to UNDERSTAND. Whether they choose to BELIEVE or not is their business.

However, I know that this is not always the case in academe, particularly in disciplines where opinion and schools-of-thought rule rather than data and analysis. I have heard horror stories of students publicly humiliated by professors for their views.

I think the acid test for Barrett will be how he responds when students take him to task for his views. Will he be petulant and vindicative, brooking no dissent, and insulting those who question his views? Or will those who rock the boat have the potential to do as well as those who toe the line?

Botanist Arthur Cronquist was once criticized for not representing opposing views by other authors in his books. He replied, "Those who want to read other views should read the books of other authors." No one class is the totality of the collegiate experience. Students who stay awake are exposed to a wide diversity of ideas, opinions, and viewpoints in their courses. A big part of a liberal arts education is sifting through this mass and deciding what parts of it to embrace and internalize and what parts to cast aside and ignore.

The key to this is not whether Barrett espouses a wacky, idiosyncratic, or repulsive viewpoint. The marketplace of ideas deals not only in gold bullion and sterling silver but in shoddy retreads and sheep manure, too. Students need to be exposed to it all if thgey are to learn discernment and disgression. The key point is whether Barrett will behave professionally in the classroom, treating students as an educator should, or whether he will betray his obligation to his students for the sake of a political agenda.

tony palmeri said...

The letter below was sent to the NYT as a direct response to Stanley Fish's piece. The author, Herbert W. Simons, is a professor emeritus of communication and media studies at Temple University. I agree with his positition. --Tony

Simons' letter:

In "Conspiracy Theories 101" (7/23/06) Fish denies that the doctrine of academic freedom has anything to do with faculty advocacy in the college classroom. "In fact," he maintains, it has only to do with academics' "freedom to study anything they like." This novel interpretation of the doctrine is asserted without evidence, and Fish weakens his argument further by equating faculty advocacy with proselytizing and indoctrinating, as though taking and defending a position in the classroom necessarily involved imposition. Academics should teach, not coerce, but they can do so through argument-making, rather than by attempting to appear neutral or even-handed, as Fish suggests. Considerations of relevance apply, just as they do for what Fish calls "freedom to study." And teachers ought to exhibit respect for opposing views, including those of their students. But Fish never shows that these principles were violated in the one case that he cites.

Anonymous said...

Sigh! Barrett will be the costliest adjunct in UW history. He does not give a damn about the harm he is doing to the system. This is not about academic freedom, it is about him. He is clearly enjoying the publicity, he loves getting involved in public fights with the governor and idiots like Bill O'reilly. He gets free publicity for his ideas which could never stand up to any kind of academic scrutiny. For those of you who defend his right to teach what he wants despite his lack of data, I am sorry but he does not care about your academic freedom, or what might happen to it when he leaves. He only cares about his cause. That is not academia, that is not intellectual freedom, and the students and faculty of the university will pay the price of his grandstanding for years.