Cutting through the bullshit.

Monday, 24 July 2006

Gone Fishing

In yesterday’s NY Times, one Stanley Fish, ‘a law professor at Florida International University’, had an op ed on academic freedom.

In the context of a discussion of calls to sack ‘Kevin Barrett, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, …who has a one-semester contract to teach a course titled “Islam: Religion and Culture”. Apparently, he ‘shared with students his strong conviction that the destruction of the World Trade Center was an inside job perpetrated by the American government.’

Prof Fish sagely opines:

It is perfectly possible to teach a viewpoint without embracing it and urging it. But the moment a professor does embrace and urge it, academic study has ceased and been replaced by partisan advocacy. And that is a moment no college administration should allow to occur.

On the face of it, this seems like a fair, reasonable, even handed approach. The issue he neglects to canvass, however, is what of the professor who embraces a particular political viewpoint and rather than explicitly and honestly urge it upon students, simply assumes it and implicitly demands that the students do so, too?

What, for example, if a professor assumed that 9/11 was the work of al Qa’ida without explicitly adducing the evidence for and against this hypothesis? What if a professor were to speak of the ‘war on terror’ without inviting the students to investigate whether it was a war and whether it was on terror? What about a professor who failed to query the concept of ‘installing democracy’? Would these, in Prof Fish’s view, be moments ‘no college administration should allow to occur’?

Common sense and the unstated in general are the most effective forms of propaganda. They insinuate themselves into our consciousness without our awareness most of the time. We imbibe some of them with our mother’s milk, or at any rate with our Cheerios, and they can colour our perceptions throughout our lives.

We don’t know from Prof Fish’s article whether Prof Barrett simply mentioned to his students that he held this view so they would know where he stood, whether he promoted it by showing how the evidence supported, or whether he suggested they consider the possibility, examine the evidence for and against his hypothesis, and come to their won conclusions. Nor is it clear whether Prof Fish would have forgiven Prof Barrett in any of these cases.

By restricting his criticism to those who articulate their views Prof Fish establishes that he is firmly on the side of the status quo. What goes without saying is never contentious and doesn’t drive the thought police into a frenzy. So the ones who sneak their views in surreptitiously, whether because they are accomplished propagandists, or more likely, because they have never bothered to question their own cherished assumptions, are off the hook.

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