The Dartmouth Observer

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Thursday, October 21, 2004
Stanley Fish at Dartmouth

First I miss Andrew Sullivan's appearance, and now I can only read about a panel discussion featuring Stanley Fish that rapidly degenerated into a shouting match thanks to Roger Masters, James Murphy, Irene Kacandes, and one of the Review's favorite professors, Don Pease. Why? Did Fish accuse Dartmouth's professors of being anti-American Communist treehuggers? Actually, all that Fish proposed was that professors ought to leave their subjective opinions about topics within their field of expertise out of the classroom. "Come to class, keep up in your discipline, correct your papers, keep office hours, and that's it," he said. Dartmouth's faculty reacted in outrage. After all, said Kacandes, "We must leave the idea of professors as disseminators of truth behind."

I actually think that our Dartmouth professors, their rudeness aside, have a point. Not having been there, I can't contextualize this statement as well as I wish I could, but I very much doubt that Kacandes is denying that there's no such thing as truth. No, she's simply arguing for a more expanded definition of humanities professors' responsibilities to encompass discussion and the exchange of opinions. I'm pretty sure Fish agrees with this. He teaches literature, for goodness sake! He pioneered Reader-Response Theory and the notion of "interpretative communities"!

No, the real point of contention between Fish and the Dartmouth professors was not between facts and opinions, but between opinions and opinions. That is to say, should professors attempt to "change the world" by drawing out the wider socio-political implications of their scholarship? Fish has argued in the past that Theory has no consequences in the sense that it cannot direct practice by providing a general account of interpretation and meaning. As such, as he said at Dartmouth, "Our job is not to change the world but to analyze it." From the standpoint of history, his circumscription of Theory's applicability (which is itself a Theory) is simply wrong, given the proliferation of very consequential totalizing ideologies throughout the 20th century.

As for his exhortation to teach without seeking to change the world, I can sympathize. Roger Masters, as a friend of mine attests, spoke at length about silicoflourides in freshman seminar on Machiavelli, presumably because, as he said to Fish,
"[the professor] has a moral obligation to do something about [a finding or opinion that would have a profound effect on society]." Now I know that Masters has done pioneering work on politics and biology. But is it professional for him to spend so much time in an introductory course on Machiavelli discussing his pet topic? I don't think so. There are of course many more egregious examples around. Put it this way: if a student comes out of a class knowing more about a professor's political views than the subject material, it's time to take some of Fish's advice to heart.