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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Via Michael Berube who is brilliant as always, I learn of an op-ed by Stanley Fish in some obscure journal

I will quote it with ruthless snips aiming to make it sound idiotic without being at all unfair.

KEVIN BARRETT, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has now taken his place alongside [another academic] of the University of Colorado as a college teacher whose views on [topic] have led politicians and ordinary citizens to demand that he be fired.


Rather, academic freedom is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis [insert to academics do anything other than interrogation and analysis with material].


In short, whether something is an appropriate object of academic study is a matter not of its content — a crackpot theory may have had a history of influence that well rewards scholarly scrutiny — but of its availability to serious analysis [insert are the subjects of academic study all theories or are there other subjects of study such as "golf tees" which are not theories]. This point was missed by the author of a comment posted to the blog of a University of Wisconsin law professor, Ann Althouse: “When is the University of Wisconsin hiring a professor of [theory 2]?” The question is obviously sarcastic; its intention is to equate the [theory 1] with believing in the predictive power of [snip] and to imply that since the university wouldn’t think of hiring someone to teach the one, it should have known better than to hire someone to teach the other.

But the truth is that it would not be at all outlandish for a university to hire someone to teach [theory 2] — not to profess astrology and recommend it as the basis of decision-making (shades of [snip]), but to teach the history of its very long career. There is, after all, a good argument for saying that [snip], [snip] and [snip], among others, cannot be fully understood unless one understands [theory 2].

The distinction I am making — between studying [theory 2] and proselytizing for it — is crucial and can be generalized; it shows us where the line between the responsible and irresponsible practice of academic freedom should always be drawn. Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the [snip] agenda it may be thought to imply.

And this is where we come back to Mr. Barrett, who, in addition to being a college lecturer, is a member of a group calling itself [group on the web] an organization with the decidedly [snip] agenda of persuading Americans that [theory 1]

Is the fact of this group’s growing presence on the Internet a reason for studying it [snip]? Sure. Is the instructor who discusses the group’s arguments thereby endorsing them? Not at all. 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.


I have removed most of the op-ed but I don't think I have done any violence to Fish's argument at all. In particular he does not in any way rely on the two exact theories he is discussing. His argument would be equally valid, I think, if theory 1 were the ory of evolution by natural selection and theory 2 were the theory of special relativity. Fish very clearly says that professors should not "embrace and urge" any particular theory.

He also assumes that all academics study theories developing theories of theories. Some do, for example he does, but others study things. For example biologists might want to confront the theory of evolutionary biology by disecting worms. Worms are not theories yet they are a suitable subject for academic inquiry. When considering the theory of natural selection biologists to not consider only its "structure, history, influence and so forth" but also the relationship of this biological theory to worms.

Fish is able to explain why one might wish to discuss theories which are totally false and do not correspond to reality. He seems to assume all theories are such theories. Evidently he does not wish to be subjected to people whose professors in medical school chose to "embrace and urge" the theory that penicillin kills bacteria.
I'm sure he would only go to a doctor who had been taught to keep an open mind about the germ theory of disease, that is, if he is not both a hypocrite and a pompous ass.

I think that not all theories are equally valid. To live we have to choose among them, to make a decision, are we to consider theories of theories and debates about debates or are we going to observe the world. What is worthy of our attention ? I choose cut bait over Fish.

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