Politics of teaching

Published : Sep 11, 2009 00:00 IST

TALKING about the role of the intellectual, Noam Chomsky says, Its not a term I take all that seriously. Some of the most intellectual people Ive met and known in my life were very remote from the so-called intellectual professions. Plenty of people who are called intellectual workers, who work with their minds, not their, say, hands, are involved in what amounts to clerical work. An awful lot of academic scholarship, for example, is basically a kind o f clerical work.

Humanistic culture has its limitations but is certainly the most resistant. But those who do engage in dissidence and resistance and believe in the act of disruption are measurably few in the humanities and minuscule in the sciences. Stanley Fish has views that are different from Chomskys, especially on the role of the academic. He is fully opposed to those on the Left who call upon professors to go beyond the private, academic or technical terms to the public sphere and to the sphere of the citizen rather than that of the narrow specialist.

In a recent article, Professor do your Job, Fish writes: Pick up the mission statement of almost any college or university, and you will find claims and ambitions that will lead you to think that it is the job of an institution of higher learning to cure every ill the world has ever known: not only illiteracy and cultural ignorance, which are at least in the ball-park, but poverty, war, racism, gender bias, bad character, discrimination, intolerance, environmental pollution, rampant capitalism, American imperialism, and the hegemony of Wal-Mart; and of course the list could be much longer.

Fish then goes on to elaborate: Wesleyan University starts well by pledging to cultivate a campus environment where students think critically, participate in constructive dialogue and engage in meaningful contemplation (although Im not sure what meaningful contemplation is); but then we read of the intention to foster awareness, respect, and appreciation for a diversity of experiences, interests, beliefs and identities. Awareness is okay; its important to know whats out there. But why should students be taught to respect a diversity of interests, beliefs, and identities in advance of assessing them and taking their measure? The missing word here is evaluate. Thats what intellectual work is all about, the evaluation, not the celebration, of interests, beliefs, and identities; after all, interests can be base, beliefs can be wrong, and identities are often irrelevant to an inquiry.

In the last century, until the 1970s and the 1980s, politics had not found its place in the formal reading of teachers who remained obsessed with the all-pervasive dominance of canonical texts. Unbiased wisdom in the field of interpretation, and not the individual commitment of the interpreter, had kept politics securely out of the humanities. As with other conservatives, it was the opinion of many that any change in the canon would embroil society in socio-economic problems and therefore urged the academic to stay apolitical.

Modern academics may like to believe that their mind is with the Left, but their lifestyles are decidedly with the Right. They live comfortably, discuss political issues casually in faculty rooms, and if they engage in the act of writing, they end up adopting arcane professional jargon, immersing themselves in the muck of fashionable theory, deceiving themselves that no relation exists between a piece of writing and the world they live in.

As in the case of the London School of Economics or the University of Berkeley, once conspicuously leftist, the New Left scholars are no longer progressive in their ideology. They accept the apolitical nature of their universities without any qualms, spending their time not in producing texts of social and academic relevance or scholarly brilliance but in the mundane pursuit of applying for fellowships, attending conferences, marking examinations, and trying to get on television.

The split between the theorist and the public critic has led to a divide in culture where literary studies have become bogged down in eccentric scholarship, opaque jargon and politically motivated cultural studies, forcing the common reader into a position of irrelevance.

This is the cultural-academic crisis of our time that has brought about a split between politics and aesthetics, between social ideas and literary values. With so much fascination for criticism, it has often been feared in the last few years that interest in literature might be displaced by the obsession with sinister aesthetic ideology, which concerns itself more with evaluation, canon formation and academic instruction, and ignores the interests of the common reader. This is Fishs apprehension and he would not like meanings of texts to expand arbitrarily, thereby rejecting traditional approaches with their bases in principle and order.

His book Save the World on Your Own Time asks whether meaningful criticism is still possible or if the professionalisation of criticism has turned it into an academic discipline and a scholastic technique.

To some extent, contemporary criticism has succeeded in balancing politics and aesthetics by creating a kind of middle ground between formal analysis and literary sociology. This becomes important in taking criticism out of the academic enclaves of literary theory, philosophy and cultural criticism and enabling the public to have access to a criticism that attempts to reassert the value of reason, truth, aesthetics and politics with a view to moving out of the politics of theory and into the politics of activist social concern.

Save the World on Your Own Time is a wide-ranging enquiry into the current state of academic activism. It draws attention to the speculation about reconfiguring the current critical sense and opposing it with a leftist Arnoldian standpoint. Especially concerned with the general economy of critical understanding and its operation and transformation within pedagogy, the book is both a contribution to and a demonstration of the contemporary role of the academic, emphasising that it should be largely apolitical.

Fishs approach coheres with the older forms of literary criticism, which considered political questions as peripheral to the appreciation of culture. Cultural criticism ought to be directed at deepening and widening experience, not for a moment losing sight of communal life, minority groups and subcultures which constantly resist the dominant ideology and the totalitarianism of meta-narratives.

Fish draws the attention of academics to some very important issues concerning activism and the overwhelming nature of ones responsibility to the job in hand. Seen in the light of his 1995 book Theres No Such Thing As Free Speech...And Its a Good Thing, Too, he stresses: It is a question finally of what business we are in, and we are in the education business, not the democracy business. Democracy, we must remember, is a political not an educational project.

In line with this is his primary argument in his latest book: College and university teachers can (legitimately) do two things: (1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience; and (2) equip those same students with the analytical skills of argument, statistical modelling, laboratory procedure that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions.

This amply indicates Fishs perspective of academic freedom where teachers are not permitted to personal choices or views. Students, according to him, must be allowed to make up their own minds without coercion.

But as a teacher, he writes, I can conduct my class in any manner I like and I can assign whatever readings I judge to be relevant to the courses topic. Those are pedagogical choices, and I cannot be penalised for making them. But if I harass students, or call them names, or make fun of their ethnicity, or if I use class time to rehearse my personal political views or attempt to win students over to them, I might well find myself in a disciplinary hearing, either because I am abusing my pedagogical authority or because I am turning the scene of instruction into a scene of indoctrination.

Fish is blatantly against those who confuse advocacy with teaching. In other words, he would not like classroom teaching to bring about any views on changing the world. Just teach and that is more than enough. Your job is not to act the change agents.

The job of teachers is not to develop such virtues as racial tolerance, honesty, and social responsibility or turn students into active, knowledgeable citizens in a democracy. Just do your job well. That is your mission.

Taking the example of teaching composition, he argues:

More often than not anthologies of provocative readings take centre stage and the actual teaching of writing is shunted to the sidelines. Once ideas are allowed to be the chief currency in a composition course, the very point of the course is forgotten. Much as the instructors in those courses may want to use them to raise awareness in the students about issues like poverty, the plight of native peoples, and the oppression of women, they should resist it. Its hard enough teaching young people how to write properly without the distraction of political advocacy.

As the intellectual on the Left would argue, would this not take the students away from controversial subjects so important to be aware of in a civil society?

Fish does not want classroom teaching to ignore the controversies; rather, the primary concern should be to analyse the controversies instead of politicising them and building allegiance.

The need is to academise the issues of controversial importance: By invoking the criterion of truth, Ive already answered the objection that an academicised classroom a classroom where political and moral agendas are analysed, not embraced would be value-free and relativistic. If anything is a value, truth is, and the implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumption in the classroom as I envision it is that truth, and the seeking of truth, must always be defended. To be sure, truth is not the only value and there are others that should be defended in the contexts to which they are central; but truth is a pre-eminent academic value, and adherence to it is exactly the opposite of moral relativism.

For a radical thinker, the role of the intellectual would be to approach the public in various ways to make it see the real state of affairs and its link to the states ideological structure. It would be pertinent to draw attention to Daniel Bells essay on the end of ideology, where he first takes up the notion of emancipation asserted by the bourgeoisie as a necessary condition of rescuing society. But then, Bell is of the view that ideology has been replaced by the views of social and political experts who bank upon the welfare state and the particularity of each situation to be dealt with in space and time. On one side, ideology is taken as the conversion of ideas into social levers and on the other as a set of beliefs infused with passion [which] seeks to transform the whole of a way of life.

Thus, Bells views emphasise the disappearance of ideology as social levers in the hands of the intellectuals who now have no ambitions of bringing any beneficial transformations in society. Within a heterogeneous and pluralistic society where the welfare state is in complete control, there is, according to these intellectuals, no need whatsoever to bring about any radical changes; we may tinker with our way of life here and there, but it would be wrong to try to modify it in any significant way. With this consensus of intellectuals, ideology is dead. And Fish would agree to the extent that the classroom teacher must not try to change the world or indoctrinate students during the time he has been given to teach. His attack is really on the politcising of higher education where the politician uses his vision to impose on the academe a programme that has behind it the power of funding and a political dominance that costs the universities their freedom. His underlying intention is to emphasise the inherent concerns of education and the pedagogical practice, thereby bringing to it autonomy from external political pressures.

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