Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Think Again about Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish has some interesting thoughts about the idea of a student bill of rights, recently approved by the student body at Princeton, and about the idea of "intellectual diversity," which is being pushed by the conservative activist David Horowitz. The reapproval of the Higher Education Act, up for action by Congress, includes a version of Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights," and the Pennsylvania legislature is also considering a version of it.
Several versions of the bill—including a separate but overlapping Student Bill of Rights—can be found on a Horowitz-sponsored Web site, Students for Academic Freedom, but they all display the same strategy of alternating unexceptionable statements with statements that at first sound benign but are in fact troubling in their implications. Who could disagree with the Princeton document’s insistence that “professors must never allow a student’s affiliations or religious beliefs to negatively affect his/her academic performance” or with the assertion that “Teachers are entitled to freedom in teaching their subject as they see fit, but not to the point of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination…”?

I certainly don’t, which is why three of my own essays are featured on the Students for Academic Freedom Web site. I have problems, however, with the clause that concludes the second quotation: “or to the exclusion of other viewpoints.” The repetition of “or,” linking the three propositions, suggests that they are all in the same line of work, but they are not. The second clause—“not to the point of political, ideological, religious, or anti-religious indoctrination”—properly limits the instructor’s freedom (which cannot include the freedom to proselytize). But the third clause takes that freedom away by requiring the instructor to give class time to viewpoints simply because they are out there.

This little move has been telegraphed by the first words of the Princeton bill: “Believing in the need to affirm the principles of academic freedom and intellectual diversity.…” The strong suggestion is that academic freedom and intellectual diversity go together, but in fact they pull in opposite directions. Academic freedom is the freedom to go wherever an intellectual inquiry takes you without regard to directives proclaimed in advance by a regime of prior restraint. Intellectual diversity is a prior restraint; it tells you where to look and what you must look at—you must take into account every point of view independently of whether you think it is worth considering—and it tells you what materials you must include in your syllabus. The number of viewpoints you decide to consult or present to your students should be determined by the shape and history of the academic task rather than by a general imperative which may or not be pertinent to a particular line of inquiry.
Fish then goes on to point out the political underpinnings of this movement for "intellectual diversity" - the goal is for more professors to express conservative viewpoints in the classroom, as a counter to the left/liberal opinions expressed by many professors.

I can understand some of the impulses behind the move towards something like an "academic bill of rights," because I have seen and heard of professors pushing their own political line in the classroom and censuring students for disagreeing with them. On the other hand, I agree with Fish that not all viewpoints are appropriately expressed in the classroom. For a blatant example, must a course on the Holocaust also include the viewpoints of Holocaust deniers as equally valid with knowledgeable historians of the Holocaust? On the third hand, I do think that it is educationally sound to permit students to ask questions or raise objections based upon views that I may not think are sound - so that I can present evidence that refutes them. I'm thinking of John Stuart Mill's argument for free speech here - allowing even repugnant views the light of day allows others to refute them, present evidence countering them, etc. A classroom is not a democracy, certainly not the typical American college classroom - but it should permit free speech in most instances (I exclude the hurling of vile insults at other students or the professor).

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