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Fish: Food For Thought

Fish: Food For Thought

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

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The other day, I noticed a news article on the website for Williams College, where my brother is a student: "Artes Liberales: Only a select 8 percent of U.S. college students have chosen a liberal arts program. What does it mean?"

"Aside from a brief surge after World War II, the proportion of undergraduate degrees awarded each year in the liberal arts has been declining for 100 years," the piece begins. "By 1994, of the 3,941 institutions of higher education in the United States, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classified only 202, or about 8 percent, as liberal arts colleges — that is, institutions awarding at least half their degrees in the liberal arts."

In our second hour today, Stanley Fish, Distinguished University Professor at Florida International University, joins us to talk about his newest book, Save the World On Your Own Time. In it, he argues that undergraduate institutions are not supposed to be engines of social progress. The job of professors, Fish writes, is "to advance bodies of knowledge and to equip students for doing the same."

In your opinion, what is the purpose of a liberal arts education?



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Liberal arts is about gaining the skills you need to make decisions for yourself, through knowledge of many different subject areas. I wonder how well Fish is in touch with today's students though. I think many of the reasons why this type of content is brought up in college classrooms is because these topics help students apply the knowledge that they're learning. Oh, and his comment about he doesn't know who should be responsible for character formation? Great argument! (Not!)

Sent by Laura | 3:13 PM | 9-9-2008

I disagree with the professor to limit education to viewing issues with an acadamic aesthetic distance. It is of course important to deliver knowledge to students; however, without putting the knowledge into practice, students are totally unprepared to live as a responsible citizens. Of course, teachers should not impose their values on students. On the other hand, by not helping students to practice what they have learned is irresponsible.

Sent by Sydney | 3:17 PM | 9-9-2008

It sounds like what Mr. Fish is advocating is a version of "Dumb Objectivity." Clearly you should strive to teach the most advanced and current thinking on topics. And, in many cases, modern thought is going to err on the side of social progress. This isn't nonacademic---it's called being philosophically intelligent.

Sent by SIM | 3:26 PM | 9-9-2008

Regarding "Service Learning" courses, it's also worth mentioning that the university charges standard tuition for these required courses which require very little financial input from the university itself. In addition to being part of a character forming initiative, mandatory community service is an economic boon to the school.

Sent by John in Portland, OR | 3:27 PM | 9-9-2008

In my experience in college I found that many professors could care less what they "professed" to their students. Much of their concern seemed to be based on their grant money and current projects coming up in the summer. I was very unsatisfied by a few particular "academics". All they wanted to do was plan their research. I did eventually graduate with a degree in Geology, so whatever.

Sent by Kellen Waldo | 3:27 PM | 9-9-2008

I hope I misunderstand Dr. Fish's position. I understood him to imply that professors (of science) should accept equally in the classroom the scientific supported theory of evolution and the religious position of intelligent design. He surely is not saying that religious doctrine has a place in the science classroom. Please disabuse us science professors of that position...

Call me if you are willing to discuss this issue on the air. (YOur phone number is, of course, busy.)

Dr. David Fankhauser
Professor of Biology and Chemistry
University of Cincinnati

Sent by David Fankhauser | 3:27 PM | 9-9-2008

I understand the concerns of Dr. Fish and the philosophy professor who is currently speaking. However, after experience at two large state schools, a medium university, and teaching at two small schools, I would say that I haven't seen much of what Fish is talking about. In fact, I think that my professors and colleagues are often overwhelmed by students who come to them for guidance and emotional support. A colleague here in Idaho says that she has noticed this increase over the past few years. I think that what is being discussed are partly a straw man in the culture wars. I know that people are very afraid of this "leftist meddling," but I have seen it so little. 99% of the time I see people trying very carefully to inculcate information and critical thinking. What does Professor Fish think of Hilldale, which is a rightist university trying to promote a very specific view of the world, law, and values?

Sent by Megan Dixon | 3:28 PM | 9-9-2008

Stanley Fish is the best and most brilliant teacher I've ever had. To sit in his classroom at USC again is the only reason I'd go back to the 70s. Shine on, Dr. Fish!

Sent by Val Alexander Renault | 3:28 PM | 9-9-2008

Two Questions

1) Your speaker is an literature scholar so maybe he does not have a firm grasp on the nuts and bolts of science, but there is no way you can lead a student into understanding any of the biological sciences if they do not have a grounding in the theory of Evolution. I say this as someone who is a firm believer in God who thinks ID is no more than badly thought out fuzzy thinking.

2) What about Universities sponsored by religious organizations? The Jesuits run many fine academically respected Universities and one of the goals they have as educators is to shape better people, and they see academics as only part of that job and trying to view moral outlook as equally important.

Sent by Mary Fitzpatrick | 3:29 PM | 9-9-2008

Dr. Fish;s comments about not wanting to follow the values of the right or left are quite eloquent; however, he just articulated a desire for following a sort of critical inquiry as opposed to "subverting traditions."
has it not occurred to him that the right views critical academic inquiry as subverting traditions?

Sent by Robert | 3:30 PM | 9-9-2008

I'm honestly a little shocked to hear someone advocating that we reverse the trend, and head back to the days of isolated, segmented education. I thought we were finally wising up to the teachings of the progressive educators, that true learning only ever happens in context (as in the context of our whole lives). Dr. Fish seems to forget that the very word "University" as it came from the Greeks spoke of an education of the "whole man." As opposed to a "DIversity."

His method seems not so much to advance the learning of individual students as it does absolve him for responsibility for anyone but himself. This model (all to well known in our educational systems) produces wonderful test takers, trivia buffs, "specialists" who can only talk in the language of their field, and oh yeah... dismal human societies.

As for his flippant title - "saving the world" is everyone's responsibility, and Dr. Fish's brand of selfish, isolated academism is one we cannot move past quickly enough.

Sent by Brandon Dawson - Cincinnati, OH | 4:01 PM | 9-9-2008

Yes, Stanley is absolutely correct. All throughout my college experience my professors taught to us their own biased beliefs. There was no neutral ground.

Sent by Kelly M | 4:07 PM | 9-9-2008

This appears to me to be a back door attack on the science of evolution. Please tell me I'm wrong, and please tell me public radio didn't just present this story as if it were a good idea.

Sent by Jon Cates | 5:02 PM | 9-9-2008

As a professor of a critical thinking course at American River College, a community college in Sacramento, CA, I completely agree with Dr. Fish that college professors should not be charged with inculcating values in our students,except for the value of developing critical thinking skills which they can objectively and logically employ to understand and analyze concepts and issues, so they can effectively form their own interpretations and, perhaps, judgments on crucial questions, whether academic, historical, or contemporary. Without such an approach, the classroom will descend into ill-formed opionizing of no real worth. And any professor who believes his or her role is to teach ethical values of any stripe is guilty of a misplaced valuation of one's own academic worth and a misreading of one's own academic responsibility. Let's leave it for the students to engage with the truly great minds--from Plato to E.O. Wilson--and learn from them.

Sent by William K. Cameron | 6:28 PM | 9-9-2008

I heard Dean Fish on air and cannot agree more. It is alarming to see many of today's academicians peddle "social change", "activism", and other such laudable goals in their classrooms. Sadly, and you guessed it, academic rigor is largely absent from these classrooms. A Ph.D. does not grant its holders carte blanche authority to expound on everything under the sun. Stick to scholarship in the classroom and effect social and moral change on your own dime!

Sent by Ani | 6:33 PM | 9-9-2008

According to the bylaws of Duke University:

The aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; to advance learning in all lines of truth; to defend scholarship against all false notions and ideals; to develop a Christian love of freedom and truth; to promote a sincere spirit of tolerance; to discourage all partisan and sectarian strife; and to render the largest permanent service to the individual, the state, the nation, and the church. Unto these ends shall the affairs of this University always be administered.

The views of Dr. Fish are at odds with the way many church-related colleges and universities were chartered. (Duke was founded by the Methodist Church, many other schools were founded by other churches). The continuing relationship between church and academy is a highly contested topic for both groups. There are no easy answers to this question, but it would appear that Dr. Fish's views would require Universities like Duke and many others to revoke their bylaws, the spirit of which continues to be reflected in the Duke University motto, "Erudito et Religio."

Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas (with whom Dr. Fish is familiar) once led an interdisciplinary faculty discussion by asking "what community are you serving? It is clear that the community I serve is the church. What community do others of you serve?" The medical school faculty talked about how they serve the medical community, the law faculty talked about how they served the legal profession, but it was agreed that there is no "neutral, objective" way to pursue knowledge separate from the interests of a community. I wonder how Dr. Fish would have responded to that question.

Sent by Jonathan | 9:17 PM | 9-9-2008

More than 20 years ago at a liberal arts college (very much into critical reasoning), I took a computer science class on data structures, 10 weeks of interesting, but very factual and dry stuff. I don't remember the professor's name or much detail of the subject, but I do remember in the last 5 minutes of the last class. The professor stepped out of his role as comp sci academic and told the class that in the future we might be involved developing software, a very serious business, and if we did we should do it responsibly and ethically- an obligation of people in the field of software. Dr. Fish's argues the professor's comments should never have been made. I disagree. It was an appropriate message for an authority in the subject to make to his students- I have taught you how, but now you have this knowledge, remember you should apply it responsibly and ethically.

Sent by A. Tien | 10:52 PM | 9-9-2008

As a PhD student in social anthropology, I am troubled that someone of Professor Fish's experience and standing would completely ignore one of the major issues that liberal arts programs across the nation are now facing. He addressed only the component of classroom teaching, yet across the humanities, social sciences and sciences, there are now increasing opportunities for undergraduate as well as graduate students to undertake research outside the classroom. More often than not, this entails research with human subjects, either individuals or entire communities. Yesterday, Fish dismissed a comment made by a caller about professional schools (e.g. law and business) that teach ethics guidelines as a part of their curriculum. Fish rightly noted that these schools are not within the liberal arts, but separate. The reality, however, is that training in ethical guidelines is just as important, if not more so, in the disciplines within the liberal arts that entail research with human subjects. Much of the reading material presented to students studying within these disciplines is the result of data collected by the author in his or her capacity as a researcher. In anthropology, sociology, archaeology, psychology, race and gender studies (to name a few) research is almost always required in order to earn a higher degree, and for undergraduates, it is often the basis of a thesis project. As I think most anthropologists would agree, the beginnings of our discipline were wrought with BAD methods because of their ethical implications, for example, working within a Social Darwinian view of Western societies as superior to Others--many of which were being colonized at that time. Are we to approach this history of our discipline with a pure and detached objectivity? If we did so, nothing would have changed since the 19th century! To instill in students ways of comparing and evaluating the ethical credibility of various research methods is imperative for their proper training. I agree with Fish that teachers should not use classrooms as platforms for pushing their own political views, but ethics and morality cannot be reduced to mere politics. His proposal is frighteningly dangerous; it is precisely what academia worldwide has vehemently fought against, at least since the horrors of World War II and Nazi Germany. These historical lessons have taught us (or most of us..) that endeavors undertaken in the name of "science" can be founded on racial and ethnic prejudices, and have genocide as their agenda! If research scholars do not hold each other accountable to some basic ethical guidelines, we risk being held accountable to no one. If we do not impart a sense of basic ethical judgement onto our students, we have failed to adequately prepare them for research, or any professional occupation for that matter. No liberal arts curriculum can afford to dodge the question of how our research should or should not affect the lives of our research subjects, their communities and environments. Practical experience with the research methods of one's discipline is an invaluable part of a student's education, and I am glad to see more and more universities supporting it. Would Fish seriously argue that students should be sent out into the world with no formal guidance as to why some research topics or methods are simply unethical and best left in our historical past?

Sent by Laura Mentore | 10:05 AM | 9-10-2008

I agree with Dr. Frankhauser. Some issues are both political/cultural and academic. While ID and climate change have become political, they are also academic issues. Organisms either changed through natural selection or by God. The climate is changing or it isn't, and this change is either caused by humans or it isn't. To historians the Holocaust either happened or it didn't. After weighing the evidence, professors have every right to come down on one side or the other, as these are academic issues in their respective fields.

Sent by Eric | 1:58 PM | 9-10-2008

A fascinating discussion - I'll buy the book! But how do the biomedical sciences fit in here? While I agree that we should not be forcing our political or moral views on students, we are ostensibly preparing them for careers that will make a difference in human health and medicine. (This would count, in my view, in "making the world a better place" - as does education generally.) We often train them in skills for applying for grants from agencies like NIH, which is run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Is this not a "social" agenda?

Sent by Donna Holmes | 2:01 PM | 9-10-2008

Teachers are all around us. In life, we learn about who we are, what we think, how to understand ourselves and the world around us. I agree with Dr. Fish in that I agree it is not the role of the academic professor to be a teacher of opinions or right and wrong, but rather to challenge students in an intellectual exercise. However, when he says he has no official training and no PhD has professional training to be a teacher in the broader sense of the word (a teacher in one's walk through life), I find this saddening. What is one's life if not a learning experience? and why should the construction of an institution sterilize the human connection of the young and the older members of a community?

Sent by Kate | 3:30 PM | 9-10-2008

I found Stanley Fish's comments self-serving and exploitative of the right-wing extremist's fear of "liberal" academics. Interesting that he would suggest we leave value discussions to the appropriate "professionals." Would that be the Enron professionals, Dr. Fish? Thanks, but I think I'll pass.

Sent by Martha Attisano | 5:42 PM | 9-10-2008

Mr. Fish's premise is that college/university faculty are trained only for one thing, that is to "teach" rational thought in the discipline. He states that faculty should not be doing what they are not "trained" to do.

In my opinion, he is wrong in at least two ways: 1) Most faculty who receive PhDs (except for those in the education field) are not taught how to teach. In fact, PhDs generally have a very narrow scope of information/knowledge in a very specialized area, and most "teach" how they think their best teachers taught, therefore, perhaps faculty with PhDs should not teach, but only do their research; and 2) College and university faculties most important job is to model, through their speech and actions, democratic citizenship, natural curiosity, good thinking, etc., and by doing so can shape future citizens. I believe that young people respond most to observing the actions of those who they respect more so than what the experts say.

Sent by Gordon Alderink | 9:42 PM | 9-10-2008

I have always been more on the side that says that knowledge is One and that classroom learning and it's "real world" application may be seperable, but they are certainly not seperate.

That being said, I have a certain sympathy with Dr. Fish's view, in the sense that one can understand a view one does not share.

However, I think Dr. Fish could strengthen his argument with a bit of modification. I propose introducing the concept known in blogs and forums as "off topic". Certainly in a literature class, which is what Dr. Fish teaches - especially non-contemporary literature - most of the issues he objected to would be "off topic" and could be much more effectively objected to on that basis.

Clearly the global warming debate is on topic for a class in atmospheric sciences, as would be the evolution debate in a biology class, or topics like the Kennedy assination, the Holocaust, or the Vietnam War in a history class.

At one point I was tempted to suggest that Dr. FIsh should just draw a line between teaching and advocacy. Maybe not so simple though. Even in literature there are controversies. Were Shakespeare's plays written by the historical WIlliam Shakespere, or by some other fellow or gal? Should a professor of literature not feel free to speak out on such issues - they being on topic in his venue? And should not his students feel free or even encouraged to write articles, post blogs, and present papers advocating whatever side of the issue the evidence appears to them to favor? I should think so.

In closing, I want to question why, when Dr. Fish attempted on the air to explain why classroom advocacy happens, he discussed the aging sixties radicals holding professorships, but ignored the much more solid, long-standing and pervasive issue of religious sponsorship of colleges. And yes, there are still liberal arts colleges with mandatory chapel and at least one I know of that requires attendance at Calvinist services for all faculty (Calvin College in Grand Rapids is in the process of dismissing one of their professors for being an unrepentant Baptist - look it up).

Sent by Steve | 11:28 PM | 9-10-2008

When I taught Process & Effects of Mass Communication at Indiana University South Bend, I was confronted by students who felt my use of examples of media attention paid to the ineptitude of members of the current President's administration (up to and including its top members), as well as my concurring with such critiques, amounted to being "disrespectful of the President and of the country."

Now, every educator knows that we tread on thin ice given such an environment. What did I WANT to say to these students? I wanted to say that it appears they have come into the class with an agenda, and that any work I might present that contradicts their belief system (even if within the delicate boundaries of academic rigor) is seen as a hostile attempt by a "bleeding heart" liberal to impugn their moral high ground, and their sensibilities of decency and respect; that it seems perhaps they have only come to college to affirm their already-formed notions of the world; that perhaps any material that runs contradictory to their training/teaching/moral conditioning at home or in high school, etc, is off limits.

Did I say that? No. Of course not. I needed to regain their confidence (without seeming to "give in" and subvert my beliefs). After all, it is my job that by the end of the term they have an appreciation for critical awareness and objectivity of thought. I can't arrive there by pushing my beliefs and trying to "win" that argument; I have been charged with a much higher task than inculcating my students with ideology, even as I see they have come completely full of it themselves. So I realized the moment as a challenge; an opportunity to teach. I discussed that perhaps if they saw my discussion as opinionated and biased that I couldn't argue that they felt that way. I then proceeded to remind them that my examples (in a process and effects class) would naturally contain material that will probably offend or agitate everyone at one point, and that it did not, by the mere fact that I was presenting it for analysis and discussion, indicate a personal or political opinion on my part-- let alone a political stance. I reminded them also that our great country was founded on the principles of challenging the government and speaking against authority when authority seems oppressive, as they had just done with me, and as the colonists had done against the British monarchy in the Revolutionary War. In fact, a textbook definition of 'revolution' is probably something along the lines of an attempt to change fundamental principles of legitimacy. What is the legitimate climate that is being rebelled against? What are the proper tools for assessing the world in the mini-world of my classroom?

And so given this exchange, I have to say I swim with Fish on this one. But Fish also has to realize that the classroom itself is also a microcosm of the 'real' world. And it is not always possible to remove the day-to-day elements (including personal and political opinion) from every moment of the classroom experience. But, as I'm sure Fish is alluding to here, we, as educators, better damn well be aware of it and try our best to advance the great tradition of knowledge and ideas without bias and ideological motive. Go ahead; you won't lose your soul. Play the devil's advocate. Even Socrates' goal was to prove his opponent wrong while also proving himself wrong. Don't inculcate; try to be like Socrates and fight for reason and knowledge, not self-righteousness. No classroom experience will be pristine or devoid of such idealist imperfections and oddities, but your mission as an educator is to get the train of discussion back on the neutral track of academic rigor, and to do so with skill and aplomb.

I take pride, as a liberal, in quoting Allan Bloom (often characterized, wrongly, as a conservative, even as he professed that his heroes were Socrates and Nietzsche, etc), who said (paraphrasing) that "there are two threats to reason: the opinion that one knows the truth about the most important things, and the opinion that there is no truth about them. Both of these opinions are fatal to philosophy."

Sent by Mark Bottita | 2:58 AM | 9-11-2008

Interesting that the responses to Fish prove his point that educators are not doing their job of teaching people to think. Look at the long winded writings above. Imagine being in their classrooom. The only thought they provoke is when is this class over with.

Sent by Clifford | 4:47 PM | 9-11-2008

This discussion was off-track when Neal Conan used the example of intelligent design and evolution as an opinion-based controversy. It is very important that students (and all educated members of our society) learn to differentiate personal opinions (who one votes for, what religious beliefs one holds, etc) from scientific theories.There is an enormous amount of data that support evolution and researchers continue to test hypotheses that come from the theory of evolution. In contrast, intelligent design does not rise to the level of a scientific theory because it lacks testable hypotheses. Thus, this example used by Neal Conan and agreed upon by Dr. Fish displayed a lack of understanding of the underlying principles of scientific inquiry. In mixing it into the discussion it gave the unfortunate impression that the show is spreading misinformation.

Sent by Laura L. Kiessling | 7:32 PM | 9-11-2008

See Clifford. Clifford play with iPod and texting. Clifford get distracted by extended discussion. Clifford play with iPod.

Sent by Mark Bottita | 1:00 PM | 9-12-2008

Sorry to disappoint anyone but I do not have an IPod. People think if they are long winded or cute, that somehow makes them more intelligent I guess.
There is an enormous amount of blind faith supporting evolution but how many new species have "evolved" recently and who saw it and can it be repeated? No we are concerned with endangered species. Species disappearing, not adapting.
On the other hand the more we know about biology the more proof of design. Biology has information, information in the form of DNA, etc. There are new discoveries on the complexity of the cell. It's not the simple building block Darwin envisioned but complex with many "machines" functioning in harmony.
Say some primative animal suddenly develops wings but it hasn't developed eyes, doesn't have a light weight bone structure, and other complimentary structures. It flaps its wings, hits an object, and that's it for that guy. In other words, and I may not have explained it to little Mark well enough, complex entities would have to have all systems evolve at the same time to be useful. If not, the survival of the fittest would rule out complex organisms. The wings would just be in the way.
Do anyone think Mark Bottita exists or do you think those comments above just appeared on the here. There were some letters and they magically rearranged themselves into comments from someone named Mark. Not at all. We read Mark's statements and we know(although I do not want to admit this) that an intelligent, long winded person wrote them. In the same way, we can review the information in biology and say hey, it looks like someone did this on purpose. Evolution requires more blind faith than any religion. And if you don't believe me, ask the Creator when you die what he thinks of evolution.

Sent by Cliff | 10:42 PM | 9-19-2008