To opine, or not
Should academics strive not to teach what they believe?
In Save the World on Your Own Time (Oxford, 2008), Stanley Fish says academics must heed the following rules:
1. Do your job.
2. Don’t try to do someone else’s job.
3. Don’t let anyone else do your job.
These admonitions are plausible to the point of being banal. But their implications are more controversial. According to Dr. Fish – a very public humanities scholar with links to several U.S. universities – one such implication is “[N]either the university as a collective nor its faculty as individuals should advocate personal, political, moral, or any other kind of views except academic views.” Advocating personal, political and moral views is both failing to do one’s own job and trying to do the job of someone else – the politician, the preacher or the social worker.
If accepted, Dr. Fish’s stricture creates problems for academics in the humanities, social sciences, business, education and law (and perhaps also medicine, applied science and architecture) – indeed, any discipline where moral, political and social issues arise. Dr. Fish writes, “If an idea or a policy is presented as a candidate for allegiance – aided by the instructor, students are to decide where they stand on the matter – then the classroom has been appropriated for partisan purposes.”
In effect, Dr. Fish is telling us not to teach what we believe.
There are some reasons to agree. Teaching what we believe can amount to indoctrination, or at the very least, closing down debate. It may provide a bad model for intellectual give and take.
The younger the students (hence, the less academic experience they have) the more significant is the danger of teaching what we believe. Students must feel free to experiment with ideas and venture new theories without worrying either about conforming to or departing from the instructor’s own system. If the student feels he must always conform to the instructor’s own ideas, his intellectual imagination is restricted. If the student feels he must always reject the instructor’s ideas, then his thinking will be distorted by this automatic negative. Either way, it leads to that version of student cynicism often expressed in the observation, “I just give the prof what she wants.”
Yet not teaching what we believe – in effect, hiding our own opinions – can look like an exercise in academic or personal deception.
Some instructors take pride in disguising their own views so that students have no idea what they think. I have to assume this is Dr. Fish’s own approach. Students reach the end of the course not knowing how their professor responds to the difficult issues explored during class.
Unfortunately, keeping one’s own views so well hidden can be a way of maintaining one’s distance from and superiority over students. It sends a clear message: I will not allow you to engage directly with my ideas. I will not take a stand and run the risk that you will attack me.
But if we won’t or can’t teach what we believe, it is harder to be enthusiastic about the material, to show the class why we care about the subjects we teach. Maybe intellectual honesty demands that we be open with our students about what we truly think about the issues explored in class.
So, does the academic “job” preclude teaching what we believe? Dr. Fish himself provides a way out of the dilemma. He writes that “the question should never be ‘What do you think?’ (unless you’re a social scientist conducting a survey designed to capture public opinion). The question should be ‘What is the truth?’”
He’s right, of course: the truth is our main goal. The question is, how do we get there? Dr. Fish has a method of sorts, but it does not include the expression of opinion – by anyone. He even tells his students he hasn’t “the slightest interest in whatever opinions they might have,” and that while they may have been taught that “the purpose of writing is to express oneself, the selves they [have are] not worth expressing.”
That’ll teach ’em.
But maybe it won’t. If our goal in the classroom is truth, we have to exchange opinions – and of course not merely exchange them; we have to subject them to rigorous analysis and evaluation. That includes both the students’ and the teacher’s opinions. (I can say, from experience, that there is little that is more deflating – but illuminating, too – than hearing
a third-year student succinctly point out the heretofore unrecognized weakness in one’s cherished philosophical theory.)
Having a particular viewpoint is not inconsistent with teaching and being fair to other points of view, and being
willing to hear criticisms of one’s own opinions.
So of course Dr. Fish’s stricture is correct: we should do our job, and only our job, and not allow someone else to do it. And that job includes both teaching what we believe and also teaching what we don’t believe.
Christine Overall teaches in the department of philosophy at Queen’s
University and is our regular columnist on philosophical issues in the academy.