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I tend to sympathize with the view that professors ought to encourage their students to think for themselves rather than encouraging them to agree with the professors.  And of course the idea that the University of Colorado needs a Professor of Conservatism is laughable, though the prejudice underlying that idea and the plot to subvert academic standards and freedom in the name of "intellectual diversity," of which that idea is one of the weapons, are not matters for laughter.

But Stanley Fish's view of teaching as an entirely apolitical activity doesn't stand up to close scrutiny.

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In particicular, Fish brought me up short when he wrote:

A classroom discussion of Herbert Marcuse and Leo Strauss, for example, does not (or at least should not) have the goal of determining whether the socialist or the conservative philosopher is right about how the body politic should be organized. Rather, the (academic) goal would be to describe the positions of the two theorists, compare them, note their place in the history of political thought, trace the influences that produced them and chart their own influence on subsequent thinkers in the tradition. And a discussion of this kind could be led and guided by an instructor of any political persuasion whatsoever, and it would make no difference given that the point of the exercise was not to decide a political question but to analyze it.
Yes, the classroom discussion Prof. Fish imagines would be a valuable one.  But I doubt that it's the only sort of discussion that could be of value, or that Prof. Fish's preferred discussion would, in and of itself, constitute an adequate treatment of Marcuse or of Strauss.  

If students are never asked to seriously engage with the possibility that one side of an argument might, on balance, be right and the other side wrong, then are they really being encouraged to think, or are they just learning how to play a game in which the claims made in the texts under study are mere counters, to be moved around the board according to the rules?

Note that professors in fields where it is believed that actual knowledge is available do not follow Prof. Fish's model.  An historian of science might treat Darwin and Lamarck as Prof. Fish wishes Marcuse and Strauss to be treated, though even then the fact that Darwin was right and Lamarck wrong might deserve mention at some point; after all, one of the things one might usefully learn from a study of the history of science is how it comes to be that false ideas are proposed, supported, and (sometimes) eventually refuted and abandoned.  

But a biologist would have scant time for such nonsense.  She would damned well want to make sure that her students knew at the end of class that selection is, and adaptation by the inheritance of acquired characteristics is not, the mechanism by which gene pools change in response to environmental pressure.  Similarly, a chemist would not give equal weight and time to oxygen and phlogiston as explanatory schemata for combustion, or a physicist treat thermodynamics and caloric as competing on equal terms to explain the phenomenon of temperature.

Even in Prof. Fish's own literature classroom, I doubt that the theory that Bacon or the Earl of Oxford wrote Hamlet gets fully equal treatment with the conventional or "Stratfordian" view.  So why should an economics professor be kinder to proponents of bimetallism or Social Credit or self-financing tax cuts?

Teachers, no matter how impartial they intend to be on politically controversial questions, are always trying to show their students how to distinguish between better and worse arguments, according to the canons of whatever discipline is being taught.  In doing so, it's impossible to remain entirely impartial among conclusions, since a conclusion that can only be supported by bad arguments must be regarded as unsound.   And sometimes the unsound argument and the false conclusion are those presented by one side of a political argument.  (The biologist's insistence on the strong evidentiary and logical basis for Darwinism is not irrelevant to the live political debate about what sort of biology to teach in high school.)

No, that does not give teachers the right to proselytize for their causes from the lectern, or justify the establishment of quotas for conservatives, or quotas for Marxists for that matter.    But it does mean that a teacher's beliefs — what views the teacher regards as legitimate, and what views the teacher regards as "fringe" — do make a difference in the classroom, and that a faculty with a particular political "tilt" needs to make conscious efforts to police itself in order to protect the intellectual freedom of its students.  

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Mark A R Kleiman on Mon Jun 23, 2008 at 05:21 AM PDT.

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