Fish in a Barrel

This past semester, the M.Ed. course I took was on the philosophy of education, which turns out to be fascinating. I remember really liking philosophy in university – I did two courses in my undergrad with a remarkable teacher; I enjoyed these courses so much that I considered doing a minor in Philosphy, only to find that I couldn’t stomach the professor of my third course.
The following is a paper I’ve submitted for the current course. The assignment was to critique an article, in this case, Stanley Fish’s ‘Always Academicize,’ originally published last fall in the New York Times.
In ‘Always Academicize: My Response to the Responses,’ Stanley Fish’s November 2006 response to critics of his earlier post regarding the role of teachers, Fish argues that “the redress of injustice and the inculcation of … values are worthy activities, but they are not academic activities, and they are not activities academics have the credentials to perform” (par. 1). As such, Fish believes that teachers should do “the job they are trained and paid to do,” exclusively (par. 1). The questions that arise, before one can accept Fish’s dictum, are threefold: what are academic activities, what credentials are in fact required to “redress” social issues, and what is the job that teachers are paid and trained to do? To agree with Fish, one must agree with his stated or implied answers to these questions; however, this agreement is not as straightforward as Fish would have us believe.

According to Fish, the teacher’s role is purely academic, regardless of topic. For Fish, this means exploring a topic in terms of its history, language, past controversies, and development; specifically excluded from his list of parameters is “a resolution about a political or moral issue raised by the materials under discussion” (par. 2). Thus, any topic can be discussed in the Fish classroom, as long as the discussion is “academized”; that is, the discussion should consider the topic as an “object of study” rather than a matter of ideology (par. 2). In Fish’s view, education is meant to “lay out the history and structure of political and ethical dilemmas without saying yes or no to any of the proposed courses of action” (par. 7). Therefore, all pedagogical activities, from grading to leading class discussions, must be apolitical, lest “the scene of instruction” become the “scene of indoctrination” (par.5). Fish’s use of the word ‘indoctrination’ invokes Atkinson’s admonitions in ‘Instruction and Indoctrination’; like Fish, Atkinson eschews teaching “in” morals, as opposed to “about” morals, because such instruction requires “criteria of truth, cogency [and] correctness in the field,” and morality “is a field in which there are irreducibly open options” (Atkinson 176).
Certainly, what is “true” in fields such as morality and politics is perhaps elusive, or at least fluid. On the other hand, we can assume from Fish’s concept of education that he believes a good teacher is one who knows, understands, and comfortably presents the history of a given topic, who is well-versed in the technical language of the topic, has spent a good deal of time considering the controversies surrounding the topic, and is familiar with the “significant contributions to its development” (par. 2). In short, Fish’s ideal teachers are steeped in knowledge of the topic; while they may not be “legislators, or political leaders or therapists or ministers” (par. 1), they appear to be well positioned to present the political and moral issues relevant to a particular subject, and to guide their students in an evaluation of possible resolutions.
The teacher’s role, according to Fish, is to be “silent about [his/her] ethical and political commitments” (par. 3). Fish is careful to specify that this silence is exclusive to the teacher’s time ‘on the job,’ and that teachers should be free to engage in the “real world” (par. 6) issues outside of the classroom. For Fish, the teacher’s job is to improve “student knowledge and analytical abilities,” and anyone whose aspirations go beyond this task is in “the wrong profession” (par. 6). However, if a different view of teaching is presented, Fish and Atkinson’s calls for ‘academicizing’ classroom content are hollow. Fish writes that moral and political issues must be considered academically, without an invitation to “take a vote,” because “that’s what you do at the ballot box” (par. 2). In fact, Fish writes that a teacher is doing his/her job if “aside from the pleasures it offers … the academic study of materials and problems is absolutely useless” (par. 8). Further, he claims that discussion of “real world” issues is only temporarily satisfying and effective (par. 10). Despite Fish’s desire to remove the ‘real world’ from the classroom, he includes analytic skill as a fundamental result of good education; one might argue that discussion of ‘weighty’ issues – be they “hot-button” or not – is another form of analysis, and perhaps one in which students will feel more personally implicated. Fish would have teachers abstain from discussion of resolutions for political issues, but have students vote “at the ballot box”; he wants no “decision-making” about moral issues, but expects students to “make a life decision … in the private recesses” of their hearts (par. 2).
The fundamental problem with both Fish and Atkinson’s position on the issue of moral and political discussion in the classroom is that this position is based on the false dichotomy of instruction vs. indoctrination. For Fish, the teacher either presents the material with no personal implication, or proselytizes. In fact, Fish implies that a teacher who openly presents his/her position on moral or political issues does not take “the ethics of the classroom … seriously” (par. 5), and openly says that someone who wants to solve “real world problems” should “get out of teaching and into a line of work more likely to address directly” these problems (par. 6). Fish’s implication that the politically-engaged teacher is by definition not taking the job seriously is dismissive at best; the idea that teaching is a vocation in a vacuum, removed from the “real world” and thus unable to engage in “real” problems is idealistic at best, and irresponsible and dangerous at worst. Our students are with us not just for the “pleasures of the classroom” (par. 9) but also, as Fish says, to improve their “knowledge and analytical abilities” (par. 6). Pedagogically, at the Cegep level, our students should be exploring topics not just in terms of knowledge and understanding, but analysis and evaluation. Yet Fish would have us disregard the evaluative aspect of education, taking students only so far. Perhaps he assumes that their analytical abilities will be so honed that they will be able to make those life decisions easily. But perhaps we can assume that the politically or morally-engaged teacher is not a preacher, but rather a model whose mission is not to convert students, but to guide them through moral and political evaluative processes, allowing them to reach independent conclusions. What better place to engage in political debate or moral deliberation than the safe environment of the classroom, removed from “the decision-making pressures of the larger world” (par 6)? Who better to guide students through such debates and deliberations than a teacher – by Fish’s definition neither legislator, leader, therapist nor minister, but rather an expert in the history, language, development and controversy of the matter under scrutiny? Fish is absolutely right to say that “what is out of bounds is using [the subject] as an occasion to move students in some political or ideological direction” (par. 2). What undermines his argument, however, aside from his frequently dismissive rhetoric, is his fundamentally flawed instruction vs. indoctrination, all or nothing view of teaching. If we agree that a teacher can – and some would argue, should – present political and ideological issues, and guide students through the philosophical “should” and “ought” questions without proselytizing, then we must reconsider Fish’s position.
Works Cited
Atkinson, R.F. ‘Instruction and Indoctrination.’ In R.D. Archambault (Ed.) Philosophical Analysis and Education. London: Routledge, 1967.
Fish, Stanley. ‘Always Academize: My Response to the Responses.’ New York Times Online, Nov. 5 2006. Retrieved May 30 2007 from .

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