Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Even Dick Army says so!

This morning, Rebel Girl asked me if I’d read Stanley Fish’s latest piece in the New York Times.

Nope, I said. I’d somehow missed it.

“It’s about academic freedom,” she said.

Neither of us is a big fan of Fish and his views about academic freedom. For instance, he has flatly argued against instructor “advocacy” in the classroom. Against this, I have argued that there is room for careful instructor advocacy.

This morning, Rebel Girl seemed particularly peeved. Said she: “Fish discusses some professor somewhere who gives A+'s to all of his students.”

I looked at her. She mentioned some of this professor’s other exotic practices and notions. She looked at me.

“What do you call it when someone finds the worst example of a thing in order to represent it and then attack it?,” she asked.

“The straw man fallacy?”

“Yeah, that's it. The straw man fallacy.”*

So today I read Fish’s piece, which is entitled, “The Two Languages of Academic Freedom.” Check it out.

I’m not entirely sure what Fish thinks he’s arguing for—no doubt he favors one of the “languages”—but I hope nobody is getting the idea that Fish's Nutty Professor is a common sort in academia. He's not.

Professor Denis Rancourt of the U of Ottawa has been “dismissed with cause.” Earlier, he had been suspended from teaching and “banned from campus.” He then defied the ban.

Reportedly, Rancourt is an anarchist who views society’s institutions as mechanisms of oppression. Accordingly, schools and universities exist to crank out “obedient workers.” Grading, according to this line (says Fish), is “a tool of coercion in order to make obedient people.”

Hence the A+’s.

Rancourt, says Fish, is an exponent of “‘squatting’ – ‘where one openly takes an existing course and does with it something different.’” Rancourt is supposed to teach physics. Instead, his course encourages “activism.”

Fish (speculatively, I think) attributes to Rancourt the following attitude toward his employers:

I refuse to do what I have contracted to do, but I will do everything in my power to subvert the enterprise you administer. Besides, you’re just dictators, and it is my obligation to undermine you.... And, by the way, I am entitled to do so by the doctrine of academic freedom, which I define as “the ideal under which professors and students are autonomous and design their own development and interactions.”

I suppose Fish is right to view Rancourt as embracing a very broad and extreme sense of academic freedom, one in which it is part of "a global project whose goal is nothing less than the freeing of revolutionary energies, not only in the schools but everywhere.” Fish seems to advocate a “narrower concept” according to which academic freedom is a “doctrine whose scope is defined by the purposes and protocols of the institution and its limited purposes.”

Well, OK. But I’ve never met an academic like Rancourt. Yes, I've met a handful who share some of Rancourt's theories--but I've met none who puts them into practice with A+'s, "squatting," and so on.

I and some of my colleagues here at Irvine Valley College have been ardent advocates of academic freedom, especially in the past dozen or so years. But none of us defines the concept as Rancourt seems to.

Do we believe that much is amiss with society and that, in some sense, society ought to change? Sure. But we also think that we should teach our subjects in the classroom and do that well.

That's what Rebel Girl thinks. That's what I think.

My subject is philosophy. As it happens, this afternoon, I was teaching Plato’s Republic, a work in which the Sophist Thracymachus famously argues that “justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger.”

Thracymachus’ view, as portrayed by Plato, is not unlike Rancourt’s. On some interpretations, Thracymachus is a skeptic who views morality as a sham. We are earnestly taught that morality is meaningful, that virtue is its own reward. In reality, says Thracymachus (maybe), morality is a set of constraints and demands that serve to keep the elite comfortable and powerful. That's all.

Thracymachus seems actually to admire those who are grandly and profitably immoral.

In class, I focused on that idea--about the "elite" and power. I discussed Machiavelli, Marx, and Nietzsche. I explained Chomsky's views regarding the “manufacture” of consent. I asked: Is there any truth to this? Are most of us stupid sheep who are manipulated into cooperating with and furthering strategies and goals that are beyond our comprehension? Are Americans encouraged to concern themselves with the inane—silly entertainments, stupid politics—while the really real stuff is going on in the shadows?

Hmmm. This reminds me of former Congressman Dick Army (R-Texas) and something he said about politics on Hardball a few days ago. Check it out; you'll just love it:

Yeah, I know. Army's a sexist a**hole from hell. But forget that. What about his message?
“Politics is silly. It’s inane…Take what amusement you can from [practitioners of politics], but don’t take them seriously.”

The "unrepresentative sample" fallacy
The "false dilemma" fallacy
The "black-or-white" fallacy

Chomsky on Charlie Rose:

I recommend starting at about thirty minutes into the interview.