something fishy about stanley fish

The September 5 issue of The Chronicle Review has a review of Stanley Fish's new book, Save the World on Your Own Time, along with an essay by Fish on his notions of academic freedom. I plan on reading Fish's book because it appeals to me in some ways, though I don't know if I can articulate it exactly. Fish seems to be someone who might be plugged into the New Critical scheme of the world, that literature and other art is to be looked at removed from the forces that led to its production and the politics of that production. Similarly, teaching is to take a dispassionate view of art and literature in relation to current events. In short, he's advocating the opposite of a Paulo Freire's notions of a more advocacy or liberationist education. Maybe the big problem I have is that he seems to indicate his way is the only way.

What I appreciate about Fish's perspective is the way I see it tying into the movement towards outcomes based education. When teaching the liberal arts in the way Fish advocates, I don't know that we can get the sort of measurable outcomes many outcomes pushers seek. Instead, we teach poetry for the sake of understanding poetry, or a particular poem, or the use of a trope in a poem. We don't have to be concerned with how it supports one's job preparedness or even how it makes the student a better citizen. For Fish this applies to all of the liberal arts. Instead, whatever text we examine, we examine for it's rhetorical effectiveness and/or strategies, removed from our daily politics, and use of grammar. It's something of a mechanistic view, that we can look at the machinery of a text and conceivably get to the, or some, essence of the work without having to delve into the political, either the author's, the teacher's or the student's.

In all honesty, I don't know how this can be done, to ignore the politics of any text. If we look at "Theme for English B" how can we divorce a text of that sort from the time in which it was written or read, or the race of its writer? Same goes for "The Wife of Bath." Do we ignore the early feminist notions in such a text and find some seemingly dispassionate way to examine the text? I don't argue that we should look at such texts, or any text for that matter, as a model for certain actions, though I wouldn't dismiss that notion out of hand for the right text in the right time. I've always like the notion that literature is philosophy in action, much like physics is math in action (though I know this isn't a cut and dried analogy.). But why should we limit ourselves to looking at such works as merely rhetorical arrangements? This seem to ignore the fairly typical definition of rhetoric: the art of persuasive discourse. If that's the case, shouldn't we examine who is doing the persuading, what they are trying to persuade us to, why they are doing so, who is against this persuasion and the like, why they are using trope x or y to persuade, or attempt to persuade? In my mind, I'm just not able to separate the text from the motivations for producing the text, for the context of its production.

At the same time, I'm not a huge liberationist. I want students to be able to think for themselves, and when I want them to think like me, it's only in that I know I need to provide evidence for my thoughts and to explain why that evidence is important to whatever concern I'm looking into. Maybe that's liberationist, but I know few students will come away with the few I'd like them to should I try such an approach. At the same time, I admit I have a hard time understanding how so many students, and people for that matter, can dismiss reasonable facts that don't support their view or thinking, such as those who continue to cling to the notion that Barak Obama is a closeted Muslim. That evolution is just a theory, but they put more faith in faith, dismissing facts that are required of putting together a sound theory. Similarly, given the anti-Islamic feelings permeating much of America, thanks to the so-called war on terror, I can see why some folks are concerned about that, but why they hang onto such a notion when it seems to have been rather well refuted, and not just rebutted, is something that makes no sense to me, except that I'm also reluctant to give up hope on certain ideas, such that traditional liberalism can prevail over time, that incrementally we can progress and make the world better for everyone. The rub here, of course, that my notions of progress are at odds with other notions of progress. For now, though, I'll leave it at that as I start thinking more about the specifics of my upcoming classes and how I can better help students learn to think and write.