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On Saturday March 19, 2011, I attended the closing session of the WFU Humanities Institute’s inaugural symposium. The session was titled “Are the humanities good for humanity? The aims and place of the humanities in liberal education.”

Our guest speaker was Stanley Fish, Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University. Fish describes his field (humanities and law) as a “very new” one that is currently producing new schools of thought on academic freedom, the focus of his talk.

Fish outlined five definitions of academic freedom, arranged on a right-to-left ideological scale:

(1) Traditional/conservative: “the freedom to do the academic job, and not the freedom to do other jobs. The academic job is (a) to introduce students to bodies of materials with which they were not previously familiar, and (b) to equip students with the discipline-appropriate analytical skills. That’s it, nothing else.” In other words, you’re neither trained nor paid to be a therapist, political/social change agent, etc.

(2) Classical liberalism: “the freedom to pursue lines of inquiry that lead to the advancement of knowledge. It cannot be limited in advance — no ideas either canonized or stigmatized at the outset — but it is limited by the in-place standards and norms of academic work,” i.e., subjected to the rigor of academic scrutiny. Fish introduced the term “academisizing”: the notion that “social urgency” (real-world intervention) should be translated into “academic urgency” — supplying the kind of analysis, etc., to current issues that academics excel at, and that constitutes their most distinctive contribution.

(3) “Post-Modernist”: “the freedom to interrogate and challenge the institution’s norms and standards, for it is always possible, and indeed likely, that those standards and norms reflect and perpetuate the interests of a suspect status quo.” Fish calls this a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” It further demands that academics justify their arguments according to external standards, not just by appeals to the traditional standards of the academic community.

(4) “Academic exceptionalism”: “freedom is exercised by exceptional beings who by virtue of training, expertise, and the scholarly temperament produce words more valuable than the words of ordinary men and women.” Fish noted that exceptionalistic notions have no standing as a legal concept (Supreme Court rulings have mentioned academic freedom in an honorific sense, not as legally binding), or as a constitutional right (doesn’t entitle academic institutions to special treatment over others).

(5) “Radical” or “Terminal”: “the freedom and obligation to oppose tyranny, oppression, exclusion, racism, and discrimination wherever they are found, including within the university itself which, because it is embedded in a neoliberal society controlled by corporate interests, is quite likely corrupt at its core.” This view, Fish says, emphasizes “freedom” as the main concept, “academic” as ancillary; this results in the loss of the disciplinary constraints academic rigor provides.

A panel of WFU faculty provided responses.

Michele Gillespie, of the History Dept., offered the following points:

  • She doesn’t want to see humanists go on the defensive; instead, we should think of ways to increase our presence in the wider world. This can be accomplished not only by employing service-based learning and other innovations in the classroom, but also by strengthening relationships with scholars in other disciplines (WFU’s small size makes it particularly conducive to this).
  • Economic growth was originally envisioned as enabling cultural growth; nowadays, economic growth is increasingly viewed as the end purpose.
  • Other disciplines need us, and are starting to realize this; they are coming to us to learn how to apply “our empathetic grasp of human complexities” to their own fields’ endeavors.

Simeon Ilesanmi, of the Religion Dept., questioned whether “the academy is better off” adopting a values-free approach to education, rejecting in loco parentis, etc. He noted the frequency with which WFU students cited parental preference as determining their choice of major. In contrast, he defined the academic’s job as “making individuals useful to themselves and to the community” — such a program cannot be values-free.

Herman Rapaport, of the English Dept., offered the following points:

  • He contrasted an ideology espoused by some parents, and some schools, that the academic’s job is to teach students skills but not to affect them personally (cause them to change their political or religious views,etc.), as opposed to the view that we are here to teach students how to be intellectuals, life-long learners.
  • Rapaport also contrasted European and American student attitudes. European students, he said, often read their professors’ work, debate it with them, and suggest new courses that they should teach; American students rarely do this. Rapaport attributes this to a greater American emphasis on skills acquisition.
  • Rapaport says he takes “a more psychological view of the classroom” than many of his colleagues. The very act of interacting with people means that you are dealing with their past influences; in this sense, instructors can’t escape being therapists. There is “something that transcends” pure academics in the act of teaching: even if a student doesn’t grasp the details of a lecture, something like a Freudian transference occurs when that student sees the instructor’s enthusiasm for the topic. In this way, the instructor delivers a tradition to another person.

Dr. Fish distributed a ten-page handout filled with interesting quotes on academic freedom. I’ve posted my copy in the staff lounge, for anyone interested.