Cooper Union Lecture Features Preeminent Educator Stanley Fish
What should be the function of colleges and universities in molding the minds of its alumni? Should college professors be allowed to use the classroom as a forum to express their opinions and attempt to instill their beliefs into their students or should they be restricted to simply teach the curriculum of the course and follow the course syllabus?
These topics were addressed by renowned literary theorist and legal scholar, Stanley Fish at Cooper Union’s Albert Nerken School of Engineering. Mr. Fish who serves dual roles is Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Professor of Law at Florida International University and Dean Emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently completed his twelfth book, Save The World On Your Own Time, in which he offers his perspective on what the roles of institutions of higher learning and its professors should be in regard to the kind of influence they should have on their students.
Mr. Fish began by reading and analyzing the mission statements of Wesleyan University and Michigan State University and criticizing these institutions for having mission statements. Mr. Fish explains, “Teaching in colleges and universities is a craft, not a mission. There is nothing holy about teaching at a university.” He adds, “People who attach to it grand and ambitious aims are making a large mistake. Not only are they making a large mistake but they are also shortchanging students and its subjects.”
Mr. Fish said that analytical abilities and knowledge can be taught in a classroom but perceptive uses of knowledge is a matter of character which Mr. Fish opined cannot be taught in a classroom. He stated, “Character cannot be taught by Ph.D.s in English and Chemistry.” Mr. Fish believes that the role of college professors should be to teach the curriculum that fulfills the course’s requirement and to honor its syllabus. Any views on religion, politics and other societal affairs should be taught and not opined in a classroom. College professors are paid and trained to teach a discipline and college students should go into a class expecting to gain knowledge and enhance their intellect and not to have their views and beliefs on certain subjects molded or swayed by a professor. Mr. Fish argues, “Colleges and universities can legitimately do only two things. One, introduce students to bodies of knowledge that had not previously been a part of their experience and two, to equip those students with advantageous skills….depending on their discipline. That is it, nothing more, nothing less.”
Throughout the lecture Mr. Fish used topics such as same sex marriage and the Iraq War as examples of issues that might be taught in a class because of their political impact. Mr. Fish expressed the sentiment that he doesn’t oppose “hot button” issues like these being introduced to a classroom as long as they are being taught instead of opined. He explained, “Topics which are politically charged may still not cross the line as long as we distinguish between academic consideration and political consideration. There is no trick at all to depoliticize even the most politically charged topics and you do this by subjecting them to an analytical or interpretive gig.” Mr. Fish described this process as “academicizing” which he humorously described as, “an extraordinarily ugly word and difficult to pronounce.” He concluded, “To academicize the topic is to detach that topic from the context of its real world origins, where there is a road to be taken or an agenda to be chosen and instead insert that topic into a context of academic urgency where there is a description to be authored or an analysis to be performed.” #