The modern American university has lost its way. So argues prominent intellectual and New York Times columnist Stanley Fish in his latest book, Save the World on Your Own Time, a short, well-reasoned polemic on what he considers to be the failings of American higher education and what must be done to correct them. Rather than focusing on teaching and conducting research, he writes, today's colleges and universities aim to solve the ills of the world, tackle social injustices like racism and American imperialism, and mold students into worldly citizens. Any number of college mission statements—which read more like panaceas than declarations of academic core principles—confirms this ambition. Faculty members, the intellectual lifeblood of any college or university and the focus of Fish's book, are equally at fault, bringing personal beliefs and politics into the classroom where they don't belong.
Fish, a former dean at the University of Illinois–Chicago and currently a professor at Florida International University, lays out a three-fold solution for remedying the roles of teachers in higher education. He wants teachers to stick to instructing students on how best to engage in academic inquiry and how to study the competing perspectives within a text or issue. This is advice he calls, "Do your job." Fish argues that teachers should stick to teaching and not try to do the work of a preacher, social worker, or inspirational speaker. He also says not to let outside influences meddle with a teacher's job of educating his or her students. "[T]rustees, donors, politicians, parents, and concerned members of the general public," he writes, "have lots of ideas that should be politely listened to and then filed away under `not to the academic point.'"
Fish inevitably wades into the debate over what defines academic freedom on today's campuses. In recent years, "academic watchdog" groups like Campus Watch, which purports to monitor curricula and professors in Middle East Studies departments across the country, and the Argus Project, an initiative from the National Association of Scholars employing volunteers to report incidences of politicization in teaching and scholarship, have sprung up, stirring an already contentious discussion on whether teachers are too political in the classroom. Mind you, Fish devotes few words to these organizations, and in no way advocates for something similar. Since he believes introducing students to new material and teaching them to analyze that material is truly a teacher's job, outside groups like Campus Watch are irrelevant.
Much of Save the World clashes with the various progressive ideals of higher education. The progressive community sees the classroom as a place to encourage students to tackle issues of social justice and inequality; Fish flatly does not. And his strict belief in academic inquiry is sure to irk fervent progressives who see education as a means for fostering a sense of morality and democracy in students.
So is Fish's advice in Save the World what today's college and universities and the teachers filling their classroom need? Indeed it is, and here's why. More than ever before, the value in understanding all arguments on an issue (even those one disagrees with), in evaluating the merits of those competing viewpoints, and in selecting which viewpoint(s) are most valuable—the value of this intellectual process—has all but dwindled.
As legal scholar Cass Sunstein has argued, in today's Internet-driven age, individuals can select and filter the kinds of information they receive more than ever before. If liberal, they can tailor their daily reading and watching and listening to feature only liberal newspapers, websites, magazine, blogs, message boards, etc.; the same applies for conservatives, and for that matter, adherents to any other ideology. Put simply, given complete control over what they read on the Internet, people will almost always seek out information confirming what they already believe, in effect polarizing our discourse. "There is a general risk that those who flock together, on the Internet or elsewhere, will end up both confident and wrong, simply because they have not been sufficiently exposed to counterarguments," Sunstein writes. "They may even think of their fellow citizens as opponents or adversaries in some kind of war.'"
Not that it's completely the Internet's fault. Closed-mindedness, selective ignorance, an "unwillingness to give a hearing to contradictory viewpoints, or to imagine that one might learn anything from an ideological or cultural opponent," as Susan Jacoby writes in The Age of American Unreason—these are all growing aspects of American culture.
And this is where higher education becomes so important. As citizens become more ideologically isolated and more intellectually polarized, higher education—that is, Fish's vision of higher education—can help to counteract that anti-intellectualism by instilling in students the importance of approaching issues from an academic standpoint and of thoroughly dissecting an argument, text, idea.
One of the best ways to create an intellectually curious citizenry, rather than an ignorant one, is to emphasize the value of understanding all sides to an issue. For those who fear that this approach will turn students into passive citizens, it simply isn't true. There will never be a shortage of opportunities for students to use and apply their newfound passions, and to channel them into action—it just needs to be outside of the classroom. But if the university continues down a path in which its educators fail to teach academic inquiry, and instead shortchange their students by simply offering their own opinions, it will only amplify the deafening echo chamber that characterizes so much of this country's public discourse.
Andy Kroll, a senior at the University of Michigan, has written for The Nation, AlterNet, CNN, TomDispatch.com, and CBSNews.com. He welcomes comments and further discussion, and can be reached at his website.