Saturday, July 24

The Case for Academic Autonomy: Stanley Fish

In a key sentence in the final and climactic chapter of his book The Moment of Complexity (University of Chicago Press, 2001), Mark C. Taylor declares that "the university is not autonomous but is a thoroughly parasitic institution, which continually depends on the generosity of the host so many academics claim to reject." He continues: "The critical activities of the humanities, arts, and sciences are only possible if they are supported by the very economic interests their criticism so often calls into question." The standard rhetoric of the academy may be anti-market, but the "university and the people employed in it have always been thoroughly implicated in a market system."

As a description of the university's inevitable involvement with, and dependence on, the forces and investments of the larger society, this seems to me exactly right. But the prescriptive conclusion that Taylor draws from this description seems to me to be exactly wrong:

"Education is too important to remain confined within the walls where many people would like to keep it. Colleges and universities are not, and should not be, autonomous institutions devoted to the cultivation of useless knowledge."

Here, as elsewhere in the book, Taylor hesitates between two arguments. In one, the walls between the academy and the "real world" are becoming "permeable screens," with the effect of rendering "the university as we have known it for two hundred years ... a thing of the past."

In the other, the walls between the academy and society have never been anything but permeable; globalization and the Internet merely make what has always been the case perspicuous and impossible to ignore.

Either argument -- the one that begins, no longer is it possible to maintain the divide, or the one that begins, there never was a divide in the first place -- leads Taylor to the same conclusions: Let's stop pretending that we can operate in a splendid (but fictional) isolation from everything that enables us; let's accept the fact that we are in, and of, the market and "find new ways to turn market forces to [our] own advantage"; let's prepare "students for life and work changing at warp speed"; let's go beyond the kind of critical analysis that does little more than "promote organizations and institutions whose obsolescence is undeniable"; let's adapt to the real conditions of our existence and eschew "a politics that is merely academic," a politics that is "as sterile as theories that are not put into practice."

I have two objections to his conclusions, one practical and specific to the situation of the academy, the other theoretical and capable of being generalized.

If we are worried about obsolescence and the loss of relevance, the surest way to court both is to become so attuned to the interests and investments of other enterprises -- the market, global politics, the information revolution -- that we are finally indistinguishable from them. If there is nothing that sets us apart, if there is nothing distinctive about our task or the criteria for accomplishing it, if there is nothing that marks our work as ours and not everyone's, there will be no particular reason to support us by giving us a room (or a franchise) of our own. We will be exactly what Taylor suggests we are -- a wholly owned (and disposable) subsidiary of something larger than ourselves.

Distinctiveness is a prerequisite both of our survival and our flourishing. Without it we haven't got a prayer.

Someone like Taylor might reply that any distinctiveness we might claim would be illusory, for it would assume an autonomy that is contrary to the fact of a radical dependence ("the university is a thoroughly parasitic institution"). No autonomy, no distinctiveness, no independent project.

This is where my theoretical objection kicks in; for the argument, more than implicit in Taylor's pages and in the pages of many other theorists of our condition, makes what I would call the "system" or "network" mistake -- the mistake of thinking that because something is embedded in a network that sustains that thing and gives it both value and shape, it is incoherent to speak of its properties, or of the boundaries that separate and distinguish it from other nodal points in the network. Since identity is network-dependent, the reasoning goes, nothing can be spoken of and examined as if it were free standing and discrete.

The trouble with that reasoning is that it operates at a level of generality so high that you can't see the trees for the forest.

Yes, everything is finally interconnected and has a diacritical rather than a substantive existence (and is therefore, in some sense, not identical with itself), but it doesn't follow that there is nothing distinctive to say about it, any more than it would follow that because the heart and lungs and the spinal cord are what they are by virtue of the system of which they are components, they perform no isolable functions, display no special characteristics, obey no special laws, and cannot be studied in their own right.

No one would say that about the parts of the body; nor should it be said of the university which, despite the fact that its conditions of possibility are exterior to it, does have an internal reality to which one must be attentive if you would hope to make observations that are relevant and (perhaps) helpful.

Indeed, if you do not attend to the internal perspective of a practice, to what legal theorist Ernest Weinrib has called its "immanent rationality" (Yale Law Journal, May 1988), you will be in danger of missing what is most crucial to its performance and you will ask it to do things appropriately done within the precincts of other practices, or you will complain that it does badly or minimally what it should not be doing at all.

As Weinrib points out, if a practice is to have a "determinate content," is to be something rather than anything or everything, "a this and not a that," it must be centered on a matter "set apart from other matters"; otherwise it runs the risk of "falling back into the chaos of unintelligible indeterminacy," the risk of claiming to do everything and therefore doing nothing.

That is a risk more than courted by some of those who responded indignantly to John J. Mearsheimer's declaration (in Philosophy and Literature, April 1998) that the University of Chicago "is a remarkably amoral institution" that makes "little effort to provide [students] with moral guidance." By that Mearsheimer does not mean that the university is immoral and gives bad counsel or that individual faculty members lack strong moral views; rather he means that the university gives no counsel, and that it is the professional, and in some sense moral, obligation of faculty members to check their moral commitments at the door.

The professional obligation is moral because it holds faculty members to the particular morality of the institution, the morality that comes along with its immanent rationality, which is the rationality of truth seeking, to which one cannot be faithful if one does not "condemn cheating, academic fraud, and plagiarism," all actions "antithetical to the search for truth."

To be sure, that is not the whole of morality -- there are legions of moral issues left unaddressed -- but it is, or should be, the whole of academic morality.

Mearsheimer concedes that an academic morality, narrowly construed, does not meet all of the moral "demands of our society," but, he says, the university is not the institution equipped or authorized to meet those demands: "providing moral guidance is no longer in their job description. ... Religious institutions and families are expected to provide their members with explicit advice about moral virtue, but universities are not."

For the most part, those who take issue with Mearsheimer's statements fall into the everything-is-interconnected error. They reason that no human activity is without a moral dimension and add that this is particularly true of the activity of teaching. "I wonder," asks one such critic who responded to Mearsheimer's essay, "how we can expect our students to engage seriously and honestly in higher education itself if we studiously avoid all concern with moral education?"

And another interlocutor points out that in the humanities, at least, the concerns of moral education are the explicit content of key texts: "How does [Mersheimer] suppose anyone manages to teach Aristotle's Ethics, the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the works of Plato, Kant, and William James ... without engaging students in genuine inquiry about what is moral and ethical behavior, and on what kind of persons they should become?"

But the fact that moral concerns turn up in the texts students study doesn't mean that what the students are learning about is morality. They are learning about the ways in which poets, philosophers, and political theorists structure their inquiries and reflections. Those inquiries and reflections will often begin and end with moral questions, but what makes those authors worth studying is not the answers they happen to give to those questions -- you can find Plato and Melville compelling without either affirming or rejecting the morality they seem to be urging -- but the verbal, architectonic, or argumentative skills they display in the course of implementing the intention to write a poem, or a piece of philosophy, or a meditation on the nature of government.

The "genuine inquiry" in which students are (or should be) engaged is not an inquiry about what kind of person they should be but an inquiry about what kind of person Plato or Hobbes or Rawls or Milton thought they should be, and for what reasons, and with what poetic or philosophical force. The exam question is not, "If you were to find yourself in such and such a situation, what should you do?" The exam question is "If you were to find yourself in such a situation, what would Plato, Hobbes, Rawls, and Kant tell you to do and what are the different assumptions and investments that would generate their different recommendations?"

You can answer that question in a good academic fashion -- answer it, that is, as an academic question -- without coming down on the side of any morality whatsoever, and no instructor should penalize you because you stuck to the business at hand and declined the invitation -- often proffered, but always to be declined -- to make the educational experience everything in general and nothing in particular.

Of course, somewhere down the line the academic answer you once gave to an academic question may factor into the moral response you give to a situation; but down the line is a long distance away, and meanwhile both faculty members and students will do well to remember the point of the enterprise they are now a part of.

The fact that a determinate project may, in the course of its self-realization, make use of everything under the sun does not mean that it is everything under the sun. It is what it is, and if we forget what it is and try to expand its claims to infinity, it will lose its very shape and fall back into the chaos of unintelligible indeterminacy.