Publications
Publications
hoover digest
policy review
education next
china leadership monitor
defining ideas
August 1, 2008

Professor, Do Your Job

The classroom is not your political platform.


Pick up the mission statement of almost any college or university, and you will find claims and ambitions that will lead you to think that it is the job of an institution of higher learning to cure every ill the world has ever known: not only illiteracy and cultural ignorance, which are at least in the ball-park, but poverty, war, racism, gender bias, bad character, discrimination, intolerance, environmental pollution, rampant capitalism, American imperialism, and the hegemony of Wal-Mart; and of course the list could be much longer.

Wesleyan University starts well by pledging to “cultivate a campus environment where students think critically, participate in constructive dialogue and engage in meaningful contemplation ” (although I’m not sure what meaningful contemplation is); but then we read of the intention to “foster awareness, respect, and appreciation for a diversity of experiences, interests, beliefs and identities. ” Awareness is okay; it’s important to know what’s out there. But why should students be taught to “respect” a diversity of interests, beliefs, and identities in advance of assessing them and taking their measure? The missing word here is “evaluate.” That’s what intellectual work is all about, the evaluation, not the celebration, of interests, beliefs, and identities; after all, interests can be base, beliefs can be wrong, and identities are often irrelevant to an inquiry.

Teachers cannot — except serendipitously — fashion moral character or produce citizens of a certain temper.

Yale College’s statement also starts well by promising to seek students “of all backgrounds” and “to educate them through mental discipline,” but then mental discipline turns out to be instrumental to something even more valuable, the development of students ’ “moral, civic and creative capacities to the fullest.” I’m all for moral, civic, and creative capacities, but I’m not sure that there is much I or anyone else could do as a teacher to develop them. Moral capacities (or their absence) have no relationship whatsoever to the reading of novels, or the running of statistical programs, or the execution of laboratory procedures, all of which can produce certain skills, but not moral states. Civic capacities — which mean, I suppose, the capacities that go along with responsible citizenship — won’t be acquired simply because you have learned about the basic structures of American government or read the Federalist papers (both good things to do). You could ace all your political science and public policy courses and still drop out and go live in the woods or become the Unabomber. And as for creative capacities, there are courses in creative writing in liberal arts colleges, and colleges of fine arts offer instruction in painting, sculpture, pottery, photography, drafting, and the playing of a variety of musical instruments. But even when such courses are housed in liberal arts venues, they belong more to the world of professional instruction — if you want to make something, here’s how to do it — than to the world of academic interrogation.

I’m not saying that there is no connection at all between the successful practice of ethical, social, and political virtues and the courses of instruction listed in the college catalogue; it ’s always possible that something you come across or something a teacher says may strike a chord that sets you on a life path you might not otherwise have chosen. But these are contingent effects, and as contingent effects they cannot be designed and shouldn ’t be aimed at. (It’s not a good use of your time to aim at results you have only a random chance of producing.)

So what is it that institutions of higher learning are supposed to do? My answer is simple. College and university teachers can (legitimately) do two things: 1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience; and 2) equip those same students with the analytical skills — of argument, statistical modeling, laboratory procedure — that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research after a course is over.

What can be designed are courses that introduce students to a demarcated field, reading lists that reflect the current state of disciplinary knowledge, exams or experiments that test the ability of students to extend what they have studied to novel fact situations, and in-class exercises that provoke students to construct and solve problems on their own. The designing of these (and related) structures and devices makes sense in the context of an aim that is specific to the pedagogical task — the aim of passing on knowledge and conferring skills.

Teachers can, by virtue of their training and expertise, present complex materials in ways that make them accessible to novices. Teachers can also put students in possession of the analytical tools employed by up-to-date researchers in the field. But teachers cannot, except for a serendipity that by definition cannot be counted on, fashion moral character, or inculcate respect for others, or produce citizens of a certain temper. Or, rather, they cannot do these things unless they abandon the responsibilities that belong to them by contract in order to take up responsibilities that belong properly to others. But if they do that, they will be practicing without a license and in all likelihood doing a bad job at a job they shouldn ’t be doing at all. When that happens — and unfortunately it does happen — everyone loses. The students lose because they’re not getting what they paid for (it will be said that they are getting more, but in fact they are getting less). The university loses because its resources have been appropriated for a nonacademic purpose. Higher education loses, because it is precisely when teachers offer themselves as moralists, therapists, political counselors, and agents of global change rather than as pedagogues that those who are on the lookout for ways to discredit higher education (often as a preliminary to taking it over) see their chance.

Does this mean that questions of value and discussion of current issues must be banished from the classroom? Not at all. No question, issue, or topic is off limits to classroom discussion so long as it is the object of academic rather than political or ideological attention. To many this will seem a difficult, if not impossible, distinction. On the contrary, as we will see, it is an easy one.

The necessity of academicizing

Afaculty committee report submitted long ago to the president of the University of Chicago declares that the university exists “only for the limited . . . purposes of teaching and research” and reasons that “since the university is a community only for those limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness ” (Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action, November 11, 1967). Of course it can and should take collective (and individual) action on those issues relevant to the educational mission — the integrity of scholarship, the evil of plagiarism, and the value of a liberal education. Indeed failure to pronounce early and often on these matters would constitute a dereliction of duty. But neither the university as a collective nor its faculty as individuals should advocate personal, political, moral, or any other kind of views except academic views.

The only advocacy that should go on in the classroom is the advocacy of the intellectual virtues.

The only advocacy that should go on in the classroom is the advocacy of what James Murphy has identified as the intellectual virtues, “thoroughness, perseverance, intellectual honesty,” all components of the cardinal academic virtue of being “conscientious in the pursuit of truth” (“Good Students and Good Citizens,” New York Times, September 15, 2002). A recent Harris Poll revealed that in the public’s eye teachers are the professionals most likely to tell the truth; and this means, I think, that telling the truth is what the public expects us to be doing. If you ’re not in the pursuit-of-truth business, you should not be in the university.

There are many objections to this severe account of what academics should and shouldn ’t do, but one is almost always raised — how do you draw the line? Even if your intentions are good, how do you refrain from inadvertently raising inappropriate issues in the classroom? I call this the objection of impossibility, which takes two forms. One form says that teachers come to the classroom as fully developed beings who have undergone certain courses of instruction, joined political parties, embraced or refused religious allegiances, pledged themselves to various causes, and been persuaded to the truth of any number of moral or ideological propositions. In short, teachers believe something, indeed many things, and wouldn ’t it be impossible for them to detach themselves from these formative beliefs and perform in a purely academic manner? Wouldn ’t the judgments they offered and the conclusions they reached be influenced, if not largely determined, by the commitments I say they should set aside?

This objection contrives to turn the unavailability of purity — which I certainly acknowledge — into the impossibility of making distinctions between contexts and the behaviors appropriate to them. Even if it is the case that whatever we do is shaped to some extent by what we ’ve done in the past, that past is filtered through the conventional differences by which we typically organize our daily lives. We understand, for example, that proper behavior at the opera differs from proper behavior at a ball game, and we understand too that proper behavior at the family dinner table differs from proper behavior at a corporate lunch. It would be possible to trace our actions in all of these contexts back to decisions made and allegiances formed long ago, but those actions would still be distinguishable from one another by the usual measures that mark off one social context from another. The fact that we bring a signature style, fashioned over many years, to whatever we do does not mean that we are always doing the same thing. We are perfectly capable of acting in accordance with the norms that belong to our present sphere of activity, even if our “take” on those norms is inflected somewhat by norms we affirm elsewhere.

We manage to refrain from inserting our private obsessions into every conversation or situation.

But is it so easy to compartmentalize one’s beliefs and commitments? Yes it is. In fact, we do it all the time when we refrain, for example, from inserting our religious beliefs or our private obsessions into every situation or conversation no matter what its content. Those who cannot or will not so refrain are shunned by their neighbors and made the object of satires by authors like Swift and Dickens. Setting aside the convictions that impel us in our political lives in order to take up the task of teaching (itself anchored by convictions, but ones specific to its performance) is not at all impossible, and if we fail to do it, it is not because we could not help ourselves, but because we have made a deliberate choice to be unprofessional.

The second form of the impossibility objection asserts that there can be no distinction between politics and the academy because everything is political. It is the objection that in many courses, especially courses given at a law school or by political science departments, the materials being studied are fraught with political, social, ethical, moral, and religious implications. How can those materials be taught at all without crossing the line I have drawn? Should they be excluded or allowed in only if they have first been edited so that the substantive parts are cut out? Not at all. I am not urging a restriction on content — any ideology, agenda, even crusade is an appropriate object of study. Rather I am urging a restriction on what is done with the content when it is brought into the classroom. If an idea or a policy is presented as a candidate for allegiance — aided by the instructor, students are to decide where they stand on the matter — then the classroom has been appropriated for partisan purposes.

But if an idea or a policy is subjected to a certain kind of interrogation — what is its history? how has it changed over time? who are its prominent proponents? what are the arguments for and against it? with what other policies is it usually packaged? — then its partisan thrust will have been blunted, for it will have become an object of analysis rather than an object of affection.

In the fall of 2004, my freshman students and I analyzed a speech of John Kerry’s and found it confused, contradictory, inchoate, and weak. Six weeks later I went out and voted for John Kerry. What I was doing in class was subjecting Kerry ’s arguments to an academic interrogation. Do they hang together? Are they coherent? Do they respond to the issues? Are they likely to be persuasive? He flunked. But when I stepped into the ballot box, I was asking another set of questions: Does Kerry represent or speak for interests close to mine? Whom would he bring into his administration? What are likely to be his foreign policy initiatives? How does he stand on the environment? The answers I gave to the first set of academic questions had no relationship whatsoever to the answers I gave to the second set of political questions.

Whether it is a person or a policy, it makes perfect sense to approve it in one venue and disapprove it in another.

Whether it is a person or a policy, it makes perfect sense to approve it in one venue and disapprove it in another, and vice versa. You could decide that despite the lack of skill with which a policy was defended (an academic conclusion), it was nevertheless the right policy for the country (a political decision). In the classroom, you can probe the policy ’s history; you can explore its philosophical lineage; you can examine its implications and likely consequences, but you can ’t urge it on your students. Everything depends on keeping these two judgments, and the activities that generate them, separate.

It might be objected that while it may be easy to remain within academic bounds when the debate is about the right interpretation of Paradise Lost, the line between the academic and the political has been blurred before the discussion begins when the subject is ethics and students are arguing, for example, about whether stem cell research is a good or bad idea. But students shouldn ’t be arguing about whether stem cell research is a good or bad idea. They should be studying the arguments various parties have made about stem cell research. Even in a class focused on ethical questions, the distinction I would enforce holds. Analyzing ethical issues is one thing; deciding them is another, and only the first is an appropriate academic activity. Again, I do not mean to exclude political topics from the classroom, but to insist that when political topics are introduced, they not be taught politically, that is, with a view to either affirming or rejecting a particular political position.

The name I give to this process whereby politically explosive issues are made into subjects of intellectual inquiry is “academicizing.” To academicize a topic is to detach it from the context of its real world urgency, where there is a vote to be taken or an agenda to be embraced, and insert it into a context of academic urgency, where there is an account to be offered or an analysis to be performed.

Consider as an example the Terry Schiavo tragedy. How can this event in our national history be taught without taking sides on the issues it raises? Again, simple: Discuss it as a contemporary instance of a tension that has structured American political thought from the founders to John Rawls — the tension between substantive justice, justice rooted in a strong sense of absolute right and wrong, and procedural justice, justice tied to formal rules that stipulate the steps to be taken and the persons authorized to take them. On one side were those who asked the question: what is the morally right thing to do about Terry Schiavo? On the other side there were those who asked the question: who is legally entitled to make the relevant decisions independently of whether or not we think those decisions morally justified? Once these two positions are identified, their sources can be located in the work of Locke, Kant, Mill, Isaiah Berlin, and others, and the relationship between those sources and the Schiavo incident can become the focus of analysis. As this is happening — as the subject is being academicized —  there will be less and less pressure in the class to come down on one side or the other and more and more pressure to describe accurately and fully the historical and philosophical antecedents of both sides. A political imperative will have been replaced by an academic one. There is no topic, however politically charged, that will resist academicization. Not only is it possible to depoliticize issues that have obvious political content; it is easy.

How do you know whether or not you are really academicizing? Just apply a simple test: am I asking my students to produce or assess an account of a vexed political issue, or am I asking my students to pronounce on the issue? Some cases are easy. The writing instructor who appended to his syllabus on Palestinian poetics the admonition “Conservative students should seek instruction elsewhere” was obviously defaulting on his academic responsibilities. So are those professors who skip a class in order to participate in a political rally; even if their students are not encouraged to attend the rally, a message is being sent, and it is the wrong message. Some teachers announce their political allegiances up front and believe by doing so they inoculate their students against the danger of indoctrination. But the political affiliations of a teacher will be irrelevant if political questions are analyzed rather than decided in the classroom. Coming clean about your own partisan preferences might seem a way of avoiding politics, but it sends the message that in this class political judgments will be part of what ’s going on, and again that is the wrong message.

The institutional message

The wrong message can be sent by institutions as well as by those they employ. The basic test of any action contemplated by a university should take the form of a simple question: Has the decision to do this (or not do this) been reached on educational grounds? Let ’s suppose the issue is whether or not a university should fund a program of intercollegiate athletics. Some will say “yes” and argue that athletics contributes to the academic mission; others will say “no” and argue that it doesn’t. If the question is decided in the affirmative, all other questions — should we have football? Should we sell sweatshirts? should we have a marching band? — are business questions and should be decided in business terms, not in terms of global equity. Once the university has committed itself to an athletic program it has also committed itself to making it as profitable as possible, if only because the profits, if there are any, will be turned into scholarships for student athletes and others.

I don’t mean to exclude political topics from the classroom, but to insist that when they are taught, they not be taught politically.

The same reasoning applies to investment strategies. It is the obligation of the investment managers to secure the best possible return; it is not their obligation to secure political or social or economic justice. They may wish to do those things as private citizens or as members of an investment club, but as university officers their duty is to grow the endowment by any legal means available. The argument holds also for those in charge of maintenance and facilities. The goal should be to employ the best workers at the lowest possible wages. The goal should not be to redress economic disparities by unilaterally paying more than the market demands.

When a university sets wages, it sets wages, period (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar). The action has its own internal-to-the-enterprise shape, and while one could always abstract away from the enterprise to some larger context in which the specificity of actions performed within it disappears and everything one does is “taking a stand,” it is hard to see that anything is gained except a certain fuzziness of reference. The logic — the logic of the slogan “everything is political” — is too capacious, for it amounts to saying that whenever anyone does anything, he or she is coming down on one side or another of a political controversy and “taking a stand.”

But there is a difference between a self-consciously political act (such as the one my wife performs when she refuses to purchase goods manufactured by companies engaged in or benefiting from research on animals) and an act performed with no political intention at all, although it, inevitably, has a political effect (at least by some very generous definition of what goes into the political). Universities can pay wages with two intentions: ( 1) to secure workers, whether faculty or staff, who do the job that is required and do it well and (2) to improve the lot of the laboring class. The first intention has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the size of the labor pool, the law of supply and demand, current practices in the industry, etc. The second intention has everything to do with politics — the university is saying, “here we declare our position on one of the great issues of the day” — and it is not an intention appropriate to an educational institution. Nor is it appropriate for universities to divest their funds because they morally disapprove of countries or companies.

If universities must distance themselves from any entity that has been accused of being ethically challenged, there will be a very long list of people, companies, and industries they will have to renounce as business partners: brokerage firms, pharmaceutical firms, online-gambling companies, oil companies, automobile manufacturers, real-estate developers, cosmetic companies, fast-food restaurants, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Target, Martha Stewart, Richard Grasso, and George Steinbrenner. And if you ’re going to spurn companies involved with Sudan, what about North Korea, Iran, Syria, China, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Argentina, Russia, Israel, and (in the eyes of many left-leaning academics) the United States?

These lists are hardly exhaustive and growing daily. Taking only from the pure will prove to be an expensive proposition (even Walt Disney won ’t survive the cut) and time consuming too, as the university becomes an extension of Human Rights Watch.

But if you take their money, aren’t you endorsing their ethics and in effect becoming a partner in their crimes? No. If you take their money, you ’re taking their money. That’s all. The crimes they may have committed will be dealt with elsewhere, and as long as the funds have not been impounded and are in fact legally the possession of those who offer them, the act of accepting them signifies nothing more than appreciation of the gift and the intention to put it to good academic use.

So are there no circumstances in which a university should decline funds offered to it, except the circumstance of money legally (not morally) dirty? Yes, there is one — when the funds come with strings attached, when the donor says these are the conclusions I want you to reach, or these are the faculty I want you to hire, or these are the subjects I want you to teach or stop teaching. Every university already has a rule against accepting donations so encumbered, and it is a matter of record that tobacco companies abide by this restriction and do not expect (although they may hope) that their contributions will produce results friendly to their cause.

What’s left?

But wouldn’t a university uninvolved in the great issues of the day be a place without passion, where classrooms were bereft of lively discussion and debate? Definitely not. While the urgency of the political question will fade in the classroom I have imagined, it will have become a far livelier classroom as a result. In the classrooms I have in mind, passions run high as students argue about whether the religion clause of the First Amendment, properly interpreted, forbids student-organized prayers at football games, or whether the Rawlsian notion of constructing a regime of rights from behind a “veil of ignorance” makes sense, or whether the anthropological study of a culture inevitability undermines its integrity. I have seen students discussing these and similar matters if not close to coming to blows then very close to jumping up and down and pumping their fists. These students are far from apathetic or detached, but what they are attached to (this again is the crucial difference) is the truth of the position to which they have been persuaded, and while that truth, strongly held, might lead at some later time to a decision to go out and work for a candidate or a policy, deciding that is not what is going on in the classroom.

The implicit assumption in the classroom as I envision it is that truth, and the seeking of truth, must always be defended.

By invoking the criterion of truth, I’ve already answered the objection that an academicized classroom — a classroom where political and moral agendas are analyzed, not embraced — would be value-free and relativistic. If anything is a value, truth is, and the implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumption in the classroom as I envision it is that truth, and the seeking of truth, must always be defended. To be sure, truth is not the only value and there are others that should be defended in the contexts to which they are central; but truth is a pre-eminent academic value, and adherence to it is exactly the opposite of moral relativism.

You will never hear in any of my classes the some-people-say-x-but-others-say-y-and-who’s-to-judge dance. What I strive to determine, together with my students, is which of the competing accounts of a matter (an academic not a political matter) is the right one and which are wrong. “Right” and “wrong” are not in the lexicon of moral relativism, and the students who deliver them as judgments do so with a commitment as great as any they might have to a burning social issue. Students who are asked to compare the models of heroism on display in the Iliad, the Aeneid, and Wordsworth’s Prelude, or to chart the changes in the legal understanding of what the founders meant when they enjoined Congress from establishing a religion, will engage in discussions that are at least as animated as any they might have in the dorm room about some pressing issue of the day. It is only if you forget that academic questions have histories, and that those histories have investments, and that those investments are often cross- and interdisciplinary that you could make the mistake of thinking that confining yourself to them and resisting the lure of supposedly “larger” questions would make for an experience without spirit and energy. Not only is the genuinely academic classroom full of passion and commitment; it is more interesting than the alternative.

The really dull classroom would be the one in which a bunch of 19- or 20-year-olds debate assisted suicide, physician-prescribed marijuana, or the war in Iraq in response to the question “What do you think?” Sure, lots of students would say things, but what they would say would be completely predictable — a mini-version of what you hear on the Sunday talk shows — in short, a rehearsing of opinions. Meanwhile the genuine excitement of an academic discussion where you have a chance of learning something, as opposed to just blurting out uninformed opinions, will have been lost. What teacher and student are jointly after is knowledge, and the question should never be “What do you think?” (unless you’re a social scientist conducting a survey designed to capture public opinion). The question should be “What is the truth?” and the answer must stand up against challenges involving (among other things) the quality and quantity of evidence, the cogency of arguments, the soundness of conclusions, and so forth.

At the (temporary) end of the process, both students and teachers will have learned something they didn ’t know before (you always know what your opinions are; that’s why it’s so easy to have them) and they will have learned it by exercising their cognitive capacities in ways that leave them exhilarated and not merely self-satisfied. Opinion-sharing sessions are like junk food: they fill you up with starch and leave you feeling both sated and hungry. A sustained inquiry into the truth of a matter is an almost athletic experience; it may exhaust you, but it also improves you.

What’s the use?

It will not improve you, however, in ways that make you a better person or a better citizen.A good liberal arts course is not good because it tells you what to do when you next step into the ballot box or negotiate a contract. A good liberal arts course is good because it introduces you to questions you did not know how to ask and provides you with the skills necessary to answer them, at least provisionally. And what do you do with the answers you arrive at? What do you do with the habits of thought that have become yours after four or more years of discussing the mind/body problem, or the structure of dna, or Firmat’s theorem, or the causes of World War I?

Beats me! As far as I can tell those habits of thought and the liberal arts education that provides them don ’t enable you to do anything, and, even worse, neither do they prevent you from doing anything.

The view I am offering of higher education is properly called deflationary; it takes the air out of some inflated balloons. It denies to teaching the moral and philosophical pretensions that lead practitioners to envision themselves as agents of change or as the designers of a “transformative experience,” a phrase I intensely dislike. I acknowledge a sense in which education can be transformative. A good course may transform a student who knew little about the material in the beginning into a student who knows something about it at the end. That ’s about all the transformation you should or could count on. Although the debates about what goes on in our colleges and universities are often conducted as if large moral, philosophical, and even theological matters are at stake, what is really at stake, more often than not, is a matter of administrative judgment with respect to professional behavior and job performance.

Teaching is a job, and what it requires is not a superior sensibility or a purity of heart and intention — excellent teachers can be absolutely terrible human beings, and exemplary human beings can be terrible teachers — but mastery of a craft. Teachers who prefer grandiose claims and ambitions to that craft are the ones who diminish it and render it unworthy.

A convenient summary of the grandiose claims often made for teaching can be found in an issue of the journal Liberal Education. Here are some sentences from that issue:

  • A classroom that teaches the virtues of critical analysis and respectful debate can go at least some way to form citizens for a more deliberative democracy.
  • A liberal arts college or university that helps young people to learn to speak in their own voices and to respect the voices of others will have done a great deal to produce thoughtful and potentially creative world citizens.
  • The aims of a strong liberal education include . . . shaping ethical judgment and a capacity for insight and concern for others.
  • Contemporary liberal education must look beyond the classroom to the challenges of the community, the complexities of the workplace, and the major issues in the world.
  • Students need to be equipped for living in a world where moral decisions must be made.

To which I respond, no, no, no, no, and no. A classroom that teaches critical analysis (sometimes called “critical thinking,” a phrase without content) will produce students who can do critical analysis; and those students, no matter how skillfully analytical they have become, will not by virtue of that skill be inclined to “respect the voices of others.” Learning how to perform in the game of argument is no guarantee either of the quality or of the morality of the arguments you go on to make. Bad arguments, bad decisions, bad actions are as available to the members of Phi Beta Kappa as they are available to the members of street gangs. And moreover, as I said earlier, respecting the voices of others is not even a good idea. You shouldn ’t respect the voices of others simply because they are others (that’s the mistake of doctrinaire multiculturalism); you should respect the voices of those others whose arguments and recommendations you find coherent and persuasive.

And as for ethical judgment in general, no doubt everything you encounter helps to shape it, but reading novels by Henry James is not a special key to achieving it; and indeed — and there are many examples of this in the world — readers of Henry James or Sylvia Plath or Toni Morrison can be as vile and as cruel and as treacherous as anyone else. And if students “need to be equipped for living in a world where moral decisions must be made,” they’d better seek the equipment elsewhere, perhaps from their parents, or their churches, or their synagogues, or their mosques. Nor can I agree that “contemporary liberal education must look beyond the classroom to the challenges of the community ”; for it is only one short step from this imperative to the assertion that what goes on in the liberal arts classroom is merely preliminary to what lies beyond it, one short step to the judgment that what goes on in the liberal arts classroom acquires its value from what happens elsewhere; and then it is no step at all to conclude that what goes on in the liberal arts classroom can only be justified by an extracurricular payoff.

You might make your students into good researchers. You can’t make them into good people, and you shouldn’t try.

And here we come to the heart of the matter, the justification of liberal education. You know the questions: Will it benefit the economy? Will it fashion an informed citizenry? Will it advance the cause of justice? Will it advance anything?

Once again the answer is no, no, no, and no. At some level of course, everything we ultimately do has some relationship to the education we have received. But if liberal arts education is doing its job and not the job assigned to some other institution, it will not have as its aim the bringing about of particular effects in the world. Particular effects may follow, but if they do, it will be as the unintended consequences of an enterprise which, if it is to remain true to itself, must be entirely self-referential, must be stuck on itself, must have no answer whatsoever to the question, “what good is it?” In a wonderful essay titled “What Plato Would Allow” (Nomos37, 1995), political theorist Jeremy Waldron muses about the appropriate response to someone who asks of philosophers, “What’s the point of your work?” or “What difference is it going to make?” He replies (and I agree completely with him) that “we are not really doing . . . philosophy, and thus paradoxically . . . we are probably not really being of much use, unless we are largely at a loss as to how to answer that question. ”

An activity whose value is internal to its performance will have unpredictable and unintended effects in the world outside the classroom. But precisely because they are unpredictable and unintended, it is a mistake to base one ’s teaching on the hope of achieving them.

If by the end of a semester you have given your students an overview of the subject (as defined by the course ’s title and description in the catalogue) and introduced them to the latest developments in the field and pointed them in the directions they might follow should they wish to inquire further, then you have done your job. What they subsequently do with what you have done is their business and not anything you should be either held to account for or praised for. (Charlton Heston once said to Lawrence Olivier, “I’ve finally learned to ignore the bad reviews.” “Fine,” Olivier replied, “now learn to ignore the good ones.”)

The question of what you are responsible for is also the question of what you should aim for, and what you should aim for is what you can aim for — that is, what you can reasonably set out to do as opposed to what is simply not within your power to do. You can reasonably set out to put your students in possession of a set of materials and equip them with a set of skills (interpretive, computational, laboratory, archival), and even perhaps (although this one is really iffy) instill in them the same love of the subject that inspires your pedagogical efforts. You won ’t always succeed in accomplishing these things — even with the best of intentions and lesson plans there will always be inattentive or distracted students, frequently absent students, unprepared students, and on-another-planet students — but at least you will have a fighting chance given the fact that you’ve got them locked in a room with you for a few hours every week for four months.

You have little chance (and that entirely a matter of serendipity), however, of determining what they will make of what you have offered them once the room is unlocked for the last time and they escape first into the space of someone else ’s obsession and then into the space of the wide, wide world.

And you have no chance at all (short of a discipleship that is itself suspect and dangerous) of determining what their behavior and values will be in those aspects of their lives that are not, in the strict sense of the word, academic. You might just make them into good researchers. You can ’t make them into good people, and you shouldn’t try.


Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His most recent book is Save the World On Your Own Time (Oxford University Press), on which this article is based.