… Stanley Fish of a couple of books about politics and the university. Fish notes a welcome moderating of views on both the left and the right, but also says this:

… To his credit, [Cary] Nelson [in his book] expresses uneasiness at his part in creating an academic word where “’the professional is the political.’ ” If he now believes, as he says, that we should “set aside our political differences in tenure decisions,” he should also believe that we should leave our political differences and commitments outside the classroom door. The reason he gives for declining to do so is that a classroom free of political passion would be overly reasonable and contribute to the acceptance of the status quo: “The relentlessly reasonable classroom may reinforce confidence in the reasonableness of the nation state in which it resides.” Get it? If you confine yourself to the subject and preside over reasoned discussions of the assigned materials, you will be turning your students into toadies for the neoliberal state. I guess you would also be courting that danger if you arrived at class on time, and devised objective tests and assigned grades accordingly. In the face of an argument like this one, there is literally nothing to say…

Here Fish gets at the problem of disposition and cultural competency mandates in American schools of education. (See this earlier post, and the many comments it attracted, for details.) Cary does not believe in the existence of reasonable, dispassionate, objective discourse in the classroom setting. He’s the guy on your block with the bumper sticker that says If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. It’s an obvious fact to him that pretty much whatever the political situation is, it’s fucked up and outrage-generating.

To tamp down your passionate indignation for the sake of a classroom ostensibly devoted to the poetry of John Milton would therefore be a dereliction. What we call “art,” after all, is — read correctly — most importantly a vehicle of social protest.

Whatever their subject, in other words, professors need to leave it at times and model in the classroom a passionately partisan response to ambient political events. Professors are not merely teaching Milton, with all of his aesthetic as well as social and theological complexity. They are teaching their students not to become neoliberals.

Fish is right — there’s nothing to say about this argument. Its cynicism takes your breath away.

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3 Responses to “An excerpt from a thoughtful review by …”

  1. francofou Says:

    It is not an argument, but an article of faith for those who have been dismantling the humanities (the Western tradition) for years. Their efforts dovetail nicely with anti-Western sentiment in a good part of the world.
    My breath was taken away years ago and has never been returned.

  2. tony grafton Says:

    Seems to me I first heard those arguments when I was an undergraduate at Chicago, a thousand years ago. Of course, the people who made them are probably wealthy dentists and lawyers now. Sigh.

    When Kenneth Tynan came to New York, full of radical urgency undented by Stalin’s purges or anything else, Irving Howe, exasperated by his silliness, finally said "Your arguments are so old that I can’t remember the answers to them." That’s how I sometimes feel. Thanks for being patient enough to remember.

  3. Kerry Says:

    One of the things I like about the community college is my impression that people are there to teach their subjects. I was incredibly discouraged early in my graduate studies by the number of fellow students and professors who seemed to agree with Cary Nelson’s point of view.

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