A review essay of Stanley Fish’s, Save the World on
Your Own Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

“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” (p.19). This is the primary message of law professor and former University of Illinois-Chicago Arts and Sciences Dean Stanley Fish in his Save the World on your Own Time. On “their own time,” professors can be as political as they like, presumably including when they write books such as the one Professor Fish himself has written. But in class, the professorial mandate is to “introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry” and to “equip those same students with analytical skills that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions” (p.18).

Such strict academic professionalism is hardly a new idea. Over 90 years ago, German social science giant Max Weber spelled out a similar philosophy of teaching in his classic and eloquent essay “Science as a Vocation” (1918). “Politics,” he says, “is out of place in the lecture-room… The true teacher will beware of imposing from the platform any political position upon the student, whether it is expressed or suggested.” To this he adds, “The prophet and the demagogue do not belong on the academic platform.” Instead, “the task of the teacher is to serve the students with his knowledge and scientific experience and not to imprint upon them his personal political views.”

One reason given by Weber is the simple unfairness of taking advantage of students, a captive audience, there mainly to advance their careers. More importantly, advocacy interferes with the academic function, since it necessarily pushes factual disputes to the background: “Whenever the person of science introduces his personal value judgment, a full understanding of the facts ceases… The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts—I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions.”

Debating such issues has new relevance today, as universities have become more central institutions in society. University expansion both in student enrollments and in funded research activity, and the emergence of a vast array of professional schools, has led to far more inter-connections with society in all aspects—politics, economy, and culture—than existed even a few decades ago. There is much greater tension between academia and politics, and much greater difficulty neatly separating the two. Universities need money, lots of it, and to get it, they are pressed to demonstrate relevance to students and their parents, to corporate executives, and to politicians. As well, philosophically, more academics believe that easy separation between the world of value and politics, on the one hand, and the world of fact and analysis, on the other, is somewhat artificial and should be questioned.

Fish and Weber both decry political advocacy by faculty, so it’s important to ask: how much political advocacy actually goes on in university classrooms today? Weber in his time cited “some highly esteemed colleagues” who felt they must necessarily bring their policy views into the classroom. For today, Fish clearly thinks it has become quite common, since the main purpose of his book is to remind faculty to stick to academic basics. It is perhaps surprising, then, that he provides no direct evidence from the classroom at all, much less that university teachers actually try to save the world by preaching their own “personal, political, or moral” views in their classes. No professors are even quoted as advocating such activity. So I wonder about the factual basis for Fish’s complaint. The dust jacket blurb announces that “professors now routinely bring their political views into the classroom and seek to influence the political views of their students,” but the book itself fails to back that up.

Direct evidence on political advocacy in class might come from course outlines, student course evaluations, or informal commentary among colleagues or students. Fish didn’t tap into any of this. As a professor, I have some personal exposure to this type of information, and I know of some instances of faculty engaging in political advocacy in class, but I would hardly call it “routine.” Course evaluation forms generally do not include specific questions on this point; perhaps they should. I gather that students don’t like preachy faculty (any more than Fish does), but since overall student course satisfaction is fairly high, one might infer that such faculty conduct is not a major irritant for students.

Fish’s own evidence is not from the classroom. He begins by deploring the civic-minded tone of some university “mission statements.” Wesleyan University, for example, is faulted for pledging to “cultivate a campus environment where students think critically, participate in constructive dialogue and engage in meaningful contemplation,” and to “foster awareness, respect, and appreciation for a diversity of experiences, interests, beliefs and identities” (p. 10). He finds the word “respect” particularly irksome in this context, since it is a moral issue, and he notes the absence of the word “evaluation.” But university mission statements are not directives to faculty. (My own university probably has a mission statement, but if so I’m not at all familiar with it. I could be wrong but I don’t really believe my dean will be too concerned by my public admission of this fact.) Rather, they are advertisements to the public extolling the public uses of a university, possibly including that education could be a civilizing experience. One hopes that it is. But such mission statements definitely do not indicate that faculty members try to influence the political views of students.

Another item in the thin inventory of Fish’s facts is a documentary movie Indoctrinate U directed by Evan Coyne Maloney. The point of the movie is that university faculty in the United States are mainly left-leaning supporters of the Democratic party, and as a result, university students are exposed to and heavily influenced by left-wing ideology. Although Fish acknowledges that party affiliation is not necessarily linked with political advocacy, he takes the movie as evidence for his position, noting that the failure of universities to more clearly enunciate a non-political ethic invites criticism. Again there is no information about political advocacy in university lectures.

The extent of faculty political advocacy is an issue, but perhaps the most interesting questions addressed in Fish’s book concern howuniversities and their faculty can enhance their academic objectives. One set of suggestions concerns rules for faculty, the other concerns funding for universities.

For faculty, avoiding advocacy does not mean avoiding policy issues altogether. “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” (p. 15). Fish says this rule is easy to follow, but I am not so sure. It was acceptable to tell his students that he voted for John Kerry, since it was an anecdote not persuasion (p. 30). But distinguishing academic attention from ideology in general might pose thorny problems. “Ideology” is in the eye of the beholder; it’s a term more frequently applied to others than to oneself. Rather than rules for figuring out what is “political or ideological attention,” he gives examples to show how easy it is, but they could show the opposite. He suggests, for example, that it is inappropriate to discuss in a university class whether George W. Bush was the worst president in US history, and better to discuss what he considers more academic questions such as why such rankings might be undertaken, or why Americans are fascinated with rankings. What Fish says he is doing here is detaching the topic from a real-world agenda, and “academicizing” it. Apparently he considers the question of whether Bush is the worst president to be part of a political agenda and therefore best avoided. Others might argue that assessing the contributions of presidents is standard fare for historians and political scientists, so assessing Bush in that regard would fit an established academic tradition. From this standpoint, what would be inappropriate would be to simply state that George Bush was the worst president without presenting any supporting evidence or documentation, and without considering what Weber called “inconvenient” facts. Fish’s example seems to illustrate the difficulties, not the ease, of sticking to the purely academic. It’s hard to be sure exactly what that means.

University finance is a second topic on which Fish offers opinions about enhancing the academic function. Fish opposes “ethical” restrictions on university investments, since in his view professors have no business deciding what is ethical. He also believes that sources of funding have no impact on the academic process so long as they do not control research findings. This ignores the steering effect of funding on the choice among various academic topics or questions. External funding agents—both government and private— definitely influence the research agenda, and through the funding of professorial chairs, they affect the teaching agenda of the university. They affect what academic questions will be pursued; that is their purpose. And because of this, individual faculty members may actually avoided asking certain types of questions, for fear of alienating possible sources of funding. Such forces can have a powerful political, mostly conservative, impact on university campuses. In other words, the danger may be not only that professors abuse academic freedom by proffering their political views in class, there may also be a danger that professors fail to exercise their academic freedom, in order to enhance their funding opportunities. Addressing this problem in universities today is by no means a trivial challenge.

For academics, these questions of how to ensure that academic goals are paramount in a university will remain urgent and important, and not subject to easy solutions. Fish’s views on these policy questions may be controversial, but he does agree that these are exactly the type of policy issues on which faculty should be actively engaged in all phases of their work. “Saving the University” can be done appropriately on university time. AM

Jeffrey G. Reitz is R.F. Harney Professor of Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies at the University of Toronto.