When Academics Fail Us

They have hearts but do not understand, eyes but do not see. They have ears but do not hear. They are worse than lost cattle. These are the heedless ones.

— Qur’an 7: 179

What is it like to listen to Noam Chomsky and not understand a word he’s saying?  Just ask Stanley Fish, the pre-eminent literary scholar and purveyor of reader-response criticism.  Fish’s recent editorial in the New York Times uses Chomsky’s speeches given at Columbia University to mount an attack on the academic left by claiming Chomsky for his own purposes.

Fish has long been a professional apologist of ivory tower impartiality.  One of his most widely-read books, Save the World on Your Own Time has this to say about the precise work of academics:

“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.”

As a major proponent of reader-response theory, Fish, like many of his colleagues, has devoted his career to abstracting knowledge production from larger political questions and more importantly from moral, actionable imperatives.  Instead of the sort of scholar-radicals who write for these pages, Fish extols the age-old armchair elitist, freed from the turmoils of the world to “solve puzzles” in comfortable detachment.

Reader-response theory traditionally asserts no fixed meaning to literature.  Texts and ideas, therefore, have no real importance.  That belongs to the elite community that does the interpreting.  This may explain how Fish can listen to Chomsky criticize sources of undemocratic power–from education privatizers and the stock market to exorbitantly priced universities and the US military–and never mention it in his description of the final speech.  Instead he lauds Chomsky for his moderate views on democracy, which Fish denigrates as “universally accepted truisms.”  He writes: “It would be hard to imagine someone on the other side standing up for social arrangements that had the effect of undermining a citizenry’s welfare and violating its rights.”  Maybe it’s just hard to imagine if you’re a quietist literary scholar.  Fish’s “reading” of Chomsky illustrates everything that’s wrong about not just literary theory but also the academy itself.  Of the former, Chomsky has said:

“I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.”

Of course in some circles there’s no such thing as misreading texts.  These scholars look askance at people like Edward Said for daring to assert that there’s a “real” Islamic world versus that of Orientalist stereotypes.  Using “constructivism” to assert that reality is simply ideology (while ignoring the suffering of people who must live in that reality), scholars like Fish short-circuit their students’ ability to grapple with real problems and imagine concrete solutions.  As a result, they reap the rewards from increasingly market-driven universities and colleges with little interest in teaching students how to think critically.

This is why I think Fish and his ilk are dangerous.  I’m not an academic, I’m a high school teacher.  I went through a ton of higher education: a total of ten institutions from the Ivy League to the community college, from literature and religion, to folklore and history.  I’ve been taught by scores of professors.  And throughout all of that I came across one professor who dared to question undemocractic power at its institutional source.  One.  I read Chomsky as an undergraduate but knew him simply as a linguist.  It was only when I began teaching in a public high school that I had a student there who gave me a copy of Chomsky’s Profit Over People.  I will never forget the rage and betrayal I felt at realizing that for all those years so many of my teachers had failed me by following Stanley Fish’s path.  I was open-minded enough to finally listen to what Chomsky had to say not because of those professors but rather thanks to a select group of high school teachers I’d had who understood that you can’t divorce politics from pedagogy.  Like them, I operate on the frontlines of the social struggles endemic to our time.  We teachers can’t afford to seclude ourselves in academic monasteries, divorced from the economic and political impact of an increasingly unjust and paranoid system of control.

Sartre wrote that if we are in a war, we choose that war by accepting it or not accepting it.  Howard Zinn said the same thing when he titled one of his books, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.  To a large extent, the academy–which should be leading the educational world–has failed us by clinging to neutrality, which is essentially a choice to accelerate into dystopia.  Scholars like Fish have robbed their students of the capacity to envision alternatives by denying them knowledge of critical historical conflicts and contemporary issues.  By isolating art and knowledge from the quest for peace and justice, they inhibit their students’ ability to develop into moral and democratic agents in an immoral and increasingly oppressive system.  My job may not be to convert my students to my political views.  But I certainly need to teach them that there is a struggle going on and what’s at stake.

Fish is a scholar of Milton.  Perhaps he remembers the words from Paradise Lost:

“Awake, arise or be for ever fall’n.”

Mark Graham is a high school teacher in the Lehigh Valley. He’s books include: How Islam Created the Modern World and Afghanistan in the Cinema. He can be reached at his blog, Intense World.


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