BEHOLD MY MAGICAL POWERS

While reading Stanley Fish's latest rant about how College Professors Are the Dirty Liberal Enemy, I was struck by two things.

  • 1. Believe-it-or-fucking-not, academics are in fact paid to form opinions on subjects about which they know a great deal. One doesn't spend a decade or two studying the presidency to have no opinion about it – or to be told by some pitiful David Horowitz wannabe-pariah that said opinion is wrong or uninformed. Take, for instance, a professor of medicine. When one studies medicine for 30 years, the ability to point at a doctor and say "Look at this poor example, students; this is how not to be a doctor. Do not imitate." is implicit. Along the same lines (albeit without the decades of experience to lend weight to my opinion) I feel comfortable, knowing more than a bit about the presidency, to occasionally let my class know that George W. Bush is a particularly shitty one. If people support him ideologically, fine. I am required to be cool with that. And I am. What I am not required to do is to allow the students and right-wing hysterics to bully me into allowing all interpretations of the facts to be held equally valid (coming soon: the fallacy of false dilemma!). If you think he is a great president, you are entitled to that opinion. But you are not entitled to be told your opinion is correct. After all, some people are of the opinion that the Sun revolves around the Earth. To say that someone is entitled to that opinion (and they certainly are) is just a way of saying that people are free to be really fucking wrong if they so choose.
  • 2. Fish makes such a persuasive argument about the incredible indoctrinating powers of professors. And the students are all completely malleable and impressionable with no deeply-held opinions of their own. What an accurate depiction of the average university classroom. So riddle me this, Stanley – if I have such amazing powers to impose my will on these blank young minds, why can't I get them to read 30 pages a week out of a textbook? Or show up to class every day? Or hand in assignments on time? Or engage in classroom discussions? Yes, it makes perfect sense. I can indoctrinate them with an entire system of moral and political values, but I can't make them follow simple instructions or study for the final exam. Amazing, isn't it? How odd that my powers are so selective.

    The fact of the matter is that Academic Liberal Bias has become a Straw Man (not to mention a Red Herring) of tremendous popularity on the right. It is clearly inappropriate for professors to tell a student that his or her ideological beliefs are wrong; in every such example, I will side with the right-wingers demanding punishment. But a political scientist is required to accept all opinions on factual matters to be correct no more than a biologist. Opinions aren't inherently valuable simply because they exist. If they want respect, they have to earn it. But why do all that hard work? Wielding a gargantuan sense of entitlement is so much easier – almost as easy as trotting out tired, factually bankrupt arguments about liberal bias.

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  • 8 Responses to “BEHOLD MY MAGICAL POWERS”

    1. JDryden Says:

      I read the piece myself this morning, and my head still aches from the amount of times I rolled my eyes. In particular, Fish (and the Right in general) ignores the fact that the students aren't "brainwashed" into their liberal views–no, they pretty much come into the classroom with them; they spend a hell of a lot more time *out* of class than *in* it, and most of their views derive from external experiences–like meeting gays and realizing that they don't have cleft feet, or having their very first conversation with a real life black person. Things like that tend to shift one's views to the left.

      Plus, college is a time for reckless rebellion and taking political views based solely on the fact that said views will piss off Mom-and-Dad–I'm quite the liberal myself, overall, but more often than not, when politics enter into the discussion, I find myself having to remind students that actually there's a rich and valuable tradition of conservatism that's kept many societies on an even keel during times of crisis, and that Edmund Burke was *right* about the French Revolution. Then I go wash my mouth out with Bushmill's.

      Point being, A. it's usually *they* who initiate the political element of discussion, and B. they've *already* got views that would make steam blow out of Sean Hannity's ears.

    2. Matthew Says:

      A red straw herring man?!

      That would be a kick-ass band name.

    3. Samantha Says:

      I don't know, Ed. I started college with one set of values and left with a very different one. Granted, I was possessed of a pretty open mind going in, but my professors, while not political scientists, were extremely influential in my gradual metamorphosis from an attitude of intolerance and superiority to one of compassion and humility. More than anything, I learned to appreciate the complexity of individuals' situations and the ramification of oversimplifying and politicizing those situations.

    4. Ed Says:

      Well I certainly don't claim that belief systems don't change between the ages of 18-21. In fact it's very likely that college undergraduates evolve their viewpoints over four years. But I can't force it to happen, contrary to popular belief. I'm presenting a viewpoint. If it affects the students, that's their decision. Whether or not they are in a stage of questioning and possibly updating their beliefs is beyond my control.

      So yes, there is a potential for professors to influence students. But I think it only works if the students are receptive to it. Those who are not do a perfectly fine job of rejecting it, as is their right.

    5. JDryden Says:

      I should add that what infuriates me most about this particular set of claims from the anti-Elitist Right is that it treats people who are legally adults (the students) as if they're f***ing retards. As if we could spew any vile and hateful stuff we wanted and, helpless to think for themselves, they'll have no choice but to lap it up. So in the name of 'defending' these poor lost souls, they're viciously insulting them. Sorry guys; the Ludovico method is science-fiction–they actually can and do make decisions for themselves. Not always the brightest ones, but definitely independent of our Ivory Tower liberalism…

    6. Brandon Says:

      Umm, did I read a different article than everybody else? I found Fish's arguments to be well-balanced and fair. He made a lot of valid and well-constructed criticisms of this documentary, which looks simply execrable. At the end he did sort of lay the hammer down on professors who use their position as a bully pulpit, but I didn't find his criticisms to be all that radical. I pretty much agree with your take on the whole liberal straw man, Ed, it just seems like you are grossly mischaracterizing Fish's argument.

    7. Ed Says:

      I'll submit Stanley's next column in support of my interpretation of his argument:

      http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/21/george-w-bush-and-melvilles-ahab-discuss/

      Remember, asking a controversial question is NOT simply a way to get disinterested students to speak up, discuss, or debate something. It's your liberal bias showing through.

    8. Brandon Says:

      I'm still not really seeing it. I disagreed with some of his arguments, and found some of his examples to be farfetched (but perhaps it's just been too long since I've sat in an introductory literature class; does GWB really come up that often?), but for the most part his argument seems reasonable. Basically, I agree with with your teaching philosophy, Ed, but I don't think Fish is our enemy, unlike the guy who produced this ridiculous documentary (which, by the way, could provide for an entertaining movie night, although I'd feel guilty about financially supporting these bastards!). I haven't sat in on any of your classes, but I don't think Fish would have any problems with you. Asking controversial and politically sensitive questions in a poli sci class is different than the examples he gives, which, like I said, seem rather unrealistic. Fish did write a really shitty review of Dawkins "The God Delusion" a while back, basically saying that these 'new atheists' are just as fanatical as the fundies in the blind 'faith' in science. Yeah, what a load…