Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Let Us Now Praise Stanley Fish

What is freedom? Does it mean that we are fully responsible for the consequences of our choices or does it mean that we can do as we please without having to suffer any consequences?

When Isaiah Berlin drew this distinction he was surely thinking that the concept of freedom is confusing because we use one word to refer to two principles.

Clearly, having a free choice is not the same as getting something for free. The one confers responsibility; the other says that we can do as we please.

For the past two weeks Professor and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish has been examining this issue as it relates to academic freedom. Links here and here.

Does academic freedom mean that a tenured physics professor can decide that he will teach radical political theory in his physics class and give everyone an A+? And if he so chooses, should be fired for dereliction of duty?

In this case Stanley Fish takes the side of the university. He sees no risk to meaningful academic freedom in firing the physics professor.

The institution made him a physics professor; thus he has a responsibility to the institution... to teach courses, to show up to class on time, to grade his students fairly and impartially. If a future employer receives a copy of a student transcript, authorized by the university, that shows a student having taken a course in physics and having received an A+, that employer must be able to trust in the credibility of that claim.

Let's ask another question. Do those who feel some kind of moral duty to teach radical politics in place of the subject matter they have agreed to teach grant their students the freedom to disagree with them?

If they do not, their invocation of the lofty ideal of academic freedom is pure sophistry. That is what Fish argues, correctly.

Of course, the physics professor who is giving everyone an A+ would not penalize those students who do not accept his politics. And yet, in that case students are being bribed with good grades. They receive a great grade for allowing themselves to suffer this teacher's efforts to indoctrinate them.

Teachers have a right to express their opinions in the classroom. They do not have the right to use their position to enlist students in a political cause. Nor do they have the right to assume that those who disagree with them are mentally deficient.

Considering how much power teachers can wield in a child's life, this is not an impertinent inquiry. You may think that media barons are powerful figures who use their television stations and newspapers to slant the news and to influence your thought.

Yet, their power is nothing compared with that of the high school teacher who makes clear to a class that good grades will only be given to those who accept certain dogmas as incontestable truths.

Obviously, most schoolteachers have never even imagined using their position to indoctrinate impressionable and vulnerable youths. The problem is: some certainly have. In this case, some is way too many.

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