No. 11: Save the World on Your Own Time
I became familiar with Stanley Fish through his column in the New York Times. I’ve always enjoyed his writing, and I usually agree with his positions on education; but I’ve never looked any further.
I actually decided to pick up Save the World on Your Own Time because of an off-hand remark in Dockery’s Renewing Minds pertaining to Fish’s literary views. Unsurprisingly, in this book Fish disagrees with a great many of Dockery’s ideas of what higher education should be meant to accomplish, and argues in a much more succinct, logical, and persuasive way.
The Purpose of Higher Education
Dockery, along with many of my professors, believes that the university should be a place dedicated to training men and women of character in a great many things beyond academics. Fish, on the other hand, believes that the only thing the university can reasonably expect to accomplish is the one thing it is actually designed to do: transmit knowledge and skills to its students
This immediately separates him from many, if not most, of the theories commonly encountered today. In defense of Dockery and other Christian administrators, they are seeking what is sometimes called “education that is Christian”; one of my professors prefers to distinguish “the university” from “Christian education”. The latter is thought to have a far broader task.
In general, though, after 90 years of reform-minded Ed school graduates pouring into the system, dreaming romantically of “fostering growth” and “encouraging creativity”, we still seem to be completely nonplussed when it comes to defining the purpose of schooling or education. That, or we speak on and on, assigning to the schools every duty from making sure graduates are “productive members of society”, to “fostering tolerance and understanding”, but never getting to an actual purpose. In Philosophy & Education, George Knight referred to this as “mindlessness.” We seem not to know what particular good things to pursue, so we pursue them all, without focus.
Everyone agrees there are problems with the system, but the two prominent sides can’t seem to agree on what they are. As a result, our efforts at solving them are going nowhere, but Fish thinks we’re going about it all wrong. Everyone seems to think the schools aren’t doing enough—everyone except him: “…the problems pretty much go away when you understand and act on a simple imperative—do your job—which comes along with two corollary imperatives—don’t do somebody else’s job and don’t let someone else do your job.”
Do Your Job
How do you do your job? First, you have to figure out what it, in fact, is:
“No serious reflection about an activity can get off the ground until the activity is characterized in a way that distinguishes it from all other activities. It is only when you know what the job is that you can know if you are really doing it, rather than doing some other job you were neither trained nor paid for.”
p. 7 (emphasis mine)
Early on he differentiates between higher education and “professional instruction” (“if you want to make something, here’s how to do it”), he cuts into university mission statements that promise things we all know they can’t possibly deliver with any regularity (“I don’t know what ‘an appreciation of the world’ means, and ‘individual group beliefs and traditions’ is a pathetic and incoherent attempt to sit on the fence…”), and lays down a simple, limited, and difficult task for the university: Introduce students to new bodies of knowledge and inquiry, and equip them with the skills to engage in those fields.
All the rest are “contingent effects”, which can’t necessarily be planned, and “shouldn’t be aimed at.” The limited nature of the academic task, the fact that it has only one focus – “the mastery of intellectual and scholarly skills” – is what makes it “partially achievable”. Teachers and professors aren’t trained to deal with all the world’s social and political and personal issues. There are people trained for those things: social workers, politicians, psychologists, clergy.
He goes on to explain what it is to “do your job” and remain focused on it. Teaching well is difficult enough without trying to take on other duties as well. Don’t try to administrate, don’t try to counsel, don’t try to politically engage. Advice for administrators is similar.
This focus is important, not only because it makes the goals of the classroom at least plausible (if not always possible), but also because it supports the existence of the educational enterprise itself. If schools are trying to dabble in everyone else’s business, then – as is far too often the case – hanging responsibility for the students’ inadequate learning at the feet of parents, neighborhoods, and government, there’s no rational reason for them to exist. “If there is nothing that sets us apart, if there is nothing distinctive about out task…if there is nothing that marks it as our work and not everyone’s, there will be no particular reason to support us by giving us a room (or a franchise) of our own.”
Forming souls is the task of the church. Building character and responsibility is the task of the parents. Providing a place of belonging is the task of the community. Providing students with information and skills is the task of the school. All of those things may happen in the course of 12 or 16 or 20 years of schooling. But they may not. Consider the stories of Roland G. Fryer and Ted Kaczynski as told in Freakonomics.
In distinguishing education from other fields, Fish argues, educators must be emphatic about keeping other groups out of the academic enterprise. While many people believe that schools have many constituencies—businesses, parents, politicians, society as a whole, etc.—but Fish essentially says, “No, the university is its own constituency.” It has its own standards, methods, and purposes, which only incidentally cross paths with those of other groups; they don’t know the enterprise well enough to meddle, and their expectations are sometimes at odds with the purpose of schooling.
In the end Fish’s point was simple: education has a single focus, and that is the transmitting of knowledge and skills to students. The [secular] school has neither the time nor the training to engage intentionally in character building, consciousness raising, or social vocalizing. These things are better left to other groups who have more skill and practice—perhaps because the people who trained them stuck to the point—and will do a better job. Giving those things up has the happy and fortunate consequence of allowing more time for the practice and improvement of teaching and learning.