The Calling

The Calling

Inside the Doe Library at UC Berkeley (Catherine Shyu / Flickr)

Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution
by Stanley Fish
University of Chicago Press, 2014, 192 pp.

When the Free Speech Movement exploded in the fall of 1964, setting off a series of student protests across the country, Stanley Fish was a young assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Freshly PhDed from Yale and “still feeling [his] way into a profession with which [he] had no real familiarity,” Fish was one of two professors in the English Department who refused to suspend class or to let discussion focus on the protests. Fish, a political liberal, was not opposed to the movement’s aims but was bemused by his colleagues’ willingness to throw out their usual lesson plans and devote themselves to a political cause at the expense of the official curriculum. “It became clear,” Fish recalled in 2000,  that

for some people in my department . . . this was the first time in many years that they had felt energized. . . . [My] colleagues felt that for the first time they were doing, I suppose, although they wouldn’t have used this language, the Lord’s work . . . Then I asked myself the question, although I never asked them . . . If this is the only time you feel really alive and committed, what kind of performance were you offering your students on the days before this particular event erupted in your lives?

In the decades that followed, Fish established himself as a leading scholar of Milton, a literary theorist, a public intellectual, and an academic superstar. (Among other notable achievements, he inspired the character Morris Zapp in David Lodge’s series of campus novels.) He has also dedicated himself to posing questions about the academic profession that arose from this formative experience at Berkeley fifty years ago. In essays like “Profession Despise Thyself: Fear and Self-Loathing in Literary Studies” (1983) and “Anti-Professionalism” (1985), books like Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change (1999) and Save the World on Your Own Time (2008), and his regular opinion blog at the New York Times, which ran from 2006 to 2013, Fish has contemplated how academics conceive of their jobs and their relation to the institutional protocols that make them possible. What is it about the academic mind, Fish wants to know, that always seems to hunger for a higher calling? Why do professors so often yearn to set aside the ordinary business of teaching and scholarship to take up “the Lord’s work”?


Versions of Academic Freedom, Fish’s concise, lucid, intelligent, and deeply frustrating new book, is, among other things, a meditation on this question. Academic freedom, he observes, is frequently invoked by the professoriate to protect them against legal and institutional sanctions, but it is a troublingly nebulous concept. “Why should members of a particular profession be granted latitudes and exemptions not enjoyed by other citizens?” he asks. “Why, for example, should college and university professors be free to criticize their superiors when employees in other workplaces might face discipline or dismissal?”

At this point in his career, Fish is as much a legal theorist as he is an English professor (he’s been teaching in law schools since the mid-1980s), and it’s his contention in his latest book that “[a]cademic freedom is rhetorically strong but legally weak. Indeed, it is not at all clear that academic freedom has any substantial presence in the law.” But Versions of Academic Freedom is not, as one might expect, an attempt to strengthen the legal standing of the concept; Fish’s project is less about finding a new way to defend academic freedom than it is about defining and debunking what most working professors seem to think “academic freedom” means. On what grounds do claims for academic freedom rest? Why is it a good thing and what would academic life look like without it?

In search of an answer, Fish identifies five schools of academic freedom, “plotted on a continuum that goes from right to left.” (It’s worth pointing out that this ideological framing is Fish’s; I would argue that there are left and right versions of all of the positions he describes.) At the conservative end of the spectrum, we have the “It’s just a job” school (Fish’s own position), which holds that, “[r]ather than being a vocation or holy calling, higher education is a service that offers knowledge and skills to students who wish to receive them.” Thus, “academics are not free in any special sense to do anything but their jobs.” Second is the “For the common good” school—the mainstream position in the American academy today—which insists that academic freedom has special value to a democratic society; Fish traces it back to a founding document, the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure (drafted by Arthur O. Lovejoy and John Dewey, among others). Third is the “Academic exceptionalism or uncommon beings” school, which essentially treats academics as an elite class with special privileges. Fourth is the “Academic freedom as critique” school, which finds the real value of the academy in the “ruthless criticism of everything that exists”; fifth, and most radical, is the “Academic freedom as revolution” school, which travels further down the same road by advocating not only the critique but the abolition of existing social structures.

Fish presents his book as a “taxonomy of approaches” to academic freedom, a study in its varieties—or versions, as he puts it—and the arguments by which they are justified. But, as long-time readers of his work will not be surprised to learn, he has a dog in the fight himself, and he doesn’t treat all these approaches with equal generosity. The left-of-center positions all bring out varying degrees of exasperation in him, particularly the “Academic exceptionalism” school, which he clearly sees as total hogwash. (Despite devoting twenty pages to it, Fish is not entirely persuasive that anyone actually holds this view.) The “Academic freedom as critique” school—represented here by Judith Butler—is too abstract and diffuse for him. It is also, in his view, “the very antithesis of academic freedom” since it challenges the legitimizing authority of the academy itself, a move that consummate professionals like Fish are not willing to make. The “Academic freedom as revolution” school is even worse: it not only lacks the theoretical sophistication of the “Academic freedom as critique” school, but it also insists that “when university obligations clash with the imperative of doing social justice, social justice always trumps.” Its vision of academic freedom is, in other words, freedom from the academy, and it is embodied by the Canadian physicist Denis Rancourt, who in 2005 refashioned a required course in environmental physics at the University of Ottawa into a class on social activism. (The symmetry with Fish’s scrupulous conduct at Berkeley in the 1960s is almost too neat; Rancourt is the anti-Fish.) Fish’s opposition to the emancipatory politics advocated by the likes of Rancourt and the Free Speech Movement is not a reactionary one; he  doesn’t dispute their rights to agitate, he just doesn’t think it should be justified in the context of the university. “A passion for justice is of course a good thing,” Fish admits, magnanimously; “it’s just not an academic good thing.”

The logic of Fish’s position—and I must admit that it is logical, more so than those of many of his interlocutors—entails a certain kind of renunciation, not of privileges but of beliefs. When you’re an academic, he holds, you’re an academic all the way: whatever else you believe is irrelevant. If you’re a scientist who believes reversing climate change to be one of the foremost ethical imperatives of our time, or a humanist who believes that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is a catastrophe demanding immediate public censure, you are still bound, by the ethics of your profession, to stick to the syllabus. Again, as in Berkeley in 1964, struggles over matters of politics and social justice rage just outside the classroom window, but the academic is expected to keep her head down and do her job.


That leaves two versions of academic freedom left standing: the “It’s just a job” school and the “For the common good” school, and it’s here that the real heart of Versions of Academic Freedom lies. Fish slyly jokes that the former camp “may have only one member and you’re reading him now,” but he’s being disingenuous: there is in fact a large class of professionals within the university who tend to hold just such a view—the view that professors are, at the end of the day, just employees, with no special rights or privileges that don’t attach to other kinds of employees. They’re called administrators.

There is, indeed, a tension between this mainstream administrative position and the mainstream faculty position, which Fish highlights. The modern-day exemplar of what Fish calls the “For the common good” school is the legal scholar Robert Post, who has debated Fish in the past (and blurbs this book). In contrast to the “left” schools of academic freedom, who find the raison d’etre of academic freedom in political critique and dissent, Post views academics as producers of specialized expertise with no immediate practical or political consequences. But, he argues, while academic knowledge is not itself democratic—because it requires the professional exclusion and suppression of voices that don’t meet one or another discipline’s standards—its flourishing is essential for democracy, since it helps create what he calls “democratic competence.” Thus, in Fish’s somewhat reductive summary, “[w]hat professors want and what democracy needs come together quite neatly.”

Fish’s rejoinder to Post is rather simple. “Although the knowledge produced by academic expertise may be helpful to the democratic project,” he writes, “the democratic project can get along without it.” There are other means, he suggests, to enlighten and therefore empower a political citizenry: “parents, churches, free libraries, political discussion groups, newspapers, high-level journals, the internet, public television, National Public Radio, documentaries, popular culture, folk wisdom, common sense.” In other words, the academy is not nearly as important to the health of democracy as it thinks it is, and it shouldn’t appeal to the claims of a larger common good in order to shore up its privileges. “Either give academics special speech privileges, the argument goes,” according to Fish, “or the entire democratic project goes downhill. That is quite a claim and, in my view, one that cannot be cashed in.”

This deflationary line of reasoning is nothing new for Fish. A version of it is already implicit in his pedagogy at Berkeley in the 1960s, when he refused to let social justice trump academic obligation. He has always been adamantly opposed to the idea that academic work can be justified for its value to society. Professors, he argues, “do not set out to aid democracy or help build the economy or produce good citizens; these things may contingently happen, but achieving them is not the point.”

So what is the point? Fish is not nearly as good at answering this question as he is at puncturing others’ high-flown answers. And while he recognizes the need for justification, he is oddly loath to make a convincing case of his own. “An internal justification of academic freedom is all the ‘It’s just a job’ school can offer,” he writes: “this is the job and these are the conditions we require to do it properly.” This, for Fish, is his position’s “greatest strength because, in refusing the challenge of public/political justification, it reaffirms the independent value of what academics do, and provides a secure, because wholly internal, justification of allowing them to do it freely.”

This might, on the surface, seem like an odd argument for a pragmatist who believes (as Fish does) that politics trumps truth, and that all meaning is situational. But it’s important to note that Fish’s career took shape during a brief window of American intellectual history—roughly speaking, the second half of the twentieth century—when to be an academic literary critic of a particular kind was taken to be self-evidently valuable. In the context of the midcentury Ivy League establishment in which Fish was trained, to mount a defense of the social value of literature or literary study was seen as not just unnecessary but as a kind of utilitarian capitulation to a philistine public. The academy was the one place where the value of literature didn’t need to be explained, even as other more formal and thematic aspects of texts were explained to within an inch of their lives. For all his love of apostasy and his attraction to radical postmodern doctrines that would have made the New Critics who taught him blanch, Fish has stayed true to their core belief in the value of academic professionalism: the value, that is, of refusing to justify the value of what you do.

Things are different today. To state the obvious: as a tenured professor at the end of a long and distinguished career, Fish can afford to believe academics shouldn’t have to justify their work. This is another of the frustrations of Versions of Academic Freedom, especially for the contingent faculty who as of fall 2011 make up 76.4 percent of the academic workforce, according to the AAUP’s April 2014 employment report. In his brief preface Fish warns that he “do[es] not . . . say much about tenure, unionization, the rise of contingent faculty, the decline in the funding of state universities.” In fact, other than this sentence, he doesn’t say anything about these things. But what happens to the robustness of Fish’s arguments when being a college professor, far from being “just a job,” is barely a job at all—when labor markets are so saturated and management’s terms so unfavorable that to justify one’s commitment in purely professional terms feels absurd? What else do new entrants into academia have to motivate them to stick it out in a dying industry, other than their sense of a higher calling?

Fish has mocked this vocational way of thinking about the academy for decades, seeing it as a sign of the professoriate’s monasticism and self-abnegation. (As he memorably put it in “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos”: “Academics like to eat shit, and in a pinch, they don’t care whose shit they eat.”) But if being an academic today is a profession, it’s one that is, for the vast majority, almost bereft of professionalism’s worldly benefits (salary, health care, union representation, and so on). It’s a type of employment that asks new entrants to accept the traditional material deprivations of vocation without allowing them to invoke its spiritual or social value, even when their support is threatened or their right to exist is under attack. What is arguably emerging today is a hybrid of the worst parts of professionalism and vocationalism: a monastic order built not on faith but on cynical self-interest, a profession in which the initiates are neither well-compensated nor convinced of their labor’s ultimate value. It’s hard to believe that such an order, poor in both material and spiritual incentives, will last long in twenty-first-century America.

My concern about Versions of Academic Freedom is not exactly that Fish is wrong (though I think he frequently is). It’s that accepting his arguments will only speed up the eradication of the professional academy from which his impeccably logical views have emerged. I’d like to think that Fish himself, committed to pragmatic improvisation as he is, would see the force of this objection. The lesson is one that Fish himself has been teaching since Is There a Text in This Class?: if you don’t like the consequences that follow from a given philosophical position, you’re perfectly entitled to change your mind. Given how prevalent Fish’s position is among those who administer and run our private and public universities, the question is: will they change their minds before it’s too late?


Evan Kindley is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books and teaches at Claremont McKenna College in California.

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