首页 > 大学教育 > 斯坦利·费希: 请做好本职工作,教授(吴万伟 译)

斯坦利·费希: 请做好本职工作,教授(吴万伟 译)

2011年1月9日 发表评论 阅读评论

作者简介:斯坦利·费希(Stanley Fish),迈阿密弗罗里达国际大学法学教授和Davidson-Kahn 杰出教授,伊利诺斯大学文学院院长。最新著作是《在我们自己的时代拯救世界》(牛津大学出版社)。

课堂不是你的政治舞台。

打开任何一所大学的招生宣传,你都会发现让你觉得高等教育机构的使命非常广泛的如下说法:治疗世界上所有已知的疾病,不仅是棒球场上的文盲和文化无知,而且是贫困、战争、种族主义、性别歧视、性格缺陷、偏见、不宽容、环境污染、肆无忌惮的资本主义、美国帝国主义、沃尔玛霸权等等。这个名单还可以变得更长。

威斯利安大学的宗旨开明宗义,发誓要“培养校园氛围,让学生学会批评性地思考,参加建设性讨论,从事有意义的探索,”(虽然我不知道这个有意义的探索到底是什么)接着我们看到“形成认识、尊重、欣赏经验、兴趣、信念和身份的多样性”的意图。认识当然没有问题,知道外面的情况当然很重要,但是为什么要教育学生在评价兴趣、信念和身份以及采取措施之前要“尊重”它们的多样性呢?这里缺乏的一个词是思想工作关心的内容“评价”。重要的是评价而不是欣赏兴趣、信念和身份,毕竟,兴趣是基础,信念可能是错误的,身份常常和探索没有关系。

老师不能——除非偶然地——塑造道德品质或者培养某种性格的公民。

耶鲁学院的宣传刚开始也很好,承诺寻求“各种背景的学生”,“用心智训练教育他们”,但是接着心智训练却成为获取更大价值的东西的工具,最大程度地培养学生的“道德、公民素质、创造能力。”我完全赞同提高学生的道德品质、公民素质、和创造能力,但是我不敢肯定我或其他老师在这方面能做到多少。道德品质好坏与阅读小说或者与统计学课程或者实验室操作步骤没有任何关系。所有这些都可以训练某些技能,但是不会改善学生的道德状况。我猜想所谓的公民素质大概是表现出负责任公民的能力,但是这不可能单靠你了解美国政府的基本管理结构,或者阅读联邦党人文集(这都是好事)而获得。你在所有政治学和公共政策课程上取得好成绩,但仍然可能休学,到树林里生活,或成为隐形炸弹人。至于说创造能力,文科学院提供创造性写作课程,艺术学院提供绘画、雕塑、陶瓷、摄影、绘图,以及演奏种种乐器等课程。这些课程虽然位于文科院系,但它们更多地属于专业教育的世界而不是到学术探索的世界。如果你想创作什么的话,这是艺术创作的方法。

我不是说伦理的、社会的、和政治的美德与大学课程表中列举的课程没有任何联系,你遭遇任何东西都是可能的,或 许老师说的一句话打动了你的心弦,让你步入另一个本来不会挑选的道路。引起共鸣是可能的,但是这些是偶然性的影响,它不能被事先设计,不应该当作追求的目标。(把你的目标确定在只有偶然成功机会的结果上决非使用时间的良好方式。)

那么,高等教育机构应该怎么做呢?我的答案很简单。大学老师能(合法地)做两件事情:

1)向学生介绍知识体系和探索传统,这些是他们从前的经验中没有的东西。

2)让这些学生掌握分析技能、辩论技能、了解统计模型、实验程序等,这些能让他们更自信地进入那些领域,在课程结束后独立地研究。

能够被设计的东西是向学生介绍划定界限的课程、反映学科知识现状的阅读书目、检验学生把所学内容用在新情况下的能力的考试和试验、以及刺激学生提出和解决问题的课堂练习等。在这个目标,即在具体到教学任务和传授知识、培养技能的目标背景下,对这些结构(以及相关的)和措施进行设计是有道理的。

老师们依靠自己的训练和专长能够以让新手容易接受的方式讲解复杂的材料。老师们还能让学生拥有该领域最新研究者使用的分析工具,但除了在定义上不能指望的偶然性外,不能指望老师塑造道德品质或者灌输对他人的尊重或者培养具有某些品格的公民。或者他们无法做到这些事情,除非他们放弃了根据合同属于他们的职责,同时肩负起本来属于他人的职责。责任。但是如果他们非要这么做,他们是在非法情况下实施的,而且效果可能很糟糕,他们根本就不应该做。不幸的是,这一切都发生了,人人都是失败者。学生失败是因为他们没有得到他们出钱购买的东西(或许说他们得到了更多,实际上他们得到的更少);大学失败是因为它的资源被为了非学术性的目的而消耗掉;高等教育失败恰恰是因为老师把自己当作道德家、心理治疗师、政治顾问、全球变化的代理人而不是关注败坏高等教育(常常被看作接收的前奏)名声的方式并看到自己机会的教师。

这是否意味着必须禁止在课堂中讨论价值问题和时事问题呢?根本不是。任何问题、议题或者话题是可以在教室里讨论的,只要它是学术对象而不是政治的或者意识形态观点。对于许多人来说,区分这些如果不是不可能的,至少是十分困难的。但是在我们看来,这其实很容易。

学术化的必要性

实际上,很久以前提交给芝加哥大学校长的教工委员会报告宣称大学存在“只是为了有限的教学和研究目的。”它提出论证说“因为大学是个只为有限和独特目的的共同体,这个共同体不可能在对时事议题采取集体行动时不危及自身生存和有效性的条件。”(关于大学在政治和社会行动中的作用的卡尔文委员会报告,1967年11月11日)当然,它在与教育使命相关的议题上(学术的正直,抄袭的罪恶,自由教育的价值)能够和应该采取集体(个人)行动,实际上大学没有能在这些问题上及时宣称自己的立场常常是失职的表现。但是大学不管是作为整体,还是教授作为个人都不应该鼓吹除了学术观点外的个人的、政治的、道德的、或者其他任何观点。

在课堂上唯一应该鼓吹的东西是鼓吹学术美德。

在课堂上唯一应该鼓吹的东西是鼓吹詹姆斯·摩菲(James Murphy)所辨认出来的学术美德—彻底性、坚忍不拔、思想诚实,这成为“在追求真理中认真尽责”的最主要学术品德的组成部分。(请参阅“好学生和好公民”《纽约时报》2002年9月15日) 最近的哈里斯调查(Harris Poll)显示在公众眼中,教师是最有可能讲真话的专业人士,我认为,这意味着讲真话是公众期待老师们应该做的事情。如果你不从事追求真理的事业,你就不配呆在大学里。

对于这种严格描述大学教授应该做和不应该做的事情的做法引起很多反对意见。其中总是被提出来的问题是“你如何划定界限?”即使你的意图是良好的,你如何克制自己不粗心大意地提出在课堂上提出不合适的议题呢?我这为“对不可能的事情的反对”表现出两种形式。一种形式说老师是智慧得到全面发展的人,他们已经接受过一定的课程训练,参加了政党,拥抱或者拒绝宗教忠诚,发誓从事种种政治活动,被劝说接受各种不同的道德和意识形态主张的真理性。简而言之,老师们相信一些东西,事实上很多东西,让他们摆脱这些性格形成中的信念,用纯粹学术性的方式在课堂上表现根本就是不可能的。他们提供的判断和他们得出的结论难道不是受到政治承诺的影响甚至在很大程度上已经被决定的吗?这写政治因素不是我说的教师应该摆脱的东西吗?

这种反对意见促成了人们把纯粹性的不可能无性(我当然承认)转变为区分背景和适合这个背景的行为的不可能性。即便不管我们做什么都在一定程度上受到从前做的事情的影响是真实的,过去是通过主要用来组织我们日常生活的传统差别过滤过的,比如,我们明白在歌剧中的适当行为不同于在球类比赛中的适当行为,我们也明白家庭餐桌上的适当行为不同于公司聚餐时的适当行为。有可能追溯我们在所有这些背景下的行为到很早以前做出的决定或者形成的信念,但是这些行为仍然是可以通过标明不同社会背景的常见措施辨别出来。我们把多年前形成的签字风格带到我们做的任何事情上的事实并不能说明我们总是在做同样的事。我们当然能够根据当前活动的规范相应调整我们的行为,虽然我们在这些规范上的“表现”可能在某种程度上受到在其他地方确认的规范的影响。

我们要试图克制自己不把私人爱好添加到每次谈话或者情形中。

但是把自己的信念和承诺分隔存放是容易的吗?是的,很容易。实际上,我们一直都在这么做,比如我们克制自己不把宗教信仰或者私人爱好添加到每个情形或者谈话中,不管具体内容是什么。那些不能或者不愿意这么做的人肯定遭到邻居们的冷遇,成为斯威夫特或者狄更斯等作家笔下讽刺的对象。为了从事教学工作,把敦促我们进行政治活动的政治信念放到一边(虽然教学本身受到信念的指导,但那是具体教学行动的指南)不是不可能的。如果我们做不到这点,那不是因为我们情不自禁要这样做,而是因为我们故意选择了表现出非专业人士的态度。

第二种形式的“对不可能的事情的反对”是政治和学术之间不可能有界限,因为任何东西都具有政治性。反对的理由是在很多课程,尤其是在法学院和政治科学系的课程中,学习的材料都充斥着政治、社会、伦理、道德和宗教含义。如果不跨越我划的界限怎么能教这些材料呢?难道把它们删掉或者首先编辑过,把大部分内容删掉后才能讲授?根本不是如此。我不是在敦促对于教学内容的限制,任何意识形态、议程甚至圣战事业都是研究的适当对象。我宣扬的是如果这些东西被带进课堂后应该如何对待这些内容的限制。如果一个观点或者政策被作为用来信仰的候选对象,得到老师的帮助,学生们来决定他们在这个观点或者政策上的看法,那么课堂就成了宣传政治偏见的舞台。

但是如果一个观点或者政策受到一定程度的质疑,它的历史如何?它是如何演化的?它的主要鼓吹者是什么人?对这个观点的支持和反对意见都有哪些?这个政策往往伴随着其他什么政策等?那么,它的政党偏见将被减弱,因为它已经成为分析对象而不是热爱对象了。

在二〇〇四年秋季,我的新生和我分析了约翰·克里(John Kerry)(民主党总统候选人)的演说,发现演说逻辑混乱、矛盾、不成熟、说服力弱小。六个星期后我去投票,仍然支持克里。我在课堂上做的是把克里的论证放在学术探讨的质疑中。这些论证是否主题一致,是否连贯?是否对应议题?是否有说服力?他落选了,但是当我前往投票时,我提出的是另外一套问题:克里是否代表或者说出了最接近我利益的利益?他的政府里要用什么样的人?他的外交政策动议可能是什么?他在环境问题上的立场是什么?我对于学术问题的答案与我对于政治问题的答案之间没有任何关系。

不管是个人还是政策,在一个场合支持,在另一个场合不支持完全是有道理的。

不管是个人还是政策,在一个场合支持,在另一个场合不支持完全是有道理的,反过来也是一样。你可能认为虽然某个政策缺乏为之辩护的技能(学术结论),但是它是对于国家来说是正确的政策(政治决定)。在课堂上,你可以探索政策的历史,你可以揭示它的哲学渊源,你可以考察它的隐含意义和可能后果,但是你不能敦促学生支持它。任何事情都取决于保持两个判断和产生这些判断的活动分割开来。

也许有人反对,把对于《失乐园》的正确理解的辩论保持在学术界的范围内是容易的,但是当讨论的话题是伦理学,比如当学生在争论干细胞研究到底是好主意还是坏主意的时候,学术和政治的界限变得模糊了。但是学生不应该争论干细胞研究到底是好主意还是坏主意,他们应该研究干细胞研究的各方观点提出的论证。即使在集中争论伦理学问题的课堂上,我划定的界限也是存在的。分析伦理问题是一回事,在伦理问题上做出决定是另一回事。只有第一个问题才是适合学术探讨的活动。我要再次说明,我没有排除在课堂上讨论政治话题的意思,但是坚持认为当政治话题引入课堂后,不能用政治的态度讲解它,即不能提出支持或者反对某个特定政治立场的看法。

我把政治爆炸性议题变成学术探讨的对象的过程命名为“学术化”。把一个话题学术化就是把它从现实世界紧迫性的背景中抽出来,放置在学术探索的背景中。前者需要投票或者拥抱某个议程,后者需要做出描述解释和进行分析。

我们看一下植物人特里·夏沃(Terry Schiavo)悲剧这个例子。我们国家历史上这个事件在讲授时如何做到不在它提出的问题上采取立场呢?其实仍然很简单:把她作为构成从美国缔造者到约翰·罗尔斯(John Rawls)的美国政治思想传统紧张关系的当代例子。也就是在扎根于强烈的绝对是非意识上的“实体正义”和确定采取的步骤和授权采取步骤的人的形式法则有关的“程序正义”之间的紧张关系。一方面是提出问题的那些人:对于特里·夏沃能做的道德上正确是事情是什么? 另一面是提出这个问题的那些人:暂且不管我们觉得这些决定在道德上是否公正的,谁在法律上有权做出相关决定?一旦辨认出这两个立场,它们的根源就可以落实在洛克、康德、穆勒、以赛亚·柏林(Isaiah Berlin)等人的著作中,这些来源和特里·夏沃事件的关系就成为分析的焦点。一旦发生了这种情况,即话题被学术化后,在课堂上选择立场的压力就越来越少,准确和完整地描述双方的历史和哲学先例的压力就越来越多。一个政治命题就被学术命题给取代了。没有任何话题,不管它的政治意图多么强烈,能够抗拒学术化的过程。把包含明显政治内容的议题去政治化不仅是可能的,而且是非常容易的。

你怎么知道你真的在进行学术化过程呢?只需要做一个简单的试验:我是让学生生产评价对一个恼人的政治议题的描述,还是让学生表达他对这个议题的看法?有些情况是非常容易的。在巴勒斯坦诗学的课程后面附加告诫“保守派学生应该到其他地方听课”的写作老师显然就没有尽到老师的学术责任。同样的,如果教授为了参加政治集会而不去上课也是没有尽职,即使他们的学生没有得到鼓励去参加集会,信号还是被发出来了,而且是一个错误的信号。有些老师上来就宣布自己的政治立场,他们相信这样做等于给学生们打了预防针,警告他们被灌输思想的危险。但是如果政治问题在课堂上分析而不是做出决定的时候,老师的政治立场是无关紧要的。抹杀你的政治倾向或许是避免政治纠纷的方法,但是它传递的信号是在这个课堂上政治判断成为课堂内容的一部分,这仍然是错误的信号。

机构信号

不仅机构而且机构雇佣的人都能传递机构信息。大学采取的任何行动的基本试验应该采取一个简单问题的方式:做这个(或不做这个)的决定是否建立在教育基础上?让我们假设话题是大学应该不应该资助学校间体育运动的项目。有些人认为应该,他们觉得体育运动有利于学术使命完成,有些人说不应该,他们认为不是这样。如果问题是被决定为肯定的,那么所有其他的问题,比如我们应该有足球吗?我们应该卖汗衫吗?我们应该组建运动员进行曲乐队吗?等都是经营问题,它们应该从经营的角度来看待,而不是全球平等的角度。一旦大学承诺要开展体育运动,它就需要承诺让它尽可能赢利,如果只是因为赢利,赢利将变成为学生运动员或者其他人提供奖学金。

我并没有打算把政治话题从课堂中排除掉的意思,而是坚持如果讲解政治,不应该从政治立场来讲解。

同样的推理适用于投资策略。投资经理的责任就是获得最大可能的回报,获得政治或者社会或者经济正义不是他们的责任。他们或许作为个别公民或者作为投资俱乐部的成员希望做这些事情,但是作为大学官员他们的责任是通过任何可能的合法手段增加捐款。这样的论证同样适用于负责维修和后勤设施的官员。目标应该是用尽可能低的工资聘用最好的工人,而不是通过单方面提供高于市场的待遇来调整贫富在经济上的差距。

当大学确定工资的时候,它确定了工资和期限(有时候,雪茄不仅仅是雪茄)。行动有自己的内在运行机制,尽管一个人总是能从活动中抽象出更大的背景,其中采取行动的具体性消失了,人们做的任何事情都是“采取立场”,但是除了所指内容更加模糊外,很难看到有任何收获。逻辑(“任何东西都是政治的”口号的逻辑)的容量过大,因为它等于说任何人在任何时候做任何事情,他或者她都在一个政治争议中选边,采取某种“立场”。

但是自我意识到的政治行动(比如我妻子的行动,她拒绝购买从事动物研究或者从中获利的公司生产的商品)和根本没有政治意图的行动之间的差别,虽然它不可避免地产生政治影响(至少从广义的政治定义来说)。大学支付工资有两个意图:(1)确保工作人员,不管是教师还是员工,那些从事所需工作并且尽职尽责的人不离开;(2)改善工人阶级的命运。第一个意图与政治没有任何关系,和劳动力总量、供求法则、本行业现行模式等密切相关。第二个意图与政治密切相关,大学说“这里我们宣称在当今最重大问题之一上的立场”,这不是合适于教育机构的立场。大学因为在道德上不赞同某个国家或者公司而抛弃人家的捐款也是不合适的。

如果大学必须与在道德上受到谴责的任何机构保持距离的话,那将有很长的名单涉及到他们需要放弃作为生意合作伙伴的人员、公司、企业:经纪人公司、医药公司、网络游戏公司、石油公司、汽车生产商、房地产开发公司、化妆品公司、快餐店、惠普(Hewlett-Packard),微软、沃尔玛、塔吉特(Target)、玛莎斯图尔特(Martha Stewart)纽约证券交易所主席理查德·格罗索(Richard Grasso)和纽约扬基棒球队老板乔治·斯泰因布里纳(George Steinbrenner)等。如果你打算唾弃参与苏丹问题的公司,那么参与北朝鲜、伊朗、叙利亚、中国、哥伦比亚、多米尼加共和工、委内瑞拉、阿根廷、俄罗斯、以色列以及(在许多左翼美国人士眼中的)美国的公司,你怎么办呢?

这些名单几乎是没有办法穷尽的,而且在不断增加。从纯粹的意志出发采取立场将证明是代价高昂的主张(即使沃尔特·迪斯尼(Walt Disney)也承受不了这样的削减)而且耗费太多时间,因为大学成为人权观察的延伸物。

但是如果你接受了他们的捐款,你难道不是赞同了他们的伦理观了吗?不是事实上成为他们犯罪行为中的帮凶了吗?不。如果你接受了他们的钱,你只是拿了他们的钱。就这些。他们犯下罪行应该在别的地方被处理,只要资金还没有被没收,事实上仍然在提供捐款的人的合法拥有时,接受捐款的行动就是感谢捐款并把这些捐款用在学术用途上,没有别的意思。

那是否意味着除了从法律上看来源不明的(不是道德上)钱的情形外,是否有大学应该拒绝接受捐款的情况吗?有一种情况,如果捐款附加有条款,当捐款人说我想得到某些结论或者这些是希望你们聘用的人员名单,或者这些是我希望你们讲授或者停止讲授的课程名单等。每所大学已经有反对接受类似规定性捐款的规则了,烟草公司遵循这个限制并不期望(虽然他们渴望如此)他们的捐款将产生对他们的事业友好的结果已经是过去的历史了。

还剩下什么?

但是,不参与时代重大议题的大学难道不是失去激情的地方了吗?课堂失去了活泼的讨论和争论的地方么?当然不是。尽管政治问题紧迫性在我想象的教室中可能消退,但它将造就更加活泼的课堂。在我想象的教室里,学生们情绪是高涨的,当他们争论如果适当理解的话,宪法第一修正案的宗教原因是否禁止足球比赛中学生组织的祈祷,或者罗尔斯式从“无知之幕”背后创建权利统治的观点是否有道理,或者对文化的人类学研究是否不可避免地破坏它的完整性。我看到学生们讨论这些问题或者类似问题时,如果不是接近于大打出手,至少非常接近上蹿下跳,挥舞拳头般激烈了。这些学生绝非冷漠和超然的,但他们关注的是(这再次是非常重要的差别)他们对被劝说的立场的真理性认识,尽管这强烈认定的真理可能导致后来某个时候做出支持或者反对某个候选人或者政策的决定,但这不是课堂上发生的事情。

我设想的教室的隐含假设是真理以及对真理的和追求永远都应该得到维护。

通过提出真理标准,我已经回答了课堂学术化(分析政治和道德议题而不是拥抱它们的教室)将是没有价值观和相对主义盛行的反对意见。如果任何东西都有价值,真理也一样。我设想的教室的隐含假设是真理以及对真理的追求永远都应该得到维护。当然,真理不是唯一的价值,也有在某些情况下位于核心的其他需要维护的价值,但是真理是最重要的学术价值,对于真理的坚持恰恰是道德相对主义的反面。

你会在我的任何课堂中听到有些人说甲另外一些人说乙到底谁来评判的问题。我试图和学生们一起确定的内容是对某个事件的竞争性描述(学术问题不是政治问题)哪个是正确的,哪个是错误的。“对”“错”不是道德相对主义的词汇,使用这些词汇的学生所包含的承诺和那些针对激烈争吵的社会议题的人的承诺同样大。被要求对比在《伊利亚特》、《埃涅阿斯记》、和华兹华斯的前言中表现出来的英雄主义模式的学生,或者被要求用图表画出美国缔造者在阻止国会建立宗教时的意图的法律理解变化过程的学生在讨论的时候至少和他们在寝室里关于最热门时事话题的讨论同样热烈。只是在你忘记学术问题有历史,那些历史有投资,那些投资常常是跨学科的或者交叉学科的时候,才让你产生思想的错误,把自己局限于问题中抗拒所谓“更大”问题的诱惑将造成没有精神和能量的经验。真正学术研究的教室不仅是充满激情和承诺的,而且比其他情况更加有趣。

真正乏味的教室是里面坐满了一群十九岁到二十岁的年轻人辩论得到帮助的自杀、医生开的大麻、或者对于伊拉克战争的提问“你怎么看”的回答。不错,很多学生可能会说点东西,但是他们说的东西很多是预料之中的,几乎全是你在星期天脱口秀节目上听到的内容的翻版。简单地说是观点的彩排,与此同时,你将失去学术讨论的真正兴奋,而只有在学术讨论中你才能学到真东西,而不是随口说出一些没有知识支持的观点。老师和学生共同追求的是知识,从来不能提出“你怎么看?”这样的问题(除非你是在进行调查公众舆论的社会学家)。提出的问题应该是“真理是什么?”答案必须经受涉及数量和质量的证据、论证的说服力、结论的可靠性等的挑战(还有其他)。

在过程的结束(当今),学生和老师都学到一些他们从前不知道的东西(你总是知道你的观点是什么,难怪拥有观点很容易),他们将通过发挥认知能力来学习这些,这样的方式让他们狂喜而仅仅是自我满足。分享观点的阶段就像快餐食品,它们让你肚子里塞满了淀粉,让你觉得又饱又饿。而对于一个事物的持久的真理探索过程几乎就是运动实验,它可能让你精疲力竭,但是它也让你有所提高。

有什么用?

但是,它不会提高你的道德或让你成为更好的人或者更好的公民。一门文科课程的好并不因为当你步入投票箱或者协商合同的时候,告诉你要做什么。文科课程的好是因为它介绍你认识到不知道该怎样提出的问题,至少暂时地为你提供回答这些问题所需要的技能。你对得到的答案该怎么做?你怎么对待经过四年或者更长时间的思想和身体问题、DNA结构问题、第一次世界大战的起因的讨论成为你的一部分的思想习惯呢?

问得好!就我所知,那些为学生提供的思想习惯和文科教育并不能让你做任何事情,更糟糕的是它们也不能阻止你做任何事情。

我提供的这种高等教育观点或许被人们适当地认为让人泄气,它把灌满了气的气球里的气放出来。它排除了讲授道德或者哲学的哗众取宠的空话能够让实践者认识到自己是变化的代理人或者“转型经验”的设计者的可能性,我最讨厌这样的词汇了。我承认在某种意义上教育有转变的作用。一门好的课程能够把起初对这门学科了解很少的学生变成对这门课了解一些的学生。这是你应该或者能够期待的转变的全部了。尽管大学里正在进行的辩论常常被认为好像牵涉到道德、哲学、甚至神学等大问题,但实际上,真正牵涉其中的更多是关于专业行为和工作表现的管理判断问题。

教学是一项工作,所需要的不是高超的敏感性或者心灵和意图的纯洁性而是技能的熟练掌握。优秀的教师可能是绝对糟糕的人,而品德高尚的人可能是糟糕的老师。那些更喜欢给该行业添加宏大主张和野心的老师是那些破坏教师行业贬低其价值的人。

关于教师的宏大主张的方便的总结可以在《文科教育》的杂志某期上发现,下面是其中一些句子:

· 讲授批评性分析和尊重别人的辩论等美德的教室至少能够为更加成熟民主社会培养公民。

· 帮助年轻人学习用自己的声音说话,尊重别人说话的文科大学将做出很大贡献,产生有思想和有潜在创造力的世界公民。

· 强大的文科教育的目标包括影响伦理判断,培养关心他人的洞察力等能力。

· 当今文科教育必须超越课堂关注社会的挑战,工作场所的复杂性,世界上的重大问题。

· 学生们需要掌握生活在需要做出道德决定的世界中的能力。

对这些,我的回答是不不不不不。讲授批评性分析的教室(有时候被称为“批评性思考”一个没有内容的术语)将产生能够做批评性分析的学生,这些学生不管他们的分析能力多么熟练,决不能因为这些技能就变成“尊重他人”的人。在辩论中学会如何表现并不能保证你接下来的论证的质量或者道德性。街头流氓能做的糟糕的论证、糟糕的决定和糟糕的行动,优等成绩毕业者(Phi Beta Kappa)同样能做。而且,正如我前文所说的,尊重他人声音的观点并不是一个好主意。你不应该仅仅因为这些声音是他人的就尊重这些声音。(这是多元文化主义信条的一个错误),你应该尊重他人的声音,如果你发现他们的论证或者建议是连贯和和有说服力的。

至于笼统的伦理判断,毫无疑问你遭遇的任何事情帮助塑造它,但是读亨利·詹姆斯(Henry James)的小说并不是获得它的特别钥匙,实际上,世界上有很多例子说明亨利·詹姆斯或者西尔维亚·普拉斯(Sylvia Plath)或者托尼·莫里森(Toni Morrison)的读者像任何别人一样可耻、残忍和奸诈。学生们需要掌握生活在需要做出道德决定的世界中的能力,他们最好到其他地方去寻找,或许从父母、基督教堂或者犹太教堂或者清真寺里寻找。我也不能同意“当今文科教育必须超越课堂关注社会的挑战”的观点,因为这是个微小的一步,从这个命令到认定在文科教室做的事情不过是超越它之外的东西的初级阶段,一个微小的判断,文科教室里做的事情是从发生在他处的事情中获得价值的。那么根本不需要再走一步就可以得出结论文科教室里所做的事情只能被教室外的回报来证明其价值。

你或许能让你的学生变成很好的研究者,但是你不能让他们成为好人,也不应该这样尝试。

这里我们来到事情的本质,即人文教育的合理性。你知道如下问题:它有助于经济吗?它会塑造有知识的公民吗?它能推动正义的事业吗?它能让任何事情变得更好吗?

这些问题的答案再次是不不不不不不。在某种程度上,我们做的任何事情最终都和我们接受的教育有点关系。但是如果文科教育尽到自己的职责,而不是做其他机构委托的任务,它将不把带来世界上的某种变化作为自己的目标。特定的影响或许能产生,但是如果真的这样,它是一个机构的意料之外后果,这个机构如果要保持真实的自我,就必须绝对自我参照,必须牢记本分,必须不要回答“它有什么好?”之类的问题。在一篇题目为“柏拉图会允许什么?”(Nomos37, 1995)的文章中,政治理论家杰里米·沃尔登(Jeremy Waldron)思考了对有人问哲学家“你的著作的价值在哪里?”或“它能给世界带来什么变化?”的合适回答时,他回答说(我完全赞同他的观点)“我们实际上不是在搞哲学,因此矛盾的是,我们很可能没有多大用途,除非我们基本上不知道该如何回答这个问题。”

一个活动的价值内在地存在于它的进行中,对于课堂外的世界产生的影响是难以预测,难以预料的。但是恰恰是因为它们难以预测,难以预料,把它的教学建立在获得这些影响的希望上是错误的做法。

如果到了学期末你给了学生对某个学科的总体介绍(正如课程的题目和课程表中所做的描述),向他们介绍了本领域的最新发展,指明了他们进一步研究的方向,如果他们希望继续研究的话,那么你就尽到了自己的职责。他们后来在生意中用你教给他们的东西做什么事情,你不需为他们做的错事承担责任,也不应该为他们做的好事而受到表扬。查尔顿·赫斯顿(Charlton Heston)一次对劳伦斯·奥利维尔(Lawrence Olivier)说,“我终于学会了忽略糟糕的评论。”奥利维尔回答说“好,现在学会忽略美好的评论。”

你应该承担责任的东西也是你应该追求的目标,你应该追求的目标是你能达到的目标,也就是说,你在力所能及的范围内能实现的目标,而不是超出自己能力之外的东西。你能够通过自身教学上的努力,在力所能及的范围内让学生拥有一些知识和培养他们一些技能(解释性的、计算性的、实验性的或者档案性的)甚至(虽然这非常难以预料)灌输对于本学科的热爱。你并不能总是成功地实现这些目标,即使用最好的意图和最佳的备课计划,总有注意力不集中的学生,总有思想分散的学生,总有缺席的学生,总有不预习的学生,总有心思在其他星球上的学生,但是至少你有奋斗的机会,如果你能让他们呆在教室里四个月没每周都有几个小时和你在一起。

但是,一旦最后一次上课结束后,他们从你的教室离开进入别人的空间后,然后再进入更广泛的世界后,你决定他们能够用你为他们提供的东西做什么的机会将非常小(这完全是侥幸发现的东西)。

你没有任何机会(缺乏让人怀疑的、危险的门徒)确定他们的行为和价值在严格意义上的学术世界之外的生活将会是什么样。你或许能让他们成为好的研究者,但是你不能让他们成为好人,也不应该尝试这样做。

(译自:“Professor, Do Your Job” By Stanley Fish

Professor, Do Your Job

by Stanley Fish

The classroom is not your political platform.


Pick up the mission statement of almost any college or university, and you will find claims and ambitions that will lead you to think that it is the job of an institution of higher learning to cure every ill the world has ever known: not only illiteracy and cultural ignorance, which are at least in the ball-park, but poverty, war, racism, gender bias, bad character, discrimination, intolerance, environmental pollution, rampant capitalism, American imperialism, and the hegemony of Wal-Mart; and of course the list could be much longer.

Wesleyan University starts well by pledging to “cultivate a campus environment where students think critically, participate in constructive dialogue and engage in meaningful contemplation ” (although I’m not sure what meaningful contemplation is); but then we read of the intention to “foster awareness, respect, and appreciation for a diversity of experiences, interests, beliefs and identities. ” Awareness is okay; it’s important to know what’s out there. But why should students be taught to “respect” a diversity of interests, beliefs, and identities in advance of assessing them and taking their measure? The missing word here is “evaluate.” That’s what intellectual work is all about, the evaluation, not the celebration, of interests, beliefs, and identities; after all, interests can be base, beliefs can be wrong, and identities are often irrelevant to an inquiry.

Teachers cannot — except serendipitously — fashion moral character or produce citizens of a certain temper.

Yale College’s statement also starts well by promising to seek students “of all backgrounds” and “to educate them through mental discipline,” but then mental discipline turns out to be instrumental to something even more valuable, the development of students ’ “moral, civic and creative capacities to the fullest.” I’m all for moral, civic, and creative capacities, but I’m not sure that there is much I or anyone else could do as a teacher to develop them. Moral capacities (or their absence) have no relationship whatsoever to the reading of novels, or the running of statistical programs, or the execution of laboratory procedures, all of which can produce certain skills, but not moral states. Civic capacities — which mean, I suppose, the capacities that go along with responsible citizenship — won’t be acquired simply because you have learned about the basic structures of American government or read the Federalist papers (both good things to do). You could ace all your political science and public policy courses and still drop out and go live in the woods or become the Unabomber. And as for creative capacities, there are courses in creative writing in liberal arts colleges, and colleges of fine arts offer instruction in painting, sculpture, pottery, photography, drafting, and the playing of a variety of musical instruments. But even when such courses are housed in liberal arts venues, they belong more to the world of professional instruction — if you want to make something, here’s how to do it — than to the world of academic interrogation.

I’m not saying that there is no connection at all between the successful practice of ethical, social, and political virtues and the courses of instruction listed in the college catalogue; it ’s always possible that something you come across or something a teacher says may strike a chord that sets you on a life path you might not otherwise have chosen. But these are contingent effects, and as contingent effects they cannot be designed and shouldn ’t be aimed at. (It’s not a good use of your time to aim at results you have only a random chance of producing.)

So what is it that institutions of higher learning are supposed to do? My answer is simple. College and university teachers can (legitimately) do two things: 1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience; and 2) equip those same students with the analytical skills — of argument, statistical modeling, laboratory procedure — that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research after a course is over.

What can be designed are courses that introduce students to a demarcated field, reading lists that reflect the current state of disciplinary knowledge, exams or experiments that test the ability of students to extend what they have studied to novel fact situations, and in-class exercises that provoke students to construct and solve problems on their own. The designing of these (and related) structures and devices makes sense in the context of an aim that is specific to the pedagogical task — the aim of passing on knowledge and conferring skills.

Teachers can, by virtue of their training and expertise, present complex materials in ways that make them accessible to novices. Teachers can also put students in possession of the analytical tools employed by up-to-date researchers in the field. But teachers cannot, except for a serendipity that by definition cannot be counted on, fashion moral character, or inculcate respect for others, or produce citizens of a certain temper. Or, rather, they cannot do these things unless they abandon the responsibilities that belong to them by contract in order to take up responsibilities that belong properly to others. But if they do that, they will be practicing without a license and in all likelihood doing a bad job at a job they shouldn ’t be doing at all. When that happens — and unfortunately it does happen — everyone loses. The students lose because they’re not getting what they paid for (it will be said that they are getting more, but in fact they are getting less). The university loses because its resources have been appropriated for a nonacademic purpose. Higher education loses, because it is precisely when teachers offer themselves as moralists, therapists, political counselors, and agents of global change rather than as pedagogues that those who are on the lookout for ways to discredit higher education (often as a preliminary to taking it over) see their chance.

Does this mean that questions of value and discussion of current issues must be banished from the classroom? Not at all. No question, issue, or topic is off limits to classroom discussion so long as it is the object of academic rather than political or ideological attention. To many this will seem a difficult, if not impossible, distinction. On the contrary, as we will see, it is an easy one.

The necessity of academicizing

Afaculty committee report submitted long ago to the president of the University of Chicago declares that the university exists “only for the limited . . . purposes of teaching and research” and reasons that “since the university is a community only for those limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness ” (Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action, November 11, 1967). Of course it can and should take collective (and individual) action on those issues relevant to the educational mission — the integrity of scholarship, the evil of plagiarism, and the value of a liberal education. Indeed failure to pronounce early and often on these matters would constitute a dereliction of duty. But neither the university as a collective nor its faculty as individuals should advocate personal, political, moral, or any other kind of views except academic views.

The only advocacy that should go on in the classroom is the advocacy of the intellectual virtues.

The only advocacy that should go on in the classroom is the advocacy of what James Murphy has identified as the intellectual virtues, “thoroughness, perseverance, intellectual honesty,” all components of the cardinal academic virtue of being “conscientious in the pursuit of truth” (“Good Students and Good Citizens,” New York Times, September 15, 2002). A recent Harris Poll revealed that in the public’s eye teachers are the professionals most likely to tell the truth; and this means, I think, that telling the truth is what the public expects us to be doing. If you ’re not in the pursuit-of-truth business, you should not be in the university.

There are many objections to this severe account of what academics should and shouldn ’t do, but one is almost always raised — how do you draw the line? Even if your intentions are good, how do you refrain from inadvertently raising inappropriate issues in the classroom? I call this the objection of impossibility, which takes two forms. One form says that teachers come to the classroom as fully developed beings who have undergone certain courses of instruction, joined political parties, embraced or refused religious allegiances, pledged themselves to various causes, and been persuaded to the truth of any number of moral or ideological propositions. In short, teachers believe something, indeed many things, and wouldn ’t it be impossible for them to detach themselves from these formative beliefs and perform in a purely academic manner? Wouldn ’t the judgments they offered and the conclusions they reached be influenced, if not largely determined, by the commitments I say they should set aside?

This objection contrives to turn the unavailability of purity — which I certainly acknowledge — into the impossibility of making distinctions between contexts and the behaviors appropriate to them. Even if it is the case that whatever we do is shaped to some extent by what we ’ve done in the past, that past is filtered through the conventional differences by which we typically organize our daily lives. We understand, for example, that proper behavior at the opera differs from proper behavior at a ball game, and we understand too that proper behavior at the family dinner table differs from proper behavior at a corporate lunch. It would be possible to trace our actions in all of these contexts back to decisions made and allegiances formed long ago, but those actions would still be distinguishable from one another by the usual measures that mark off one social context from another. The fact that we bring a signature style, fashioned over many years, to whatever we do does not mean that we are always doing the same thing. We are perfectly capable of acting in accordance with the norms that belong to our present sphere of activity, even if our “take” on those norms is inflected somewhat by norms we affirm elsewhere.

We manage to refrain from inserting our private obsessions into every conversation or situation.

But is it so easy to compartmentalize one’s beliefs and commitments? Yes it is. In fact, we do it all the time when we refrain, for example, from inserting our religious beliefs or our private obsessions into every situation or conversation no matter what its content. Those who cannot or will not so refrain are shunned by their neighbors and made the object of satires by authors like Swift and Dickens. Setting aside the convictions that impel us in our political lives in order to take up the task of teaching (itself anchored by convictions, but ones specific to its performance) is not at all impossible, and if we fail to do it, it is not because we could not help ourselves, but because we have made a deliberate choice to be unprofessional.

The second form of the impossibility objection asserts that there can be no distinction between politics and the academy because everything is political. It is the objection that in many courses, especially courses given at a law school or by political science departments, the materials being studied are fraught with political, social, ethical, moral, and religious implications. How can those materials be taught at all without crossing the line I have drawn? Should they be excluded or allowed in only if they have first been edited so that the substantive parts are cut out? Not at all. I am not urging a restriction on content — any ideology, agenda, even crusade is an appropriate object of study. Rather I am urging a restriction on what is done with the content when it is brought into the classroom. If an idea or a policy is presented as a candidate for allegiance — aided by the instructor, students are to decide where they stand on the matter — then the classroom has been appropriated for partisan purposes.

But if an idea or a policy is subjected to a certain kind of interrogation — what is its history? how has it changed over time? who are its prominent proponents? what are the arguments for and against it? with what other policies is it usually packaged? — then its partisan thrust will have been blunted, for it will have become an object of analysis rather than an object of affection.

In the fall of 2004, my freshman students and I analyzed a speech of John Kerry’s and found it confused, contradictory, inchoate, and weak. Six weeks later I went out and voted for John Kerry. What I was doing in class was subjecting Kerry ’s arguments to an academic interrogation. Do they hang together? Are they coherent? Do they respond to the issues? Are they likely to be persuasive? He flunked. But when I stepped into the ballot box, I was asking another set of questions: Does Kerry represent or speak for interests close to mine? Whom would he bring into his administration? What are likely to be his foreign policy initiatives? How does he stand on the environment? The answers I gave to the first set of academic questions had no relationship whatsoever to the answers I gave to the second set of political questions.

Whether it is a person or a policy, it makes perfect sense to approve it in one venue and disapprove it in another.

Whether it is a person or a policy, it makes perfect sense to approve it in one venue and disapprove it in another, and vice versa. You could decide that despite the lack of skill with which a policy was defended (an academic conclusion), it was nevertheless the right policy for the country (a political decision). In the classroom, you can probe the policy ’s history; you can explore its philosophical lineage; you can examine its implications and likely consequences, but you can ’t urge it on your students. Everything depends on keeping these two judgments, and the activities that generate them, separate.

It might be objected that while it may be easy to remain within academic bounds when the debate is about the right interpretation of Paradise Lost, the line between the academic and the political has been blurred before the discussion begins when the subject is ethics and students are arguing, for example, about whether stem cell research is a good or bad idea. But students shouldn ’t be arguing about whether stem cell research is a good or bad idea. They should be studying the arguments various parties have made about stem cell research. Even in a class focused on ethical questions, the distinction I would enforce holds. Analyzing ethical issues is one thing; deciding them is another, and only the first is an appropriate academic activity. Again, I do not mean to exclude political topics from the classroom, but to insist that when political topics are introduced, they not be taught politically, that is, with a view to either affirming or rejecting a particular political position.

The name I give to this process whereby politically explosive issues are made into subjects of intellectual inquiry is “academicizing.” 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.

Consider as an example the Terry Schiavo tragedy. How can this event in our national history be taught without taking sides on the issues it raises? Again, simple: Discuss it as a contemporary instance of a tension that has structured American political thought from the founders to John Rawls — the tension between substantive justice, justice rooted in a strong sense of absolute right and wrong, and procedural justice, justice tied to formal rules that stipulate the steps to be taken and the persons authorized to take them. On one side were those who asked the question: what is the morally right thing to do about Terry Schiavo? On the other side there were those who asked the question: who is legally entitled to make the relevant decisions independently of whether or not we think those decisions morally justified? Once these two positions are identified, their sources can be located in the work of Locke, Kant, Mill, Isaiah Berlin, and others, and the relationship between those sources and the Schiavo incident can become the focus of analysis. As this is happening — as the subject is being academicized —  there will be less and less pressure in the class to come down on one side or the other and more and more pressure to describe accurately and fully the historical and philosophical antecedents of both sides. A political imperative will have been replaced by an academic one. There is no topic, however politically charged, that will resist academicization. Not only is it possible to depoliticize issues that have obvious political content; it is easy.

How do you know whether or not you are really academicizing? Just apply a simple test: am I asking my students to produce or assess an account of a vexed political issue, or am I asking my students to pronounce on the issue? Some cases are easy. The writing instructor who appended to his syllabus on Palestinian poetics the admonition “Conservative students should seek instruction elsewhere” was obviously defaulting on his academic responsibilities. So are those professors who skip a class in order to participate in a political rally; even if their students are not encouraged to attend the rally, a message is being sent, and it is the wrong message. Some teachers announce their political allegiances up front and believe by doing so they inoculate their students against the danger of indoctrination. But the political affiliations of a teacher will be irrelevant if political questions are analyzed rather than decided in the classroom. Coming clean about your own partisan preferences might seem a way of avoiding politics, but it sends the message that in this class political judgments will be part of what ’s going on, and again that is the wrong message.

The institutional message

The wrong message can be sent by institutions as well as by those they employ. The basic test of any action contemplated by a university should take the form of a simple question: Has the decision to do this (or not do this) been reached on educational grounds? Let ’s suppose the issue is whether or not a university should fund a program of intercollegiate athletics. Some will say “yes” and argue that athletics contributes to the academic mission; others will say “no” and argue that it doesn’t. If the question is decided in the affirmative, all other questions — should we have football? Should we sell sweatshirts? should we have a marching band? — are business questions and should be decided in business terms, not in terms of global equity. Once the university has committed itself to an athletic program it has also committed itself to making it as profitable as possible, if only because the profits, if there are any, will be turned into scholarships for student athletes and others.

I don’t mean to exclude political topics from the classroom, but to insist that when they are taught, they not be taught politically.

The same reasoning applies to investment strategies. It is the obligation of the investment managers to secure the best possible return; it is not their obligation to secure political or social or economic justice. They may wish to do those things as private citizens or as members of an investment club, but as university officers their duty is to grow the endowment by any legal means available. The argument holds also for those in charge of maintenance and facilities. The goal should be to employ the best workers at the lowest possible wages. The goal should not be to redress economic disparities by unilaterally paying more than the market demands.

When a university sets wages, it sets wages, period (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar). The action has its own internal-to-the-enterprise shape, and while one could always abstract away from the enterprise to some larger context in which the specificity of actions performed within it disappears and everything one does is “taking a stand,” it is hard to see that anything is gained except a certain fuzziness of reference. The logic — the logic of the slogan “everything is political” — is too capacious, for it amounts to saying that whenever anyone does anything, he or she is coming down on one side or another of a political controversy and “taking a stand.”

But there is a difference between a self-consciously political act (such as the one my wife performs when she refuses to purchase goods manufactured by companies engaged in or benefiting from research on animals) and an act performed with no political intention at all, although it, inevitably, has a political effect (at least by some very generous definition of what goes into the political). Universities can pay wages with two intentions: ( 1) to secure workers, whether faculty or staff, who do the job that is required and do it well and (2) to improve the lot of the laboring class. The first intention has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the size of the labor pool, the law of supply and demand, current practices in the industry, etc. The second intention has everything to do with politics — the university is saying, “here we declare our position on one of the great issues of the day” — and it is not an intention appropriate to an educational institution. Nor is it appropriate for universities to divest their funds because they morally disapprove of countries or companies.

If universities must distance themselves from any entity that has been accused of being ethically challenged, there will be a very long list of people, companies, and industries they will have to renounce as business partners: brokerage firms, pharmaceutical firms, online-gambling companies, oil companies, automobile manufacturers, real-estate developers, cosmetic companies, fast-food restaurants, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Target, Martha Stewart, Richard Grasso, and George Steinbrenner. And if you ’re going to spurn companies involved with Sudan, what about North Korea, Iran, Syria, China, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Argentina, Russia, Israel, and (in the eyes of many left-leaning academics) the United States?

These lists are hardly exhaustive and growing daily. Taking only from the pure will prove to be an expensive proposition (even Walt Disney won ’t survive the cut) and time consuming too, as the university becomes an extension of Human Rights Watch.

But if you take their money, aren’t you endorsing their ethics and in effect becoming a partner in their crimes? No. If you take their money, you ’re taking their money. That’s all. The crimes they may have committed will be dealt with elsewhere, and as long as the funds have not been impounded and are in fact legally the possession of those who offer them, the act of accepting them signifies nothing more than appreciation of the gift and the intention to put it to good academic use.

So are there no circumstances in which a university should decline funds offered to it, except the circumstance of money legally (not morally) dirty? Yes, there is one — when the funds come with strings attached, when the donor says these are the conclusions I want you to reach, or these are the faculty I want you to hire, or these are the subjects I want you to teach or stop teaching. Every university already has a rule against accepting donations so encumbered, and it is a matter of record that tobacco companies abide by this restriction and do not expect (although they may hope) that their contributions will produce results friendly to their cause.

What’s left?

But wouldn’t a university uninvolved in the great issues of the day be a place without passion, where classrooms were bereft of lively discussion and debate? Definitely not. While the urgency of the political question will fade in the classroom I have imagined, it will have become a far livelier classroom as a result. In the classrooms I have in mind, passions run high as students argue about whether the religion clause of the First Amendment, properly interpreted, forbids student-organized prayers at football games, or whether the Rawlsian notion of constructing a regime of rights from behind a “veil of ignorance” makes sense, or whether the anthropological study of a culture inevitability undermines its integrity. I have seen students discussing these and similar matters if not close to coming to blows then very close to jumping up and down and pumping their fists. These students are far from apathetic or detached, but what they are attached to (this again is the crucial difference) is the truth of the position to which they have been persuaded, and while that truth, strongly held, might lead at some later time to a decision to go out and work for a candidate or a policy, deciding that is not what is going on in the classroom.

The implicit assumption in the classroom as I envision it is that truth, and the seeking of truth, must always be defended.

By invoking the criterion of truth, I’ve already answered the objection that an academicized classroom — a classroom where political and moral agendas are analyzed, not embraced — would be value-free and relativistic. If anything is a value, truth is, and the implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumption in the classroom as I envision it is that truth, and the seeking of truth, must always be defended. To be sure, truth is not the only value and there are others that should be defended in the contexts to which they are central; but truth is a pre-eminent academic value, and adherence to it is exactly the opposite of moral relativism.

You will never hear in any of my classes the some-people-say-x-but-others-say-y-and-who’s-to-judge dance. What I strive to determine, together with my students, is which of the competing accounts of a matter (an academic not a political matter) is the right one and which are wrong. “Right” and “wrong” are not in the lexicon of moral relativism, and the students who deliver them as judgments do so with a commitment as great as any they might have to a burning social issue. Students who are asked to compare the models of heroism on display in the Iliad, the Aeneid, and Wordsworth’s Prelude, or to chart the changes in the legal understanding of what the founders meant when they enjoined Congress from establishing a religion, will engage in discussions that are at least as animated as any they might have in the dorm room about some pressing issue of the day. It is only if you forget that academic questions have histories, and that those histories have investments, and that those investments are often cross- and interdisciplinary that you could make the mistake of thinking that confining yourself to them and resisting the lure of supposedly “larger” questions would make for an experience without spirit and energy. Not only is the genuinely academic classroom full of passion and commitment; it is more interesting than the alternative.

The really dull classroom would be the one in which a bunch of 19- or 20-year-olds debate assisted suicide, physician-prescribed marijuana, or the war in Iraq in response to the question “What do you think?” Sure, lots of students would say things, but what they would say would be completely predictable — a mini-version of what you hear on the Sunday talk shows — in short, a rehearsing of opinions. Meanwhile the genuine excitement of an academic discussion where you have a chance of learning something, as opposed to just blurting out uninformed opinions, will have been lost. What teacher and student are jointly after is knowledge, and the question should never be “What do you think?” (unless you’re a social scientist conducting a survey designed to capture public opinion). The question should be “What is the truth?” and the answer must stand up against challenges involving (among other things) the quality and quantity of evidence, the cogency of arguments, the soundness of conclusions, and so forth.

At the (temporary) end of the process, both students and teachers will have learned something they didn ’t know before (you always know what your opinions are; that’s why it’s so easy to have them) and they will have learned it by exercising their cognitive capacities in ways that leave them exhilarated and not merely self-satisfied. Opinion-sharing sessions are like junk food: they fill you up with starch and leave you feeling both sated and hungry. A sustained inquiry into the truth of a matter is an almost athletic experience; it may exhaust you, but it also improves you.

What’s the use?

It will not improve you, however, in ways that make you a better person or a better citizen.A good liberal arts course is not good because it tells you what to do when you next step into the ballot box or negotiate a contract. A good liberal arts course is good because it introduces you to questions you did not know how to ask and provides you with the skills necessary to answer them, at least provisionally. And what do you do with the answers you arrive at? What do you do with the habits of thought that have become yours after four or more years of discussing the mind/body problem, or the structure of dna, or Firmat’s theorem, or the causes of World War I?

Beats me! As far as I can tell those habits of thought and the liberal arts education that provides them don ’t enable you to do anything, and, even worse, neither do they prevent you from doing anything.

The view I am offering of higher education is properly called deflationary; it takes the air out of some inflated balloons. It denies to teaching the moral and philosophical pretensions that lead practitioners to envision themselves as agents of change or as the designers of a “transformative experience,” a phrase I intensely dislike. I acknowledge a sense in which education can be transformative. A good course may transform a student who knew little about the material in the beginning into a student who knows something about it at the end. That ’s about all the transformation you should or could count on. Although the debates about what goes on in our colleges and universities are often conducted as if large moral, philosophical, and even theological matters are at stake, what is really at stake, more often than not, is a matter of administrative judgment with respect to professional behavior and job performance.

Teaching is a job, and what it requires is not a superior sensibility or a purity of heart and intention — excellent teachers can be absolutely terrible human beings, and exemplary human beings can be terrible teachers — but mastery of a craft. Teachers who prefer grandiose claims and ambitions to that craft are the ones who diminish it and render it unworthy.

A convenient summary of the grandiose claims often made for teaching can be found in an issue of the journal Liberal Education. Here are some sentences from that issue:

  • A classroom that teaches the virtues of critical analysis and respectful debate can go at least some way to form citizens for a more deliberative democracy.
  • A liberal arts college or university that helps young people to learn to speak in their own voices and to respect the voices of others will have done a great deal to produce thoughtful and potentially creative world citizens.
  • The aims of a strong liberal education include . . . shaping ethical judgment and a capacity for insight and concern for others.
  • Contemporary liberal education must look beyond the classroom to the challenges of the community, the complexities of the workplace, and the major issues in the world.
  • Students need to be equipped for living in a world where moral decisions must be made.

To which I respond, no, no, no, no, and no. A classroom that teaches critical analysis (sometimes called “critical thinking,” a phrase without content) will produce students who can do critical analysis; and those students, no matter how skillfully analytical they have become, will not by virtue of that skill be inclined to “respect the voices of others.” Learning how to perform in the game of argument is no guarantee either of the quality or of the morality of the arguments you go on to make. Bad arguments, bad decisions, bad actions are as available to the members of Phi Beta Kappa as they are available to the members of street gangs. And moreover, as I said earlier, respecting the voices of others is not even a good idea. You shouldn ’t respect the voices of others simply because they are others (that’s the mistake of doctrinaire multiculturalism); you should respect the voices of those others whose arguments and recommendations you find coherent and persuasive.

And as for ethical judgment in general, no doubt everything you encounter helps to shape it, but reading novels by Henry James is not a special key to achieving it; and indeed — and there are many examples of this in the world — readers of Henry James or Sylvia Plath or Toni Morrison can be as vile and as cruel and as treacherous as anyone else. And if students “need to be equipped for living in a world where moral decisions must be made,” they’d better seek the equipment elsewhere, perhaps from their parents, or their churches, or their synagogues, or their mosques. Nor can I agree that “contemporary liberal education must look beyond the classroom to the challenges of the community ”; for it is only one short step from this imperative to the assertion that what goes on in the liberal arts classroom is merely preliminary to what lies beyond it, one short step to the judgment that what goes on in the liberal arts classroom acquires its value from what happens elsewhere; and then it is no step at all to conclude that what goes on in the liberal arts classroom can only be justified by an extracurricular payoff.

You might make your students into good researchers. You can’t make them into good people, and you shouldn’t try.

And here we come to the heart of the matter, the justification of liberal education. You know the questions: Will it benefit the economy? Will it fashion an informed citizenry? Will it advance the cause of justice? Will it advance anything?

Once again the answer is no, no, no, and no. At some level of course, everything we ultimately do has some relationship to the education we have received. But if liberal arts education is doing its job and not the job assigned to some other institution, it will not have as its aim the bringing about of particular effects in the world. Particular effects may follow, but if they do, it will be as the unintended consequences of an enterprise which, if it is to remain true to itself, must be entirely self-referential, must be stuck on itself, must have no answer whatsoever to the question, “what good is it?” In a wonderful essay titled “What Plato Would Allow” (Nomos37, 1995), political theorist Jeremy Waldron muses about the appropriate response to someone who asks of philosophers, “What’s the point of your work?” or “What difference is it going to make?” He replies (and I agree completely with him) that “we are not really doing . . . philosophy, and thus paradoxically . . . we are probably not really being of much use, unless we are largely at a loss as to how to answer that question. ”

An activity whose value is internal to its performance will have unpredictable and unintended effects in the world outside the classroom. But precisely because they are unpredictable and unintended, it is a mistake to base one ’s teaching on the hope of achieving them.

If by the end of a semester you have given your students an overview of the subject (as defined by the course ’s title and description in the catalogue) and introduced them to the latest developments in the field and pointed them in the directions they might follow should they wish to inquire further, then you have done your job. What they subsequently do with what you have done is their business and not anything you should be either held to account for or praised for. (Charlton Heston once said to Lawrence Olivier, “I’ve finally learned to ignore the bad reviews.” “Fine,” Olivier replied, “now learn to ignore the good ones.”)

The question of what you are responsible for is also the question of what you should aim for, and what you should aim for is what you can aim for — that is, what you can reasonably set out to do as opposed to what is simply not within your power to do. You can reasonably set out to put your students in possession of a set of materials and equip them with a set of skills (interpretive, computational, laboratory, archival), and even perhaps (although this one is really iffy) instill in them the same love of the subject that inspires your pedagogical efforts. You won ’t always succeed in accomplishing these things — even with the best of intentions and lesson plans there will always be inattentive or distracted students, frequently absent students, unprepared students, and on-another-planet students — but at least you will have a fighting chance given the fact that you’ve got them locked in a room with you for a few hours every week for four months.

You have little chance (and that entirely a matter of serendipity), however, of determining what they will make of what you have offered them once the room is unlocked for the last time and they escape first into the space of someone else ’s obsession and then into the space of the wide, wide world.

And you have no chance at all (short of a discipleship that is itself suspect and dangerous) of determining what their behavior and values will be in those aspects of their lives that are not, in the strict sense of the word, academic. You might just make them into good researchers. You can ’t make them into good people, and you shouldn’t try.


Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His most recent book is Save the World On Your Own Time (Oxford University Press), on which this article is based.

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