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"Universities should not be in the social justice business"

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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This is a quote from Stanley Fish in an editorial in the New York Times, entitled Think Again. I highly recommend the discussion. It’s a well-reasoned and articulate argument for thinking over feeling in the classroom, for compartmentalization and intellectual passion for the material being taught. He counters the widespread postmodern argument that one cannot remove oneself ever and that objectivity is impossible:

The non-anecdotal argument for the it-can’t-be-done objection is philosophical. Teachers come to their task burdened by religious and political commitments, moral philosophies and world views, and they can’t simply unburden themselves when they walk into the classroom. “It is a fallacy to think that the ‘academic’ world is or can be isolated from the political world.”

But isolation from the political world is not required. All that is required is the quite ordinary ability to distinguish between contexts and the decorums appropriate to them. When you enter an institutional setting — an office, a corporate boardroom, a cruise ship, a square dance, an athletic event — the concerns to which you are responsive belong to the setting, and you comport yourself accordingly. Rather then asking, “What do my political and religious views tell me to do,” you ask, “What do the protocols of this particular endeavor or occasion tell me to do?”

I’m not sure I completely agree that it’s quite as easy as believes, but I do support the notion that, even if objectivity is impossible, and even if it makes sense to acknowledge one’s biases at times, that does not release a teacher from the duty to teach the material and not his or her beliefs. It may occasionally be a fine line (I hope not), but indoctrination does not belong in a classroom.

David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy echoes Fish’s statement. He writes about Brandeis University:

I wish someone would explain this to those who run Brandeis University, my alma mater. … In short, Brandeis is, officially, in the social justice business. At best, this is just p.r. talk, and has no effect on academic freedom in the university, and is merely embarrassing. At worst, Brandeis in fact institutionally favors certain ideological views over others, and has no claim to be a university devoted to the pursuit of truth regardless of ideological implications.

I see some problems with this:

  1. Fish is actually making a more complex statement about teaching than the simple statement above indicates.
  2. Fish’s quest for “teaching the text” might (arguably, as many would disagree that such a thing is quite as simple as he makes it seem) make sense in Fish’s discipline (literature), but may be somewhat more complex in a discipline more connected with current events (political science, law).
  3. Striving for “social justice” does not need to be the same thing as pushing a political agenda or even a particular approach. To argue otherwise suggests somehow that conservatives are uninterested in justice. I would argue that “social justice” could well be a very old, very traditional, and perhaps even conservative mission for a university.
  4. Perhaps we are, as in many arguments, actually differing only over the definition of “social justice”: is it ideologically tied to liberal ideology at the expense of academic freedom, or is it just a restatement of “with liberty and justice for all” in the (conservative-approved) Pledge of Allegiance? Perhaps we are caught up in semantics (and should read more of Fish’s academic works to get unstuck).

Fish tackles a number of issues head on in a well-written and well-reasoned article. Summing it up in a single, categorical directive that “universities should not be in the social justice business” does it a disservice, I think. (The comments are worth reading.)