Monday, January 19, 2009

educational fascism,
and what Stanley Fish is gonna do about it

When I first contemplated grad school, one of my undergrad profs advised me about what to expect. Among the things he told me (almost all of which turned out to be true) was that my chances of getting a tenure-track job teaching philosophy at the other end of grad school were remote - not because of some failing of mine, but because, in his view, there simply weren't going to be very many tenure-track jobs out there. When I first came to California to teach, it was as a one-year full-time "lecturer." I've retained this position, through hard work, a bit of luck, and some struggle. Now I'm an activist in the union and an advocate for the rights of faculty, like me, in "temporary" positions - the majority of the faculty.

Over the years, I've gone through some important changes of mind. Regarding "temporary" employment in academia, I've come to the conclusion that tenure is disappearing completely. This is the last generation to see tenure. (It may be the last generation among affluent nations to see electricity, central heat, mass-scale economies, and abundant food, but that's a tale for another day.) Already, the vast majority of college faculty in the US work with little or no job security, and little or no hope of attaining it. The trend is also increasing its pace.

Some observers believe there is an open question of why this is happening. Some assert that no one is causing this trend - that "market forces" or an irrevocable cultural shift are to blame. To me, this is patent hogwash. Tenure is going away because powerful people want it to go away. They want it to go away because tenured faculty cost more, have more authority, cannot be told what to do - in theory, at least (many tenured faculty I know are astonishingly timorous and quiescent, especially in contrast to the unprotected contingent faculty activists I know, and admittedly vastly prefer). The casualization of faculty labor is especially acute in humanities, where tenure is becoming the badge of elite status and where the bulk of teaching is done by tenuous-track faculty. Why in the humanities? I think the answers are obvious: What else can an MA or PhD in humanities do for a living? Where else can cost savings be so easily achieved by universities? And the big one: what other disciplines deliberately focus on developing critical reasoning abilities that may lead students to wonder about their educations, careers, and roles in society?

Recently, someone clued Stanley Fish in on this, and he even read a book about it, by a former student named Frank Donoghue. Fish seems to endorse Donoghue's conclusion, which is that humanities departments will soon be peopled entirely with education's equivalent of migrant workers. This, Fish explains, is because of social changes that have ruled out education being for any non-instrumental purpose - that is, education is understood as only for the sake of developing job skills. Fish contrasts this with education in humanities being for no purpose - just for the sake of explaining and understanding, which issues in no change in the world at all.

Fish doesn't say much about the implicit fascism of the "instrumental" model of education, but instead considers the end of tenure in the humanities. In concluding, he seems to express a vague air of wistfulness about it:

People sometimes believe that they were born too late or too early. After reading Donoghue’s book, I feel that I have timed it just right, for it seems that I have had a career that would not have been available to me had I entered the world 50 years later. Just lucky, I guess.

Goody for you, Stan.

The article pisses me off, not, as one might imagine, because of Fish's blasé attitude toward the fairly lousy working lives of the majority faculty on whose labor Fish's own elite status utterly depends - though indeed that pisses me off. What really irked me was the ignorance of his argument. He poses a clearly false dichotomy: humanities education must be either for the sake of saleable skills, or for purposeless understanding. That he can make this argument, with an apparently straight face, what? 70? years after The Dialectic of Enlightenment is impossible for me to grasp. Hello? Stanley? Remember the debates with Habermas?


Anyway, humanities education can be, often is, fascistic. But it needn't be "instrumental" in that sense alone. There is a critical use of reason, as well - one that, contrary to Fish's elitism, does issue in social change. At least, we're trying...

So, think I'll add Stanley Fish to the list: not allowed in the house. You blew it, Stan.

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