A C- for Prof. Fish

Gershom Gorenberg

Prof. Stanley Fish has a regular online column in the New York Times on education and society. His latest post is intended as a critique of right-wing efforts to treat universities as businesses, and specifically of of a proposed “reform” (“deform” would be a better term) of the Texas A&M college system.

Criticizing free-market attempts to hijack higher education is a good idea. Fish, however, ruins his argument with a needless, grumpy rant against students.

Students, Fish says, all students, the whole awful lot of them,

…like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.

Good teaching, he says, sometimes requires “the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers.” But because those shallow, callow students, every last one of them, hate to use their minds,

[s]tudent evaluations, by their very nature, can only recognize, and by recognizing encourage, assembly-line teaching that delivers a nicely packaged product that can be assessed as easily and immediately as one assesses the quality of a hamburger.

This defamation of an entire population is unnecessary for Fish’s argument. It is an insupportable generalization, and a tangent. It shows sloppy thinking.

It also shows quite a lot of bitterness. Honestly, I feel sorry for Prof. Fish. Judging from what he writes, he didn’t get the kind of classmates I had as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz, who loved pulling apart what Prof. Neu presented in his intro to moral philosophy and who kept on arguing about Socrates, Hume and Sartre for many hours after class. Nor, it seems, has he had the pleasure of working with students like the ones I had last semester at Columbia’s journalism school, who took deep pleasure in discussing the multiple perspectives shown by different writers dealing with the same events.

It has to be tough, spending your whole career teaching and never seeing a class full of  students more interested in tough questions than easy answers. But the thought does creep into the very edge of my consciousness that prejudice can blind you to the character of the people sitting right in front of you.

In any case, Stanley, I’d like to see a rewrite by five p.m. next Monday. See if you can make your argument without slipping into stereotypes.

2 thoughts on “A C- for Prof. Fish”

  1. Agreed. I often find student evaluations very useful (if somewhat deflating to the ego). They aren’t the whole story when it comes to evaluating a course, but they help quite a lot. I find it difficult to believe that all of his students were as bad as he writes.

  2. It is all bread and circuses. A liberal art education is a 4 year attempt to overcome facts and become a liberal. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesnt. I was a liberal until I learned more history

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