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Composition Forum 20, Summer 2009

Fish, Stanley. Save the World on Your Own Time. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008: 209 pp.

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Paul Lynch

In Save the World on Your Own Time Stanley Fish likens the experience of university administration to playing football. Both professions, he argues, are designed for burnout, “but burning out is what administrators are supposed to do. That is why the shelf-life of administrators is about as short as the careers of NFL running backs, and for the same reason: they take too many hits” (65). Save the World offers Fish the opportunity to return the favor, and he doles out hits left and right—to self-involved professors, activist teachers, conservative watchdogs, and miserly legislators. In typical fashion, Fish’s argument—that the university is supposed to be a university—will make almost no one happy. He delights in challenging shopworn pieties about free expression, academic freedom, and the uses of the liberal arts. The last of these three is most central to the book’s argument, which is that liberal education has no use whatsoever, and that it can be valued only for its own sake.

Fish spends the first part of the book arguing for what he calls “academicizing,” his shorthand for the university’s two-fold job, which is to “(1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge about traditions of inquiry they didn’t know much about before; and (2) equip those same students with the analytical skills that will enable them to move within those traditions and to engage in independent research should they choose to do so” (18). University professors go wrong, Fish argues, when they ask their students to take positions on issues rather than to understand the arguments about those issues. The former pretends that academic work has some practical use; the latter, on the other hand, remains true to the mission. But academicizing need not be dry. In Fish’s vision, “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” (38). Here, Fish makes a claim worth consideration. If, say, critical pedagogies continue to encounter resistance, perhaps they would be better served by more focus on argument and less focus on enlightenment. If the ethical and political results of education are indeed unpredictable, perhaps the best the academy can do is offer rigorous training in the questions. The rest, Fish insists, will have to take care of itself.

The claim that academic work is about the disinterested pursuit of truth is a familiar one, but Fish’s dogged insistence on this point brings it into renewed focus. Moreover, Fish writes, the truth search has no justification other than itself. In fact, “any justification of the academy is always a denigration of it” (154). “You know the questions,” Fish writes, “Will [the university] 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” (55). Any yes answers to these questions would reveal a distraction from the university’s real mission. While this argument may seem startling to many professors who value their work in these ways, the argument also offers support for ends with which many academics might agree. Fish may not like leftward proselytizing, but largely because it opens the door to rightward demagoguery. He remains unpersuaded by the usual suspects (Bloom, Cheney, D’Souza, Horowitz) who think that universities have become reeducation camps. Nevertheless, he sees liberal violations of the university’s mission as the thin edge of a much more conservative, and even reactionary, wedge. To embrace politics is to submit to politics.

Fish thus defends the Ivory Tower on the grounds that it is an Ivory Tower. Audiences familiar with the emergence of the modern university might find this claim unsatisfying in that ignores history. Fish makes a brief nod to the differences between humanistic tradition and the subsequent enlightenment tradition that produced what we now think of as the academy (177), but for the most part he simply says a university ought to be a university because it is a university. Why should the university remain the way it is? Because it’s a university. What is a university? A place for the search for truth. Fish, however, has no response to the next question: why should we undertake this search? He may hope that question will answer itself, at least when it comes to activist professors. But it’s hard to imagine how that question answers itself for “stakeholders” not directly affiliated with the university. When Fish arrives at the penultimate chapter, it appears that he is about to reveal some justification: “How do you sell to legislators, governors, trustees, donors, newspapers, etc., an academy that marches to its own drummer, an academy that asks of the subjects that petition for entry only that they be interesting, an academy unconcerned with the public yield of its activities, an academy that puts at the center of its operations the asking of questions for their own sake?” (153-54). Unfortunately, Fish is as precise in his language as always. He really means how, how as in techniques that will achieve certain rhetorical ends. The question of why, however, remains unanswered. This chapter encourages academic administrators to confront legislators directly about plummeting support for public education. In many ways, his advice is sound: it implies that attacking opponents (state and local representatives) will persuade other audiences (voters) that the university deserves support. But his tactics still distract from the bigger questions he has been discussing. Perhaps that is as it should be. Within the university, we operate as academics—ready to ponder and ruminate and explore. Beyond the academy, we act as politicians—ready to forward a specific message and to mix it up with our opponents. This book appears written for the latter world more than the former.

Unfortunately, Fish’s desire to perform rhetoric leads him to misrepresent rhetoric. For writing teachers, the most disappointing section in Save the World is “A Radical Proposition: Teach Writing in Writing Classes.” Given the circularity of this title, alert readers might suspect that Professor Fish will be talking about anything but writing, and we are not to be disappointed: “On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: you will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students” (41). This sounds like an interesting course in something, but it’s not in writing, since the students never actually write. Fish gets around this problem by begging another question: “Doesn’t it make sense to think that it you are trying to teach them how to use linguistic forms, linguistic forms are what you should be teaching?” (49). This argument is so airtight that it suffocates. He means to ask his question rhetorically, but it’s worth the trouble to articulate an answer. Sure, it makes sense to think this way, especially if you don’t want to bother with the complicated questions of teaching writing—questions that writing teachers have been trying to answer in the very universities that Fish wants to protect. It also makes sense to read some of that scholarship and to refer to it even when you’re disagreeing with it.

But Fish doesn’t intend this argument for professional writing teachers who know the scholarship. He intends it for a public audience who is already convinced that good grammar is the last hope of the West. “Just listen to National Public Radio for fifteen minutes or read a section of the New York Times,” he suggests, “and you will be able to start your own collection of howlers, from the (now ubiquitous) confusion of ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’ [. . .] to the disastrous and often comical substitutions of ‘enervate’ for ‘energize’” (44). All writing teachers can probably cite friends or relatives or neighbors who like to regale us with the mechanical failings of such-and-such publication as evidence for declining standards. “You teach writing?” they ask. “Well, have you looked at the Post-Dispatch lately? In my day they taught us how to write!” (When a version of this chapter appeared in The New York Times a few years ago, an aunt who once taught high school English sent me a copy over email. That she included no message of her own suggested to me that the column was supposed to speak for itself.) This is the audience who is being massaged by his message. Fish is likely to win their approval when he insists, “All composition courses should teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else” (44). Surely, he’s right to caution writing teachers from turning comp courses into courses on film, or comic books, or literature. But it is just as sure that someone of Fish’s erudition knows that asking for grammar and rhetoric is to ask for different, if not contradictory, endeavors. (Style and rhetoric might be a different question, but that’s not what he’s asking.) And someone with Fish’s sense of public perception must know that he is now pitching a message that will resonate with “commonsense” stakeholders more than professional rhetoricians. Does this mean that he hopes that those stakeholders will demand a return to real, red-blooded composition instruction? Does this mean that he hopes they will interfere?

Ultimately, it’s hard to discern the audience for Save the World on Your Own Time. It seems unlikely to convince legislators, who might not be satisfied with the answer that a university is a university. It seems unlikely to persuade the professorate, whom he depicts as narcissistic and self-indulgent. It seems unlikely to convince composition teachers, who have spent the better part of 40 years arguing that they are not the grammar police (and that writing would not improve even if they were). In fact, the only people with whom Fish identifies consistently are university administrators, who, apparently, are the only people who consistently do their jobs (60). Perhaps a more accurate title would have been Make Sure They Save the World on Their Own Time. Given that the author risks alienating the people best positioned to makes the changes he wants, Fish’s book, like the university he imagines, appears designed to have no effect at all.

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