And Stanley Fish is famous, in part, for his opposition to a certain form of education, which he recently re-expressed in his New York Times column.
Dr. Fish is a "traditional liberal," by which I mean a conservative who really doesn't want that label. From Benjamin Disraeli to Nelson Rockefeller to David Cameron and Mike Bloomberg and Bill Gates, these are people who do indeed want to "save the world," they want to "help," but they just want to make sure that no one upsets the system which has made them rich and powerful. So Dr. Fish writes a column which, while ostensibly attacking Arizona's anti-ethnic studies law, is actually an attack on those educators who embrace Paolo Freire and the concepts of education for social justice. "It's your fault," Fish intimates about "the left" for pushing a radical agenda that demands a response.
"If the department is serious about this (and we must assume that it is), then there is something for the citizens of Arizona to be concerned about. The concern is not ethnic studies per se — a perfectly respectable topic of discussion and research involving the disciplines of history, philosophy, sociology, medicine, economics, literature, public policy and art, among others. The concern is ethnic studies as a stalking horse or Trojan horse of a political agenda, even if the agenda bears the high-sounding name of social justice. (“Teaching for Social Justice” is a pervasive and powerful mantra in the world of educational theory.)
"It is certainly possible to teach the literature and history (including the history of marginalization and discrimination) of ethnic traditions without turning students into culture warriors ready to man (and woman) the barriers. To be sure, the knowledge a student acquires in an ethnic studies course that stays clear of indoctrination may lead down the road to counter-hegemonic, even revolutionary, activity; you can’t control what students do with the ideas they are exposed to. But that is quite different from setting out deliberately to produce that activity as the goal of classroom instruction."
Following the "accepted curriculum" isn't political? (McGuffey's Readers)
Here's the problem with Dr. Fish, who promotes a theory he calls "neutrality" and which he expresses as "teach, don't preach." "But that is quite different from setting out deliberately to produce that activity as the goal of classroom instruction," Fish writes regarding Freirian educators, but, that "neutral classroom" also sets out to produce a specific political activity. It may be the activities suggested in America's favorite 19th Century textbook (see above), or it might be "good citizenship" and voting for Democrats or Republicans, or it might be following the law, or it might be a belief in capitalism, or the idea that it is more important to read Scott Fitzgerald than John Dos Passos, or that algebra is more important to understanding the world than the Marxist view of history... whatever... Dr. Fish, it is all political, and there is no "neutral."
"Matt" from Ontario, put it this way in the comments at The Times' site, "The school has historically been a standardizing force within society, and given that (a) standardized people with standardized values who have been taught respect for authority figures from an early age are easier to control and manipulate, and (b) the government controls the school system, it's hard to see the universalization of education in North America over the last century as an apolitical process. Freire and his followers are political in their educational agenda, yes, but this is not what makes them unusual. Rather, it's the fact that they're so open about it."
What was John Scopes doing in his Tennessee classroom in 1925? According to Fish he was turning his students into "culture warriors." What are all those who go out from the US and UK to teach in developing nations doing, but converting their students into "culture warriors." What are schools doing when they hold student elections according to US voting norms rather than those typical in other nations? Whatever you choose, do, or say in the classroom is a political act. There is no way around that.
Hector Amaya from Charlottesville, VA, said this, "As someone who teaches on the subject of ethnic studies regularly at University of Virginia, I can testify to the care and responsibility with which the material is treated and presented. I am aware of the values and challenges of all of my students and of the fact that my role is to teach each and every one of them with the same concern and professionalism. Yet, the material is political and it invariably will ask from the educator to take a position, even if one does not wish to. Does one proselytize? Is the educator teaching Shakespeare proselytizing? Taking a position on knowledge is always to proselytize. Taking a position on political knowledge, I am sorry Prof. Fish, is always to proselytize politically."
I'd go further. Take attendance? Enforce "tardiness rules"? Rank students according to a scale? Celebrate kids on an "Honor Roll"? Give tests? Ask kids not to interrupt? Grade grammar? Enforce methods of citation? Even object to plagiarism? These are all overt political acts, and they are choices - choosing to embrace one cultural view of the world rather than another. Whether that is "wrong" or "right" in your mind does not matter - each of these acts is both highly political and diametrically opposed to Freirian theory - and Stanley Fish adopting the Fox News fairness mantra (agree with me, you are fair - disagree, you are biased) doesn't change the facts.
So I wrote this in the comments, "Education can do one of two things - it can reinforce the world as it is, the socially reproductive system used in much of the US which seeks to maintain wealth and power as they are, or, it can help students to "work toward the invoking of a critical consciousness within each and every student” and “promote and advocate for social and educational transformation." There really is no middle ground despite Mr. Fish's assertions. The "middle ground" where power is doubted but left unchanged?
"Education is the most important thing we do (though you'd hardly know it by our commitment to it), and it is, inherently, the most political thing we do. For, in every classroom the choice is made to either train students in compliance or in doubt and questioning. Pretending there is another choice obscures the essential conflicts at play."
The essential conflicts are between social reproduction and equality of opportunity. In education, those are the choices. And you are either preaching one political outcome or another.
- Ira Socol