18 May 2010

The Fiction of "Teach, Don't Preach"

Dr. Stanley Fish is a famous man. To quote his New York Times bio, "Stanley Fish is a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His column appears here on Tuesdays. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 11 books, most recently “Save the World On Your Own Time,” on higher education. “The Fugitive in Flight,” a study of the 1960s TV drama, will be published in 2010."

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


Anonymous said...

I must not fully understand what you mean by political. My goto reference (Merriam-Webster) defines political as:
"1 a : of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government b : of, relating to, or concerned with the making as distinguished from the administration of governmental policy"

That said, I was telling @lasic on twitter that "I don't think teaching procedure in classroom is politcal. Disagreement is allowed, but @ the end of the day the tchr is in charge"

There comes a point when anarchy is not for the benefit of the classroom and rules and order need to be put in place and enforced. I don't understand how this is political.

Somebody makes this policy and in public school, I could see this being a stretch to call it political. But I have no problem with students questioning things, including policy. However, questioning for the sake of questioning only slows down the class. In a 1 on 1 setting, it would be easy to explain everything to children for as long as it took for them to understand. Sometimes you have to move along and tell the kid a B is 80-89% because that's what the district says.

What do you mean political?

Anonymous said...

Question for you: Where does Stanley Fish refer to his theory as being "neutrality" and "teach, don't preach?" I read the column and don't find it anywhere.

irasocol said...


Fish's column is an extension of his book Save the World on Your Own Time and the accompanying publicity tour... the source of the "Teach, Don't Preach" and "neutrality" phrases.


Wiktionary gives us this:
"1. concerning or related to politics, the art and process of governing
2. concerning a polity or its administrative components
3. (pejorative) motivated, especially inappropriately, by political (electoral or other party political) calculation
4. of or related to views about social relationships that involve power or authority"

I, and the commenters I quoted, I don't think are far from Fish on this, we're referring to both definitions 1 and 4, but especially 4. After all, this is exactly what Fish is criticizing the program in question for.

So, when you say, "I don't think teaching procedure in classroom is political. Disagreement is allowed, but at the end of the day the teacher is in charge" and "There comes a point when anarchy is not for the benefit of the classroom and rules and order need to be put in place and enforced," you are making very overt political statements. I say that without intending to comment on the "rightness," "morality," or "necessity" of the statements or the philosophies which create the statements. I am just saying they embrace specific visions of power and how society is organized, visions which are hardly universally shared.

I suspect this sounds radical to you, and I am an educational radical (who is affiliated with a University College of Education where Freire is one of things on the syllabi). Let me offer a few past posts:

Education is, in my understanding, an absolutely political thing. It trains children, in a whole variety of ways, in the systems of power our particular society embraces. Just today I heard (on NPR) a New Orleans Charter School teacher discussing how the first three weeks of each school year were devoted to nothing but how to act in the school - a system which mirrors how British Colonial Schools operated in Africa and India. First students were taught to be "white and British." Whatever you think of the goal, that is as "political" as you can get.

- Ira Socol

Tomaz Lasic said...


Hi Mike

So glad you have expanded on our 140-character-bound conversation, here in Oz we'd say “good on you” (pron. “goodonya”).

As suspected, and again eloquently pointed out by Ira, the definition of 'political' played the part here. If 'political' is reduced to the spectacle of governing and point-scoring between two political parties in the big house on the hill (ours in Australia is on a hill too) it misses the enormous point to understanding the infinite play of power and authority, particularly in something so important as education.

As perhaps hinted via Twitter, I have been acutely interested in this interplay of power and authority as a teacher in a 'hard to staff' school (don't we all love a good bureacratic euphemism...) and seeing, feeling, touching first hand the situations where I could see how certain forms of knowledge and kids voices trying to break through and exist with those of 'teacher in charge'. Let me give you a concrete example.

In my Year 9 class (14 year olds) we were going through a lesson on the legal system. You know, these are the branches, the courts and so on. Somehow, we mentioned 'restraining orders'. I casually asked if the kids knew what a restraining order is. Out of 22 kids in my class, about two thirds of hands went up: “Sure Sir, my dad's not allowed to come near my mum because he … “ So we opened things up and had a most fascinating conversation on the topic for another two periods, examining the broader issues of poverty, violence, abuse, privilege (and lack of it), things they could do and so on - all through kids lived experiences. We ran out of time to 'cover' what was in the prescribed State curriculum but I am willing to bet my house that the kids remembered this more than 'covering and testing' some quaint court procedures (while those could be valuable one day too...). My choice as a teacher was a political one – do I just 'toe the line' and 'cover the stuff' or do I allow a deeper, more meaningful exploration of kids lives, knowledge and voices. I took a particular line, just like ignoring the kids experiences and pressing would be, made a choice, and that choice was … a political one.

Oh yes, and I am deeply suspicious of ideas of 'normalcy', 'neutrality' and treating people like widgets, perhaps better explained here http://tomazlasic.net/2009/09/still-waiting-for-eureka/ as part of the series (unfinished) I am writing with someone you know by now ;-) http://tomazlasic.net/why-is-everyone-an-expert-on-education/


Anonymous said...

For a clearer picture of Stanley Fish's views, here are couple essays he wrote specifically discussing his academic viewpoint (the Arizona blog post only tangentially discusses it):

Save the World on Your Own Time

Why We Built The Ivory Tower

Honestly I'm on Fish's side. Here's my favorite quote: "teachers should teach their subjects. They should not teach peace or war or freedom or obedience or diversity or uniformity or nationalism or antinationalism or any other agenda that might properly be taught by a political leader or a talk-show host. Of course they can and should teach about such topics -- something very different from urging them as commitments -- when they are part of the history or philosophy or literature or sociology that is being studied."

irasocol said...


Suppose I am in a classroom with Dr. Fish, or you, or I, teaching, oh, Brit Lit. Well, first, the decision of many universities to embrace Brit Lit more than, say, Nigerian Lit, French Lit, Irish Lit, German Lit, is already a highly political statement of the kind "a political leader or a talk-show host" might mke. Curriculum emphasis is either teaching about "freedom or obedience or diversity or uniformity or nationalism or antinationalism." Fish denies this, which severely damages his credibility.

Next, what do I teach? Do we read Middlemarch or Ulysses? (quite politically, most US schools and universities consider Irish Literature to be Brit Lit) Which order if we read both? Do I require MLA formatting in student papers? Do I require attendance - or not? Do I expect students to stay seated? Each of these decisions is preaching.

Now you may argue that this usually involves "preaching norms," and indeed it does, but preaching norms is the most political thing an educator can do.

Example: Dr. Fish chooses to blog for The New York Times. That is a highly political decision. He might have posted this at the Wall Street Journal, behind a pay wall. Or in The Guardian, with a more international and left-wing readership cast. Or he might have posted it on his own blog and Twittered it to get readership, but instead he chose to present this in the "standard" newspaper of the United States. That is neither "right" or "wrong" but it is completely political.

Fish, of course, s a product of Modernist philosophy. He believes that there is a "single truth" out there, and a "right" way to do things. In this he is an inheritor of the grandest traditions of the British and American Empires. And, yes, it is an easy philosophy to believe in - and a comforting one. The only problem is, it sure doesn't seem to have any basis in the facts of our real world.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

Fish, of course, is a product of Modernist philosophy. He believes that there is a "single" truth out there, and a "right" way to do things.

One, you have just defined traditional (e.g. Aristotelian and/or Platonic) philosophy more so than Modernist. And, two, Stanley Fish has long been known as a postmodernist thinker, NOT a modernist (though he would call himself a pragmatist); many on the right accuse of him of being a relativist.

Thing is, Fish writes about a heck of a lot more than education. He's probably the most preeminent Milton scholar alive today.

Read some of his other books, like There's No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It's A Good Thing Too (and an interview about the book with Fish). Read The Trouble With Principle.

Fish knows full well there will always be debates about curriculum. Fish would be the first to say there are no agreed upon cross cultural standards to use when forming curriculum. But it's precisely because of this that schools should not impose (and I choose this word purposely) an ideology of tolerance and social justice (any more than they should impose a traditionalist view of the world). Look at many traditional religions and cultures in the world; the principle of tolerance is not something they would not find too in step with their worldview.

I'll grant you that the decision to read Middlemarch vs Ulysses is politcal. I'll grant that the decision to teach Brit Lit instead of Nigerian or French or German Lit is political. But the choice about curriculum outside of the classroom is different than the way the material is presented inside the classroom.

Fish in his books supports vast leeway in allowing professors to teach all subjects from Gender and Ethnic Studies to Peace and Justice Studies. All he says is that course documents/reading material/information/etc should be analyzed and discussed and used to help students understand the issues. Precisely because there are no agreed upon cross-cultural standards of "truth" or "justice" or the way things ought to be, teachers should avoid advocating for things in the classroom (that will inevitable offend the sensibilities of some students) and stick to teaching things.

Of course, teachers should advocate (to government; to society) for student rights and greater access to education for all students. But once those students are in the classroom, they should be taught and not preached too.

Finally, you write, Dr. Fish chooses to blog for the New York Times. That is a highly political decision. He might have posted this at the Wall Street Journal...or in The Guardian...or on his own blog and Twittered it to get readership.

Umm, Fish is an employee of the Times. They offered him a contract and a platform. For all we know, he does not have offers to write for the other papers listed. His decision might be partly political, but as a writer yourself, you should know that where you write is mostly a matter of who graces you with permission to write for their publication.

irasocol said...


I don't mean to make light of your comment, but, a lot of Americans think Barack Obama is a "socialist," yet he is definably far to the right of Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Nicholas Sarkozy and other European "non-socialists," so what a lot of people think is a limited value statement.

If Fish was a post-modernist, his fight with Freirian educational theory would be bizarre. He might debate what they were teaching, but surely not the legitimacy of the teaching. Instead, he states the opposite, apparently agreeing with their goals but denying their right to teach as they prefer. There's a certainty implicit in that position which is a product of modernist, North American, thought.

I know you don't see this - to you, to Fish, there are "facts" which students can "understand." There are norms of behaviour and belief, and there is an apolitical path to knowledge.

Of course Freire - and I - reject those assumptions. Norms are oppression - and attempt to "whiten" the world. And all education is political, explicitly, even if practitioners don't realize it.

So, offering a Queer Studies major is political, just as offering a Brit Lit major. And deciding where to teach is political, or where to publish one's writings, or what books to discuss. If you mention "my wife" in a class, that is political, and as I keep saying, if you give grades that is political, and it is preaching.

Again, there isn't a "value judgment" on any of those actions, unless you deny the political to your students and tell them that you are apolitical.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

If Fish was a post-modernist, his fight with Freirian educational theory would be bizarre.

I don't really think so. A person's philosophy (e.g. traditional, modern, postmodern) is and can be distinct from his or her political beliefs or educational beliefs.

Here's a quote from The Trouble With Principle, one of the books I linked to in my above comment:

Your philosophical views are independent of your views (and therefore of your practices) in any realm of life other than the very special and rarified realm of doing philosophy. If you believe that your convictions have their source not in ultimate truths or foundations but in contingent conditions of inquiry and are therefore revisable, that belief, in itself, will not render you disposed to revise your convictions or turn you into a person who enters into situations provisionally or with epistemic modesty. You can give all the standard answers to all the pragmatist [or postmodern] questions and still be authoritarian in the classroom, a decided conservative in cultural matters, or inclined to the absolutes of theology. I am, in differning degrees, all three.)

Fish probably shares similar postmodern assumptions about knowledge as Freire, but his educational views differ because a person's philosophy of life and/or beliefs about the way the world should be are different than a person's beliefs about the classroom.

Freire (and other thinkers like him) point out the power structures inherent in our culturally constructed ways of life. They think that the fact something is socially constructed automatically means it should torn down and rebuilt according to their views of social justice. But Fish would say that pointing out social construction doesn't do anything (beyond make for an interesting philosophy seminar discussion).

For example, baseball is a social construction. It evolved/developed from earlier ball and stick games. The rules were a little bit different in the 19th century. The rules may (probably will) change by the 22nd century. But a baseball coach teaching his players about the game better explain the game the way it is (right now) or his players will never learn to play right. Sure, he can teach how the game has evolved. But any questions about how the game "should" change are beside the point of the specific task of learning how to play and win (in the here and now).

I'd argue the same for any classroom topic. Teach the history of, say, American democracy. Show how it is socially constructed. Most definitely teach students how to understand structures of U.S. government. And explore ways in which it might evolve. But advocating for how U.S. democracy should evolve is beside the point of a classroom; it's something better left to a political rally.

irasocol said...


I tend to think that our little back-and-forth illustrates why I believe (my "world view") that Fish is "wrong" and Freire is "right" - to use counter-intuitive terms.

The notion that you can somehow check your philosophy at the classroom door is something I view as completely impossible. Yes, I have seen people pretend to do that, even convince themselves that they are doing that, but inevitably their philosophies creep in - in how things are assigned, in comments, in facial expressions, and in much more.

Likewise, it is fairly easy to say, "I'm a postmodern thinker," and yet, much harder to actually be that if you have grown up in a certain cultural structure. But I would say that an authoritarian in the classroom is definably NOT a postmodernist. The simple embrace of a political position does not an open thinker make.

Those of us who are, probably, true relativists, who see this as all a power construct, would never see it as "advocating how something might evolve," but rather as "handing out the tools which empower each student to move to their future." In Fish's "non-preaching classroom" he is, certainly, handing out tools as well, but they are the tools of stasis. If we study "American democracy," are we calling the US a "democracy"? All sorts of people, left and right (see Utah right now) would disagree with that political declaration. And if we are at least implying that the US is a "democracy" we are making a very political delaration. And if say "evolve" we are using a politically loaded term which suggests progress.

In other words, you are always advocating one thing or another. Even your baseball analogy demonstrates a belief in following rules - a political position, no doubt.

It just cannot be escaped.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed our back-and-forth and found it fruitful.

"Checking your philosophy at the door" isn't that hard and is something we all do in many areas of life. When I'm around a small child, I talk in modified baby voice and tease and feign interest in whatever boring cartoon show they like (not to be flippant but just descriptive).

Around old people, I'll talk about the weather.

Off the top of my head, two type of people come to mind as people who leave their philosophy out the door on the job--actors and novelists. A good actor can completely portray a character that they almost become someone else. James Gandolfini is a nice guy in real life, but he convincingly appears as ruthless mobster Tony Soprano on the The Sopranos.

Great writers like Shakespeare and Dostoevsky create in depth characters with distinct personalities of their own, and distinct personalities and beliefs from even their creators.

Teaching, like dentistry or firefighting or bartending, is a job. It requires putting on a certain personality or mindset that may (or may not) be distinct from the personality and/or philosophy a person holds at home.

If we study "American democracy" are we calling the US a "democracy"?

We give students different definitions and conceptions of democracy, and explain why certain groups believe their definition or understanding of democracy applies to a particular political situation. Just like any abstract concept like "justice" or "fairness." This can all be done without advocating for political change.

..."handing out the tools which empower each student to move to their future."

Exactly! That's what a good, non-indoctrinating education (as proposed by Fish) does. It gives them the (reading/writing/analyzing/thinking/understanding) skills to move and make their own future. But, it's a future that they can and should choose for themselves, not the idealized society of Freire or any other thinker (unless, of course, they end up choosing Freirian philosophy of their own accord).

And you stated earlier that Norms are oppression and attempt to "whiten" the world.

Without norms, there would be no classroom structure and no classroom. Even if we agree that that norms such as rules of grammar are hegemonic structures of oppression, it's still important to teach students to understand and work within those norms and work within society as it is currently constructed (even if our society is irredeemably bigoted and racist and oppressive--a controversial proposition). If these students are ever to shed the shackles and overthrow unjust power structures, they need to first know how to work within them.

Sean Pidgeon said...

So, Anonymous wrote in comment #2 above, Question for you: Where does Stanley Fish refer to his theory as being "neutrality" and "teach, don't preach?"

Ira, you said, Fish's column is an extension of his book Save the World on Your Own Time and the accompanying publicity tour... the source of the "Teach, Don't Preach" and "neutrality" phrases.

Funny thing is, I did a Google book search and the phrase "teach, don't preach" doesn't appear anywhere in Save The World On Your Own Time.

If you remember, you had a back and forth discussion on Twitter about Fish's NY Times essay. I think I've found the two sources you used for "Teach, Don't Preach" and "Neutrality."

"Teach, Don't Preach" is my (positive) description of Fish's philosophy. It's not Fish's phrasing. Fish's key phrase is "always academicize."

Did you give me a shout out? Did you mention in anecdote your Twitter conversation with me? Nooooooo.

But you do write in a later comment that Norms are oppression - and attempt to "whiten" the world. Maybe you're afraid that citing your sources would be giving into an oppressive academic norm that imposes hegemonic power structures upon unsuspecting students.