Phi Beta Cons

Stanley Fish Gets it Partially Right

I’m not quite sure how I missed this, but on Saturday Stanley Fish wrote in the New York Times about the Alliance Defense Fund’s recent case against Missouri State University.  Fish condemned the university’s treatment of the plaintiff, Emily Brooker, (who was required to write a letter to her state legislature in support of homosexual adoption and then punished when she refused), and says this regarding advocacy vs. teaching:

“Once advocacy is removed from the equation — once issues, including gay adoption, are objects of study rather than alternatives to be embraced — the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of either students or professors, become irrelevant.”
“A student assigned to study an issue must be equipped with the appropriate analytical skills. Acquiring and applying those skills in no way depend on political or ideological affiliations. If the assignment is to give an account of the dispute about gay adoption rather than to come down on one side or the other, two students with opposing views of the matter might very well produce the very same account. Academic performance and individual beliefs are independent variables. They have nothing to do with each other.”

This is, of course, exactly right.  But Fish is also wrong — on two counts.  First, he incorrectly states our position in the case:

“Ms. Brooker apparently believed that the issue was religious freedom, and this was certainly the argument made by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian organization that brought the case on her behalf.
“Being a Christian shouldn’t make you a second-class citizen on a college campus,” said David French, the fund’s senior legal counsel. The injury, however, was not done to Ms. Brooker as a Christian, but to every student in the class, Christian or not, opponent or proponent of gay adoption.”

Fish pulled one quote of the dozens I made about the case and used it as a proxy for our entire position.  The religious freedom angle of the case was critical (there’s no doubt that she would have been treated differently had her objections not been grounded on her religious beliefs; in fact, that was the focus of the “hearing” against her), but we stated again and again that the assignment itself violated students’ fundamental rights.  As I said in my first post in the case:  “No public official — not even the President of the United States — can require an American to publicly advocate for policies they find objectionable.  The right not to speak is one of our most basic and morally vital civil rights.”  The professors’ actions were wrong on multiple levels, and I wish that Fish had taken the time to understand our entire argument.
But that’s really just defensive nit-picking on my part.  The real problem with his piece is the transition he makes from rightly decrying Emily’s treatment and rightly opposing academic advocacy to then attacking one of the ACTA-inspired proposed legislative solutions to the problem of ideological indoctrination on campus:

“If the distinction between studying and advocating were honored, there would be no need for Provision J of House Bill 213, which deals with “conflicts between personal beliefs and classroom assignments.” There could be no such conflicts if classroom assignments asked students to analyze an issue rather than pronounce on it; no one’s personal beliefs about anything would be in play.
“Not only is Provision J beside the point; the entire bill is beside the point because it addresses a problem that should never arise, and proposes a remedy no different from the disease it claims to cure. Under House Bill 213, institutions of higher education would be required to report each year on their efforts “to ensure and promote intellectual diversity.”
“Intellectual diversity” — a term of art introduced by the conservative activist David Horowitz — mandates the proportional representation, on the faculty and in the curriculum, of conservatives and liberals. Its watchword is “balance,” but balance is a political measure, not an educational measure, for it could be achieved only by monitoring the political affiliations of professors and the political content of the materials they assign.”

Where to start on this?  How about with the first sentence.  If the distinction between studying and advocating were honored of course there would be no need for the bill, but it’s not honored.  In fact, that distinction is too often regarded as a small-minded nuisance in the ”speak truth to power” modern academy.  The bill exists because the academy has betrayed its obligations, not as a superfluous add-on to remind professors of the things they are already doing.
More substantially, Fish gets the entire intellectual diversity movement wrong.  No one that I know and work with — not David Horowitz, not ACTA — believes in  mandating “proportional representation” in faculties, and the bill in question, HB 213, does not such thing.  Fish is merely parroting the dishonest critiques of the academic left.  The conservative academic freedom movement is not looking for ratios, quotas, or any form of affirmative action.  We simply want outright viewpoint discrimination to stop.  End discrimination, and diversity will increase.  It’s that simple.
So Fish gets a golf clap for his column.  He identifies the problem, but he does not properly address (or even describe) a proposed solution.
(One final note: I hope that my linking to Donkey O.D. – who has apparently posted Fish’s entire column in spite of the Times subscription wall — doesn’t land him in hot water with the Times.  I appreciate his willingness to liberate Fish from New York Times subscription detention). 

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