WASHINGTON -- In 1892, a Massachusetts court ruled that a policeman's speech rights had not been violated by a law forbidding certain political activities by officers. State Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: "The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman."
That thought is germane to the controversy -- a hardy perennial -- about the rights and duties of college professors. Concerning which, Stanley Fish has written an often intelligent but ultimately sly and evasive book, "Save the World On Your Own Time."
A former dean, and currently law professor at Florida International University, Fish is an intellectual provocateur with a taste for safe targets. While arguing against an obviously indefensible facet of the politicization of higher education, he suggests that a much larger facet is either nonexistent or unimportant.
Some academics, he says, either do not know what their job is or prefer to do something else. He recommends a "narrow sense" of the academic vocation that precludes saving the world, a mission for which academics have no special qualifications. Universities talk about making students sensitive, compassionate, tolerant, democratic, etc., but those bland adjectives often are packed with political agendas. The "focused" academic vocation that Fish favors is spacious enough for actual academic skills involving "the transmission of knowledge and the conferring of analytical skills."
Fish's "deflationary" definition of the scholar's function denies radical professors the frisson of considering themselves "transformative" -- because "transgressive" -- "agents of change." But he insists that his definition would exclude no topic from the curriculum. Any topic, however pertinent to political controversies, can, he says, be "academicized." It can be detached "from the context of its real world urgency" and made the subject of inquiry concerning its history and philosophic implications.
Suggesting bravery on his part, Fish says his views are those of an excoriated academic minority. Actually, it is doubtful that a majority of professors claim a right and duty to explicitly indoctrinate students. But if they do, Fish should be neither surprised nor scandalized -- he is both -- that support for public universities has declined.
Fish's advocacy of a banal proscription -- of explicit political preaching in classrooms -- may have made him anathema to academia's infantile left. The shrewder left will, however, welcome his book because it denies or defends other politicizations of academia that are less blatant but more prevalent and consequential -- those concerning hiring and curricula.