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Holbo on Fish


I was in the middle of arguing with Lemuel Pitkin about John Holbo’s post about this blog post by Stanley Fish, when for some reason the crooked timber supercomputer decided I needed to be placed in moderation. So, I’ll take it over here.

First things first, the main points Fish is making (that political diversity is not intellectual diversity, that academics with different politics are capable of teaching political diverse political views fairly and accurately) are largely correct and unobjectionable. The paragraph that rightly frustrated Holbo is this one:

Even in courses where the materials are politically and ideologically charged, the questions that arise are academic, not political. A classroom discussion of Herbert Marcuse and Leo Strauss, for example, does not (or at least should not) have the goal of determining whether the socialist or the conservative philosopher is right about how the body politic should be organized. Rather, the (academic) goal would be to describe the positions of the two theorists, compare them, note their place in the history of political thought, trace the influences that produced them and chart their own influence on subsequent thinkers in the tradition. And a discussion of this kind could be led and guided by an instructor of any political persuasion whatsoever, and it would make no difference given that the point of the exercise was not to decide a political question but to analyze it.

This write justification, evaluation, and interrogation out of the teaching of political theory. I think the intellectual history side of political theory/philosophy is often underappreciated and undertaught, especially by political philosophers, but to pretend it’s not part of the field isn’t tenable, and either misunderstands or misrepresents the discipline.

Why does he do this? I don’t claim to know. But Fish is responding to an effort to institute a fancy form of affirmative action for conservatives at CU by eschewing justification as part of the pedagogical tasks for political theory (in an otherwise reasonable list). This doesn’t, as Pitkin suggests, defend the academic enterprise from conservative attacks, becuase it gives too much ground. The framing of the argument suggests that if evaluation and justification are part of a political theory pedagogy, that the political persuasion of the instructor would be relevant and conservatives would have a point. This post demonstrates once again why Fish isn’t a particularly persuasive or useful advocate for academia against Horowitzian attacks.

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