[lit-ideas] University Education

  • From: "Steven G. Cameron" <stevecam@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Fri, 21 May 2004 14:17:22 -0400

**What should we truly be teaching??


/Steve Cameron, NJ

Why We Built the Ivory Tower

May 21, 2004


After nearly five decades in academia, and five and a half
years as a dean at a public university, I exit with a
three-part piece of wisdom for those who work in higher
education: do your job; don't try to do someone else's job,
as you are unlikely to be qualified; and don't let anyone
else do your job. In other words, don't confuse your
academic obligations with the obligation to save the world;
that's not your job as an academic; and don't surrender
your academic obligations to the agenda of any non-academic
constituency - parents, legislators, trustees or donors. In
short, don't cross the boundary between academic work and
partisan advocacy, whether the advocacy is yours or someone

Marx famously said that our job is not to interpret the
world, but to change it. In the academy, however, it is
exactly the reverse: our job is not to change the world,
but to interpret it. While academic labors might in some
instances play a role in real-world politics - if, say, the
Supreme Court cites your book on the way to a decision - it
should not be the design or aim of academics to play that

While academics in general will agree that a university
should not dance to the tune of external constituencies,
they will most likely resist the injunction to police the
boundary between academic work and political work. They
will resist because they simply don't believe in the
boundary - they believe that all activities are inherently
political, and an injunction to avoid politics is
meaningless and futile.

Now there is some truth to that, but it is not a truth that
goes very far. And it certainly doesn't go where those who
proclaim it would want it to go. It is true that no form of
work - including even the work of, say, natural science -
stands apart from the political, social and economic
concerns that underlie the structures and practices of a
society. This does not mean, however, that there is no
difference between academic labors and partisan labors, or
that there is no difference between, for example, analyzing
the history of welfare reform - a history that would
necessarily include opinions pro and con - and urging
students to go out and work for welfare reform or for its

Analyzing welfare reform in an academic context is a
political action in the sense that any conclusion a scholar
might reach will be one another scholar might dispute.
(That, after all, is what political means: subject to
dispute.) But such a dispute between scholars will not be
political in the everyday sense of the word, because each
side will represent different academic approaches, not
different partisan agendas.

My point is not that academics should refrain from being
political in an absolute sense - that is impossible - but
that they should engage in politics appropriate to the
enterprise they signed onto. And that means arguing about
(and voting on) things like curriculum, department
leadership, the direction of research, the content and
manner of teaching, establishing standards - everything
that is relevant to the responsibilities we take on when we
accept a paycheck. These responsibilities include meeting
classes, keeping up in the discipline, assigning and
correcting papers, opening up new areas of scholarship, and
so on.

This is a long list, but there are many in academia who
would add to it the larger (or so they would say) tasks of
"forming character" and "fashioning citizens." A few years
ago, the presidents of nearly 500 universities issued a
declaration on the "Civic Responsibility of Higher
Education." It called for colleges and universities to take
responsibility for helping students "realize the values and
skills of our democratic society."

Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard and one of the
forces behind the declaration, has urged his colleagues to
"consider civic responsibility as an explicit and important
aim of college education." In January, some 1,300
administrators met in Washington under the auspices of the
Association of American Colleges and Universities to take
up this topic: "What practices provide students with the
knowledge and commitments to be socially responsible
citizens?" That's not a bad question, but the answers to it
should not be the content of a college or university

No doubt, the practices of responsible citizenship and
moral behavior should be encouraged in our young adults -
but it's not the business of the university to do so,
except when the morality in question is the morality that
penalizes cheating, plagiarizing and shoddy teaching, and
the desired citizenship is defined not by the demands of
democracy, but by the demands of the academy.

This is so not because these practices are political, but
because they are the political tasks that belong properly
to other institutions. Universities could engage in moral
and civic education only by deciding in advance which of
the competing views of morality and citizenship is the
right one, and then devoting academic resources and energy
to the task of realizing it. But that task would deform (by
replacing) the true task of academic work: the search for
truth and the dissemination of it through teaching.

The idea that universities should be in the business of
forming character and fashioning citizens is often
supported by the claim that academic work should not be
hermetically sealed or kept separate from the realm of
values. But the search for truth is its own value, and
fidelity to it mandates the accompanying values of
responsibility in pedagogy and scholarship.

Performing academic work responsibly and at the highest
level is a job big enough for any scholar and for any
institution. And, as I look around, it does not seem to me
that we academics do that job so well that we can now take
it upon ourselves to do everyone else's job too. We should
look to the practices in our own shop, narrowly conceived,
before we set out to alter the entire world by forming
moral character, or fashioning democratic citizens, or
combating globalization, or embracing globalization, or
anything else.

One would like to think that even the exaggerated sense of
virtue that is so much a part of the academic mentality has
its limits. If we aim low and stick to the tasks we are
paid to perform, we might actually get something done.

Stanley Fish will step down next month as dean of the
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of
Illinois at Chicago.


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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