Nodding Like Stanley Fish

Founded by Lynne Cheney and Jerry Martin in 1995, ACTA (I quote from its website) is “an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence and accountability at America’s colleges.” Sounds good, but that “commitment” takes the form of mobilizing trustees and alumni in an effort to pressure colleges and universities to make changes in their curricula and requirements. Academic institutions, the ACTA website declares, “need checks and balances” because “internal constituencies” — which means professors — cannot be trusted to be responsive to public concerns about the state of higher education.

The battle between those who actually work in the academy and those who would monitor academic work from the outside has been going on for well over 100 years and I am on record (in “Save The World On Your Own Time” and elsewhere ) as being against external regulation of classroom practices if only because the impulse animating the effort to regulate is always political rather than intellectual.

August 24, 2009, 9:30 pm, What Should Colleges Teach?, Stanley Fish

I’ve been watching ACTA for a year or more simply because they are a very reliable guide to the reactionary academic mind. Increasingly, too, they are a great guide to the way conservative thinking is going undercover, attempting to hide its messages beneath a veneer of common sense thinking. The latest manifestation of the emerging agenda is

I am not sure I like “nodding along” with Stanley Fish, but I was. (I’m not surprised to find that he would feign surprise when he agrees with a very conservative organization.) I don’t agree with everything he says, of course. It’s not so easy to create a course that is “only about writing.” I am suspicious of a list of goals for a writing course that begins with “grammar.”

On other hand Fish seems to see the ACTA’s agenda pretty clearly. They use a modern sounding rhetoric focusing on creating and or maintaining communities when in fact the goal is to disrupt or even disband communities in the name of a restoration of what was supposed to be an American golden age. Pre-homosexuality, pre-feminist, pre-minority and so on.

American democracy matured, at least to some extent, and things got complicated and messy and the ACTA would like universities to take up the goal of making things simple again. I think Fish is also right when he suggests that ACTA’s not so hidden agenda is the autonomy of the university, particularly the academic freedom of individual professors.

Fish and the ACTA are exaggerating, of course. Most people who teach at colleges are not tenured professors and so do not have the sort of academic freedom that Fish seems to suggest is the norm. So Fish is being as nostalgic as the ACTA. Fish seems to see the ACTA as a vanguard instead of a gesture that seeks to consolidate goals already achieved.

What’s at stake here is not so much ‘general education’ as the leadership of U.S. education and the system of privileges accorded to the academic elite. Neither Fish nor the ACTA are much concerned that writing, for example, is by and large taught by adjuncts and graduate students. It’s not about the rest of us. They are fighting over the power of top-of-the-pyramid professors.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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