Fish on The Academic and The Political

I wonder what difference there is between Fish’s judgement about private/public commitments in his article on “Liberalism and Secularism” and those he’s making in these last three articles (First, Second, Most Recent). In that article from late last year, Fish attacks the public-private distinction, while recently he’s happy to enforce it, though the terms are a bit more obscure. A professor as a professional pedagogue conducts their teaching in an effectively public realm by Fish’s view, but does Fish’s relegating their political commitments to the private sphere not constitute just another, if unspoken political commitment?

Fish is not about to say that of their political commitments professors should say “I have none,” because it’s ludicrous. At the same time, he doesn’t advocate that professors say their political commitments structure every last bit of their classes and how they’re taught. His middle-position, which puts political commitments off to one side and professional-academic commitments to another, is strikingly similar to the same kind of middle position he lambasts here:

“A candidate cannot say, ‘I don’t have any [religious faith],’ and a candidate cannot say, ‘My faith dictates every decision I make and every action I take.’ Rather, a candidate must say something like, ‘My faith generally informs my moral values, but my judgments and actions as president will follow from the constitutional obligations of the office, not from my religion.’ In other words, I too believe in the public-private distinction and I will uphold it. I won’t insist that you adopt my values and I will respect yours” (“Liberalism and Secularism,” Sept. 7, 2007)

What it sounds like Fish advocates is an approach to teaching that is like a liberal-secular approach to government. Academic and political commitments in this and the last two articles are analogous to the secular and sacred commitments he juggles in that article from last year. In the end, Fish suggests with Mark Lilla that “We need to recognize that coping is the order of the day, not defending high principles.” In the context of the academic and the political though, Fish doesn’t suggest coping, but rather candidly reverts to high, if academic, principles. His distinction on an academic level pre-supposes what is properly academic and properly political, but it is a matter of politics that this distinction is enforced, which he doesn’t escape. The problem this leaves is the same one Fish finds with liberal-secular neutrality: he does not expect academics to be apolitical so much as of a kind politics that respects the academic as distinct from the political.

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