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Monday, July 09, 2007

School of Fish

Well, Stanley Fish is at it again over at The New York Times website. I'd provide a link, but it's a members-only kind of thing, and I'd hate for anyone to feel coerced into signing up in order to read Professor Fish's drivel. That just wouldn't be right. Anyway, the post concerned his agreement with Justice Clarence Thomas's concurring opinion in the case in which the Supreme Court decided that the right to free speech did not apply to some snot-nosed kid who was holding a banner that read "BONG HiTS for JESUS" as the Olympic torch passed his high school.

The following is the text of a comment I wrote and submitted. Maybe it will pass comment moderation, maybe it won't. Either way, it will be preserved here for the Ages, a family of four who lives somewhere outside of Canton, Ohio:

Again Professor Fish offers specious bushwa as a means of provoking responses and garnering himself some small measures of attention.

There is almost no aspect of this essay that is neither wrong nor specious. To attend to every error would take many paragraphs and ask Professor Fish's long-suffering readership to withstand a recapitulation of each boneheaded remark and misstatement of fact. I shall attempt to limit myself only to a few examples.

First, he conveniently omits the fact that the student wasn't on school property at the time and was in no material way acting as a student. He was a citizen holding a banner on a public sidewalk during a public event. Can we really call the passing of the Olympic torch a "school-sponsored event"? Wouldn't the torch have passed by with or without the school's participation? Ever the sophist, Professor Fish merrily skips over this fact since it doesn't allow him to wallow in the "spare the rod and spoil the child" twaddle he has in mind as his real thematic objective.

It is not surprising that he believes that education is essentially totalitarian. If one looks at the experiment he records in his well-known essay, "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One," he is not above coercing students--through the power of his relation to them as instructor--to act in ways that justify the philosophical positions he has already decided are correct. If students in his world were accorded the right of free speech, they would be able to decry such "experiments" as poppycock and the experimenter as a fraud. However, my view is that if the shoe fits, the fraud should have to lace it up.

At base, however, I see an attitude toward education in America that is pervasive, especially among the privileged. That attitude looks at education as being the process by which workers are made. The emphasis is on obedience and learning how to get along in the system prevailing. Professor Fish clearly stands on this side of the equation.

My view, however, is that education, in a democracy, exists to make citizens, not drones, and citizens have a duty to question their masters and their assumptions and judgments. And one of the ways of doing that is to be able to make jokes, even sophomoric ones like "BONG HiTs for JESUS," freely and openly.