Save the World on Your Own Time – By Stanley Fish


Save the World on Your Own Time . By Stanley Fish . New York, N.Y. : Oxford University Press , 2008 . 189 pages. ISBN 978-0-19-536902-1 . $19.95 .

Having returned to teaching after spending several years as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Stanley Fish found himself with time on his hands and his eyes “looking for things to fix.” While his reformist fervor first fell on everything from grocery-store clerks to unwitting students in his classroom, Fish eventually narrowed his gaze to the academy and particularly to the ideological commitments of faculty and administration at universities across the country. Fish launches his book with a seemingly uncomplicated two-part question: “What exactly is the job of higher education and what is it that those who teach in colleges and universities are trained and paid to do?” (8).

Fish argues that for teachers, the answer to this question is quite simple. He tells faculty members that their work is to “introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry” and “equip those same students with the analytical skills . . . that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions” (13). Fish's list of what teachers should not do, however, is much longer. They should not advocate “interests, beliefs, and identities,” nor attempt to produce “moral states,” nor strive to enlist their students in the “we-are-going-to-save-the world army” (11, 13). According to Fish, character and citizen formation are not the purview of “Ph.D.'s in English or Chemistry,” and should therefore be left to those more equipped –“preachers, political leaders, therapists, and gurus” (13, 169). Asked if teaching is a political act, Fish would reply no, that “Only bad teaching is a political act” (70).

Fish advises administrators to stick to their jobs as well and cautions them against the high-minded and unassessable claims of many university's mission statements. “As admirable a goal as it may be,” Fish writes, “fashioning citizens for a pluralistic society has nothing to do with the pursuit of truth” (120). Instead, he argues, university administration should focus on the task of educating and providing the space where conversations can happen.

Fish's book is an especially thought-provoking text for teachers of Religious and Theological Studies. The provocative and somewhat overstated title does not do justice to the content of Fish's argument. While he reprimands teachers who bring political agendas into the classroom with the expectation that students will leave the class with the same political commitments as the professor, he allows that the classroom is precisely the place to explore the location, content, and evidence of political and moral arguments. He recognizes that moral and ethical issues do show up in the texts students study, but argues that this “doesn't mean that what the students are learning about is morality”; rather, they are learning how authors structure moral and ethical arguments and inquiries (102).

Fish argues that “no matter how skillfully analytical [students] have become, [they] will not by virtue of that skill be inclined to ‘respect the voices of others’ ” (54). Perhaps not. But the introduction to numerous voices on a particular political or moral debate and the skills to analyze those voices often provide students with the confidence to weigh and analyze and draw conclusions regarding those voices. Should we spend time asking students “What do you think?” According to Fish, absolutely not. It is at this point that some teachers of religious and theological studies may part ways with Fish, especially in classrooms dedicated to the investigation of ethics in world religions. Some teachers find it important, after they have investigated numerous arguments and their merits and demerits, to ask students to position themselves in ethical discussions. Does this mean that we encourage them to believe that there is a single truth? No. Does this mean that we encourage them to use their analytical skills, marshalling evidence in response to vying truth claims, to place themselves relative to these ethical concerns? I would argue “yes.” But would Stanley Fish rail against these teaching strategies? Almost certainly, yes. He writes, “Analyzing ethical issues is one thing; deciding them is another, and only the first is an appropriate academic activity” (27). It is precisely at points like these that Fish sets up false dualisms – between analysis and decision-making, between the personal, political, and moral and the “academic,” and between the university and the rest of the world. We want our students to bring all of their analytical skills to bear on ethical questions. Why not encourage them to ask these questions in conversation with one another and with as many other thoughtful individuals as possible?

Save the World On Your Own Time takes its place in the long dialogue about the moral and political nature of the university and proclaims that the task of the university is neither. Rather, the task of the university is to “academicize.” Fish's awkward word represents his attempt to place the university above the fray of politics, in a “pure” place with the sole goal of pursuing truth. Whatever the reader's response to Fish's ideal world, he offers important reminders for faculty members as they reflect on their work in the classroom. His work reminds us to analyze constantly what we do in the classroom and examine whether or not we are using – or whether or not we should be using – the teacher's podium to save the world.