Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Stanley Fish on fixing higher education

Man, I just love Stanley Fish. Ever since the whole Alan Sokal affair, where a journal he edited, Social Text, unwittingly published a send-up of 'cultural studies' and physics that he did not begin to understand. He followed with a hilarious defense of his actions. (For Sokal's view, see here, especially "A physicist experiments with cultural studies".) About the loosest cannon out there, and paid like a pro athlete for it.

Today, good old Stanley Fish has an op-ed piece in the NYT called "Access vs. Quality". I'll just comment on two passages from the end of the piece. First …
Florida is not even in the second tier of university systems in this country. Florida does not have a single campus that measures up to the best schools in the systems of Virginia, Wisconsin and Georgia, nevermind first-tier states like California, Michigan and North Carolina.
Ouch. He's talking about state systems, clearly, but Wisconsin has been building a solid set of campuses around the state (Eau Claire has become a remarkable place, for example) for a long time, and people here should sting at being compared to Georgia on this point.

Now, the second …
The conditions that leave a university system depressed have been a long time in the making and will take time to reverse. Five straight years of steadily increased funding, tuition raises and high-profile faculty hires would send a message that something really serious is happening. Ten more years of the same, and it might actually happen.
Fish has made a career* out of provoking people and pushing the boundaries, to put it mildly. But this is the most mundane cliché of consensus views on higher ed. And it's profoundly, disturbingly wrong.
  • Funding? You betcha.
  • Tuition raises? "Access" is the first word in the title, but there's no mention, unless I missed it, of affordable education and that's a massive issue, even for the middle class these days. Fish knows full well what kind of debt students are carrying to get an education, and how the need to pay those debts guides career choices.
  • 'High-profile' faculty? What we need is infrastructure, including more and better-paid staff, more grad student funding, more junior hires to bring new minds.

*Yes, many argue that his career trajectory has been a rocket going straight into the ground for decades, starting at places like Berkeley and Duke and ending up at the University of Illinois at Chicago and then Florida International University. But he's sure riding a rocket.


Anonymous said...

On the point that we need *good* faculty, not "high-profile" faculty, one should look at FIsh's career: For all the bluster, has he ever contributed anything of substance to the academy or public discourse? I gather that the English Dept at Duke basically imploded under his leadership.

The best people in field, the ones who contribute something of lasting value and do the heavy lifting, are often very LOW profile.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Oh, yeah. Price yourself into the upper class and you're automatically to be taken seriously. When only the rich can afford you, you must be good.

Mr. Verb said...

Of course it's driven by this insane culture of the outside offer. You're valuable and attractive to the extent that somebody else is courting you. That might be how some high school nightmare dating scene works, but it's not how academia should!