Belle Yang drew my attention to Fish’s recent post over at the NYT where he wrote in support of current policy that forbids educators from wearing political campaign buttons while teaching:
He concludes by citing Professor William Van Alystine:
“I have no doubt at all,” he declares, “that a university rule disallowing faculty members from exhibiting politically-partisan buttons in the classroom is not only not forbidden by the first amendment; rather, it is a perfectly well-justified policy that would easily be sustained against a faculty member who disregards the policy.”
Fish taught me first amendment law when I was a grad student at Duke and our textbook was the casebook compiled by Van Alystine, so I know one thing: unless there is a dramatic reversal in case precedent, Fish’s position on this issue will come out on top in the courts. Fish’s argument is that the policy can and should be enforced because it is a reasonable workplace requirement. To paraphrase Fish, just as a nurse does not have the right to interrupt an operation in order to bemoan his (or her) working conditions, so it is with professors who do not have the right to interject partisan politics into the classroom.
I have no beef with Fish here. It is easy to implement and enforce a policy on the banning of political buttons. More problematic though is the attempt at regulating the words an educator utters in class. About this Fish, in an earlier blog wrote that teachers must “understand the all-important distinction between the political content of an issue and teaching that content politically. The first is inevitable and blameless; the second is a dereliction of professional duty.” (See http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/21/george-w-bush-and-melvilles-aha...)
Here we have arrived at the stickiest of wickets: the question of connecting an ostensibly aesthetic text from the past to a political question of the present. In that blog, Fish takes up the question of a hypothetical discussion concerning the ways in which Melville’s Ahab is like George W. Bush. Fish concludes: “If you look at commentaries on “Moby Dick,” you will find Ahab characterized as inflexible, monomaniacal, demonic, rigid, obsessed and dictatorial. What you don’t find are words like generous, kind, caring, cosmopolitan, tolerant, far-seeing and wise. Thus the invitation to consider parallels between Ahab and Bush is really an invitation to introduce into the classroom (and by the back door) the negative views of George Bush held by many academics.”
But surely this is not the only way of having that discussion. In studying with Fish I learned one thing above all else, and that was the only way to beat Fish at an argument was to his own logic against him. Here I would encourage him (and you, dear reader) to go back and look at his powerful attack on the legal theorist Ronald Dworkin in the essays “Working on the Chain Gang” and “Wrong Again” (both in Fish’s greatest essay collection, Doing What Comes Naturally). There Fish dismantles Dworken’s attempts to assert that it is possible to rule out some interpretation as “absurd” or “impossible” (105) because “the interpretation makes the novel a shambles” (105, quoting Dworkin). Fish persuasively demonstrates that this claim “will not hold up.” Then Fish adds a note that Dworkin’s example of an absurd reading of Hamlet—that the Prince is a man of action “was in fact for many years the standard reading before the reading Dworkin takes for granted was put into place by new arguments” (the shift is the result of Freud’s argument that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex, but that is a subject for another blog) (Fish, note 15, 563).
By now you see where I am going with this: Fish is in no position to declare a discussion of Ahab and Bush as inevitably an example of Bush bashing. The fact that there is a tradition of seeing Ahab as a Satanic anti-hero can not prevent new interpretations. I happened to quite like Ahab when I was in high school and read the book for the first time. But I like Milton’s Satan too.
So do I agree with Fish that teachers shouldn’t wear Obama buttons? Well, I agree that he is right that under first amendment law, they can be reasonably required not to. But can you police what they say? Fish doesn’t say you can. He says that teachers should not act unprofessionally. And I can see why it is sometimes good to act professionally. But I must confess that I can see when it might be better not to act professionally. In the end that is where I part company with Fish, or rather I part company with Fish, the advocate of professionalism, to join with Fish, the sophist, who knows that in the end, what matters is rhetoric and power.
How about you?
Causes Matthew Biberman Supports