Academic Hypocrite of the Millennium
May 11, 2005
Stanley Fish provides an ongoing education in hypocrisy and double standards. The School of Fish has two organizing policies: change your opinions to suit the moment; and never apply your principles to yourself. As chairman of the Department of English at Duke University during the late ’80s and early ’90s, he created the most politicized English department of any major university of the time—no minor accomplishment—and he called for the official ostracism and professional punishment of campus critics of political correctness. In 1990, James David Barber—a liberal and the former head of Amnesty International—founded a chapter at Duke of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), the nation’s most prominent organizational critic of the kind of curricular politicization that Fish was then promoting. The Duke chapter attracted many distinguished members (among them the late brilliant, black, female literary critic Kenny Williams, one of FIRE’s original Board members). Fish wrote privately and despicably to the provost of Duke, urging that no one who belonged to the Duke NAS should sit on hiring, personnel, or curricular committees, because the organization, by his lights, “is widely known to be racist, sexist, and homophobic.” Someone in the provost’s office was so appalled that the letter was leaked to the student newspaper. When the paper called Fish to ask him about its views, he denied writing it. When the paper said it had a signed copy of the letter in its possession, Fish termed his letter parody. The fact that Fish went on to a deanship at a major university is full testament to the degradation of American academic life.
When speech codes were popular, Fish wrote There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech...And It’s a Good Thing Too (1994). Now, he defends Ward Churchill’s free speech outside a classroom; then, Fish wrote the following about an undergraduate journalist who complained that the University of Wisconsin’s speech code (soon found unconstitutional) chilled free speech and First Amendment rights: “To the student reporter who complains that in the wake of the promulgation of a speech code at the University of Wisconsin there is now something in the back of his mind as he writes, one could reply, ‘There was always something in the back of your mind, and perhaps it might be better to have this code in the back of your mind than whatever was in there before.’” Why bother with principle? As Fish wrote in The Trouble With Principle (1999), “Politics is all there is.” Sad stuff. Once he became an administrator, the careerist Fish simply ended the embarrassment of defending partisan speech codes, fending off issues of principle with denials that the issue was relevant to current academic practice, for which he was skewered factually and morally by FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff two years ago.