May 31, 2003

education for citizenship

In this text Stanley Fish raises an important issue. He denies the claim that a humanities education should be concerned with an education for citizenship that is advocated by this weblog. He does in terms of reviewing a book called Educating Citizens: Preparing America's Undergraduates For Lives Of Moral And Civic Responsibility (Jossey-Bass, 2003), which is product of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The argument for an education for citizenship is based on fostering a commitment to moral and civic responsibility. As Fish states it, the claim involves the following:

"If a college education is to support the kind of learning graduates need to be involved and responsible citizens, they must go beyond the development of intellectual and technical skills and ... mastery of a scholarly domain. They should include the competence to act in the world and the judgment to do so wisely."

Fish says that is his main objection to moral and civic education in our colleges and universities is not that it is a bad idea (which it surely is), but that it's an unworkable idea. Why? Because "democratic values and academic values are not the same and that the confusion of the two can easily damage the quality of education."

They are different. Ensuring that good and moral citizens can be fashioned by a curriculum can be in conflict with academic values. Lets grant Fish that.

But is that the end of the matter? Hardly. Fisk appears to have a very narrow conception of the university:---it is primarily, if not solely, an academic institution that teaches a narrow set of skills. A university is concerned with both academic values and commercial values---eg. the professions or training for a job. These values are in tension, if not conflict, as Derek Bok suggests in his recent publication, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education. With that said it is the case that gaining a degree to get a better job is a central reason why students go to university--they reckon it is better to be a lawyer than a cleaner in terms of future income. As suggested here

"People go to university because if they don't they'll have to do dreary boring difficult low-status jobs for no money all their lives....Poetry and history and classics are all very well but they don't pay the mortgage or the children's tuition at their elevator up the social ladder. So MBAs outnumber humanities degrees and students decide, however reluctantly, to read law or medicine rather than literature or philosophy."

So a university is both an academic institution and a commercial one. The danger is the colonization of the former by the latter. Is it similar with democratic virtues or capacites? Can a university be an academic institution and an ethical institution in civil society?

At one level yes. A university enables the acquisition of both the intellectual virtues (organizing material, writing essays, asking questions, evaluating interpretations etc) to be able to function in an academic institution and democratic virtues of citizenship that are centred around autonomy and thinking about public issues. It is not a question of the curiculum fashioning good and moral citizens as Fish puts it; it is more a fostering of moral and political virtues or capacities that enable students as citizens to think for themselves and to participate in political and civil life. How they think for themseves and participate in civil society is up to them. But they need the capacity to be able do this.

The traditional justification for studying literature at university was that the skills of close reading and interpreting texts (novels, poetry etc) made you a good researcher and a better person. It was the becoming a better person that was the bridge to the wider virtues. Fisk denies this. He says:

"You might just make them into good researchers. You can't make them into good people, and you shouldn't try...the emphasis on broader goals and especially on the therapeutic goal of "personal development" can make it difficult to interest students in the disciplinary training it is our job to provide. (This has spectacularly been the case in the teaching of writing where the twin emphasis on personal development and the appreciation of other cultures, especially those that have been marginalized and/or oppressed, has been an all-out disaster because very few students have actually been taught to write.)"

Personal development is a misleading way to interpret the moral virtues of citizenship. What we get, as Fisk points out, is a 'mish mash of self-help platitudes, vulgar multiculturalism... and a soft-core version of 60s radicalism complete with the injunction... to "love one another right now."' Australains would recognize this mish mash as left liberalism. Conservatives would quickly add that lefties in the humanities are turning out more lefties. Leftys' would say that the old humanities fostered an elite British way of life in Australia.

However, the literary institution's emphasis on the interpretation of texts can be broadened from literary texts to the texts of everyday life, such as the texts of the media, politics and advertisements. It is in the shift from a disciplined based English to cultural studies that students can, and are encouraged to interpret the texts of everyday life.

The purpose is not to just decipher the author's intention or meaning as the author intended, but to become aware of the historical biases or prejudices of the media (what some call their political agenda), and to highlight the ideology of the text (meanings in the service of power)

It is to foster a conversation or dialogue within the constraints of our historical circumtances through the creative putting together of meaning about certain events in public life and and even create other meanings of these events.

It is also to encourage a playing with words of a text and its interelationships by stretching the limits of the langauge to deconstruct the meaning of a media text and to open up new insights-eg, the role played by the US media in the Iraq war whilst living with the way this media power is used.

That is a rough hermenutical account (with its different strands) and it suggests the ways that academic virtues can and do overlap with those of citizenship.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at May 31, 2003 10:54 PM | TrackBack

I've been meaning to write a blog entry about this essay. Fish seems to presuppose that undergraduate education is or should be the same thing as graduate education: fairly narrowly "technical," ie., all about mastering a set of skills or techniques. This does all very well for undergraduate programs in, say, computer science. But for the humanities, I think this puts Fish on dangerous ground. It's not so easy to demonstrate the relevance of the relevant skills involved in English liteature classes. Hence the necessity to ground/justify liberal arts education around some broader purpose (at the very least, around the idea that this type of education will make one a better and better-informed human being).

I look forward to your continuation.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on June 1, 2003 03:29 AM

I hope you do. I probably won't get very far with it in this post. Shortage of time. Can just open it up for discussion.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on June 1, 2003 12:18 PM

So the skillful interpretation of texts may be useful for good citizenship; is this not simply to accept Fish’s vision of what the university ought to do, making the additional point that the skills/knowledge he recommends may, as a side-effect, help make us good citizens?

Fish is still correct, I think, to suggest that the university ought to stick to inculcating academic virtues rather than virtue more broadly conceived—the opposing tradition, going back at least to Matthew Arnold, claiming that liberal education (in version of choice) has a morally improving effect and that moral improvement ought to be the goal….

Posted by: Tom Huddle on June 8, 2003 01:14 AM
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