Knowledge: An outdated concept?

When he became president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins is supposed to have remarked that a college administrator’s job was to provide sex for the students, football for the alumni, and parking for the faculty (he promptly eliminated the school’s football program, thereby reducing his workload by one third).

Stanley Fish — the literary theorist, law school professor, former university provost, and current blogger for the New York Times — has some strong opinions about what universities in general, and the people who teach in them in particular, should and shouldn’t be doing.

As the title of his new book, "Save the World On Your Own Time," suggests, Fish is passionately opposed to using university classrooms as venues for the deployment of instructors’ political views, ideas for social change, or schemes for transforming students into better people.

A university teacher has one job, in Fish’s view: to advance knowledge, and to train students to be able to do so themselves. Everything else is, or should be, an extracurricular activity.

As someone who has spent nearly two decades in university teaching, I find most of the book’s arguments both attractive and convincing. Fish is one of the three smartest people I know, and he writes particularly clear and engaging prose — a far from common gift in such a high-powered thinker.

Fish is surely right when he protests against using university classroom to "do" politics, by trying to convert one’s students to one’s own political views. Although he estimates that this kind of thing is far scarcer than critics of the academy imagine — a judgment with which I agree – the fact that it happens at all should be considered unacceptable.

(For what it’s worth, in 20 years of formal education the only teacher I ever had who truly fit the model of the tenured propagandist was a history professor who, in the fall of 1979, attempted to convince a roomful of bemused undergraduates that Ronald Reagan would make a great president).

And I agree wholeheartedly with Fish that the idea that turning people into competent readers of poetry or history or philosophy will make them better citizens or more virtuous souls is as wrongheaded as the idea that improving a pitcher’s fastball or a mechanic’s ability to fix an engine will have similarly beneficial effects.

Still, it’s neither possible nor desirable to eliminate politics in the broadest sense from the university. Take, for example, the question of whether law professors (Fish has spent a good part of his academic career on law faculties) should take a genuinely critical perspective on the legal system, even if doing so makes the tasks of training future lawyers and legitimating that system substantially more difficult.

Fish has a straightforward answer to this potential identity crisis: "If students (at a professional school) are taught methods and techniques in the absence of any inquiry into their sources, validity, and philosophical underpinnings, that professional school is not the location of any intellectual activity and is ‘academic’ only in the sense that it is physically housed in a university."

This, as Fish well knows, is actually a controversial view among legal academics, a good number of whom are committed to the idea that the law professor’s only job is to train future lawyers while imbuing them with faith in the law, and that anything that unnecessarily complicates this task should be excluded from the law school. (That many of them consider this self-evident only illustrates how, if they’re sufficiently successful, political views cease to be perceived as potentially controversial by those who hold them).

All of which is to say that it’s unclear whether, given Fish’s vision of the university, the contemporary American law school ought to be part of it.


(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)


  1. Flapsaddle

    Professor Fish is spot-on! Too much time is spent trying to transform students into intellectual clones of their instructors rather than trying to develop them as individual intellects capable of thinking and learning on their own. We have too many instructors who feel that their primary job is indoctrinating students to think and act in a certain way, and too many students who think their task is to mimic their instructors. Beyond a certain minimum level of indoctrination in the process, the object should be to have students learn where and how to find the information they need and then learn how to properly use the information.

    I’d very strongly agree with what Thomas Carlyle said: The true university is a collection of books.

    Most sincerely,

    T. J. Flapsaddle

  2. almandine

    The thought that “too many students who think their task is to mimic their instructors” seems too abstract to me… with regard to the level of critical thinking our universities have tried to instill lately. All too often they have become trade schools… fitting students to jobs either in business or government… mere OJT factories in the roughest sense. I recall a recent sports “scholar”, when asked about his chosen major, replying “welfare administration.” Who the hell would have thought that you could get a University degree in “paperwork.”

    Where in hell did erudition or scholarship go??? Tell us, o’ University types, where did it go???