Readers of my blog know that I have a strong (and perhaps strange) affinity for Stanley Fish, the pragmatic, antifoundationalist literary theorist and classic public intellectual gadfly. I find him always stimulating and incisive, even when I disagree. But because his strength is analysis and not so much evaluation (indeed, in what I’m about to quote he makes a rare statement of something he “certainly” believes in—and it just happens to be original sin!), I don’t really have to disagree very often.
Recently, Fish has been called up to the lecture circuit because of rising interest in some of his long-term themes: academic freedom and the proper justification for the liberal arts. And in his recent comments defending the idea of a university against the hordes of student protesters (who, Fish says, should be listened to but ultimately told to shut up, because academic freedom is not for students, and giving into them will destroy what the university was created to do), he offers genuine wisdom for someone like me who is currently engaged in defending the existence of certain institutions of American Protestant Christian fundamentalism. A narrower ideology is not supposed to be available than this one, so why do I defend it? Because, in part, as Fish says, every ideology is narrow. Every culture proclaims and defends its values and not others. I hope my proclamation and defense hew to a standard external to my subculture, namely the standard of Scripture. But I can’t pretend that I have no culture through which I view that standard, or that I think other cultures are equally valid. If I want to give to my children what I was given, I have to work to maintain the relevant traditions.
Bear with me here, because my extended quotation of Fish is going to be off-putting at points for much of my readership. But I genuinely believe there is wisdom here. I give different supporting reasons for the conclusions that Fish reaches, but those conclusions most certainly resonated with me.
I have transcribed the following from the Hugo Black lecture Fish gave (audio) a little over a year ago. I won’t be breaking this up with commentary, so have patience until I can explain a few more things. Fish again, is talking about higher education:
The perfectionists are, by definition, progressivists. They do not believe in original sin, but hold rather to an optimistic view of human potential, and they are in search of the political methods that will liberate rather than shackle that potential. Perfectionism or progressivism could possibly flourish on either side of the political aisle; it has a liberal as well as a conservative face. But as many have pointed out, it’s natural home these days seems to be on the left. Political theorist Jacob Talmon puts it this way: “The left proclaims the essential goodness and perfectibility of human nature.” That was a statement made in the 1950s, but here is a statement made last week, by William Voegeli, editor of the conservative journal, The Claremont Review:
Liberals believe in progress because they believe in a virtuous circle. As a society becomes more free it progresses, and as it progresses it becomes more free.” (citation)
The natural movement of history, unless stymied by reactionary forces, is from less freedom to more, and never from more freedom to less. Conservatives, on other hand, do believe in original sin, as I certainly do, and I quote Voegeli again: conservatives see little basis to embrace the conviction that progress will reveal humans to possess unfulfilled or “unrealized capacities for reason, freedom, and love.” They believe, rather, that it is wise to take our bearings from the abundant historical evidence that human nature reveals astounding capacities for savagery, hatred, and idiocy. (Thomas Hobbes, thou art living at this hour.) Therefore, while liberals want to make the world a better place, conservatives want to keep it from becoming even worse.
Voegeli concludes that “the urgent work of maintaining civilization is constant.” By that he means, and I agree with him from a postmodernist perspective he would probably reject, that the absence of a view of history assuming an internal logic in the direction of the good means that we had better take care to maintain those institutional arrangements that we cherish, institutional arrangements that in the course of a history that has no teleology but only events we have been lucky enough to hit on. That is, there are certain arrangements, associations, structures, and institutions that turn up in the course of human history that are extremely beneficial and healthy and inspiring—but it’s just a contingent accident that this has happened, which means that we must work contingently, empirically, pragmatically, to ensure that they stay around.
Now, I believe that the liberal arts college…is one of those arrangements that should be maintained and preserved rather than perfected. “Perfection” is a bad idea, in part for reasons that Isaiah Berlin gave in his famous essay on two kinds of liberty. I believe that because the schemes of perfection given to us in the statement of the student protestors all have the fatal defect of turning the college or university into a vehicle for the realization of a political ideal, the equal freedom of all people in a world untainted by injustice and discrimination. I do not quarrel with the ideal. I quarrel with the assumption that it is the university’s job to implement it. Not only do colleges and universities have their own job, … to enquire into the truth of things and to do so in a way that leads to understanding rather than to political action, but if universities allow their energies and resources to put in the service of other jobs, no matter how worthy, they will lose their distinctiveness, and any rationale for their existence. After all, if the academic life is just an extension of politics, why not just dispense with all that scholarly apparatus and get right down to it—get right down to the business of canvassing for votes and securing political power? Perfectionist progressivism is the enemy of what we have, and given that what we have here at Wesleyan and elsewhere is a precarious achievement, it behooves us to hang on to it, even if in the eyes of many, the liberal arts model is outdated, reactionary, and something in the nature of a museum. Another way to put this: we should wear the label “ivory tower” proudly, and should wear no other.
It is sometimes said that the postmodernist or deconstructive view of human actions as untethered to any foundational truth is a recipe for relativism and nihilism, on the reasoning if there’s nothing holding everything up or holding everything together, we can do whatever we like without fearing any ultimate consequences. But in fact, the reverse is true: if there is nothing holding everything up or holding it together, we cannot rely on time and history to protect those things we love, and, to borrow a phrase of the poet John Milton, to protect those things we would not willingly let die. If you like something, a way of life, a mode of practice, a mode of being, a mode of practice that captures you to the extent of becoming indistinguishable from you, I am what I do, then you had better work hard to ensure that it will still be around for you and for those who come after you and want to live that life and not another.
In a non-foundational world, no abiding fundamental truth is going to save us, and no abiding fundamental truth is going to preserve what we cherish. We have to do it ourselves. Which means doing consistent battle with those, including our students, who would take it away from us, who would appropriate and “occupy”—not a verb casually chosen—the structures that house and enable the distinctive activity that goes by the name “liberal arts education.”
You might think that my talk of “battle” is hyperbolic. But listen to a Yale student in the course of harassing a hapless, low-level administrator. At one point, she relaxed the stream of expletives she was hurling at him to say, and I quote, “What you’ve got to understand is that it’s not about creating an intellectual space, it’s about creating a home.”….
What should be done, and who is to do it? Well, given what I have said here, the resolution of the present set of controversies will not be found in some theory or master algorithm or failsafe, all-purpose method. It will be found, if it is found at all, in the actions of skilled administrators who, after all, are the ones responsible for keeping the enterprise going.
Now, quite clearly I am not an anti-foundationalist. But I’m anti-everybody-else’s-foundation; I mean, I’m anti-all-non-Christian-foundations. So Fish and I actually share a great deal. I’m also not a straight-up postmodern, so I am not “absen[t] of a view of history assuming an internal logic in the direction of the good.” History has a teleology to which we have access;
something Someone is holding it all together.
But someone’s also trying to break it apart, and in the age that that adversary rules internal logics go awry, and not everything has yet been brought under Christ’s feet to fully serve their created teleology.
So once again Fish and I can share a lot of agreement. The fact that God is holding everything together, including my own life and sanctification, doesn’t absolve me of the responsibility to “make every effort” to add virtue to my faith (2 Peter 1). Likewise, the fact that man proposes and God disposes doesn’t mean I should stop proposing. I propose to do what I can, what little I can, to maintain the institutions that stabilize and promote my values. It is the leaders of these institutions—the “administrators” of Fish’s example—who are charged with keeping the enterprises going. And I’m trying to help them, and to be a bit of a junior administrator myself.
The portions of fundamentalism that shaped me were 92% “beneficial and healthy and inspiring”—although that means they were 8% fallen, and that means some weeding within my tradition. What can I do when I see the good except to try to preserve it, even in the face of persistent original sin? There aren’t any unstained mantles available out there; I checked. And though weaving a new one is always an option, I don’t think it’s very humble or grateful to try that first. I have to pick up the holes and stains in the fundamentalist mantle if I’m going to pick it up at all. I’ll add my own holes and stains as time passes, through my own “savagery and hatred and idiocy,” but I seek by God’s grace to restore more of the mantle than I rip. What else can I do?