Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Fish’


October 24, 2007

In a recent post on academic freedom, Stanley Fish expresses his dissatisfaction with the assessment a subcommittee of the AAUP gives of the following hypothetical example:

“”Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up ‘Moby Dick,’ a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville’s novel?””

The subcommittee seems to defend the practice of asking suggestive, politically laden questions, Stanley Fish disagrees. His main reason is that such a question invites, given the character of Captain Ahab, negative views of George W. Bush. He hastens to add, of course, that a suggestive question inviting positive views would be equally objectionable.

What he does not seem to consider is the fact that a comparison can have a negative result. One might well compare George W. Bush and Captain Ahab (or any other literary figure) and come to the conclusion that they do not have very much in common at all. True, the question suggests that you should be able to find similarities, but you could nevertheless answer the question in the negative, based on textual and empirical evidence. Learning to recognize that questions often suggest their answer and resisting the urge to follow the direction they are pointing to is an important ability students should acquire.

This makes quite clear that while it seems indeed appropriate to put limits on what may be asserted as true in a classroom, it is far from clear that similar restrictions should also hold for questions.