Study Guide

Stanley Fish Quotes

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Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.  [From "Conspiracy Theories 101," The New York Times, 23 July 2006]

I should be able to sit in a history class on the French Revolution or an English class about T.S. Eliot's modernist poems or a biology class about human reproduction and never know what my professor's political beliefs are. Why? Because politics don't belong in the lecture hall.

Is there ample opportunity to spout your political ideas when you are teaching these subjects? Yep. Professors who want to promote ideological agenda will find sneaky ways to do so. French Revolution? Why not put it side by side with the dramatic class disparities devastating American society today? T. S. Eliot's poems? Hmmm… that makes me want to give a long-winded lecture on the dehumanization of technology that plagues contemporary culture. Human reproduction? Let me inappropriately share my polarizing views on abortion. These people don't belong in the classroom—they belong on a soapbox.

It is a tenet of liberal enlightenment faith that belief and knowledge are distinct and separable and that even if you do not embrace a point of view you can still understand it. [From "Why Can't We All Just Get Along" in First Things (February 1996)]

This little gem—quoted in some way on about a zillion sites on the Interwebs—reflects my humble ideas about interpretive communities. We like to tell ourselves that knowledge is out there. We all want to lay claim to it and carry it with us like a Tory Burch bag. I'm here to tell you what I believe: knowledge ain't no holy grail. Knowledge is connected to belief, which is to say that what you believe is also your knowledge. When you read a book and get ideas from it, those conclusions are the knowledge you have acquired from the book. They are not just beliefs. Have some confidence about what you think!

It is a question finally of what business we are in, and we are in the education business, not the democracy business. [From Save the World on Your Own Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. p. 71]

For the most part, university professors tend to be liberals. But you know what? I don't care. Our job as professors is to learn about the world so that we can disseminate that knowledge to our students. We are not here to crank out obedient political citizens like something out of an Orwell novel. We are here to steer them to their own beliefs (and knowledge) and let them get all political outside of the ivy walls.

The idea—the core idea of humanism—is that the act of reading about great deeds will lead you to imitate them. [From How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2012. p. 1372]

Call me sentimental, but I have a deep confidence in the humanities. It's a sad but true state of affairs that big corporate sponsors of education—those folks who endow entire medical schools—don't write fat checks for people conducting rigorous theorizing of Jane Austen's social schema and marriage rites in 18th-century England. Maybe studying Austen won't cure cancer, but I maintain that studying the humanities all by its lonesome is worth it.

What Frankenstein shouldn't be is a tool for inspiring political change. Shocking but true: if we study the human condition for long enough, we will be see examples of grace, patience, decency, truth, morality, insight, and wisdom. By the way, Aristotle said this first. But whatever, it's worth repeating.

Nowadays the First Amendment is the First Refuge of Scoundrels. [From There's No Such Thing As Free Speech And It's A Good Thing, Too. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. p.102]

I kinda "borrowed" this quotation from the formidable Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English megathinker who said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." I simply exchanged "patriotism" with "the First Amendment," but the concept is the same. People will look for any excuse for bad behavior.

Too many people use the excuse of "Free Speech" to rationalize promoting their preposterous and often improper agendas. Pornography, sexist language, campus hate speech—these have all been protected by the First Amendment. What the First Amendment doesn't protect is your right to segue from a close reading of the Gothic novel to a tirade about universal healthcare—as much as they may share similarities.

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