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The Fish Man Cometh: Recent History, Problems, and Hopes in Higher Education

November 17, 2010

[Here’s a one-bullet preview of my semi-regular USIH “Light Reading” post that will appear tomorrow.]

Stanley Fish recently dissected several “woe-is-us books” (his phrase) on the state of higher education today. I suspect that historians of higher education will, in the years ahead, be mining at least a few of the dozen books he covered. Indeed, Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas and Nussbaum’s Not For Profit are on my reading list. Hacker and Dreifus’s Higher Education? and Nelson’s No University is an Island might get on there too. However, in a move to lighten the tone of the subject of his article, Fish says that we should all should pay attention to a start-up liberal arts institution to be located in Georgia, Ralston College. As an aside, if it creates new jobs for intellectual historians, well, that would be a great thing.

On Ralston, I noted this highly idealistic—but worthy—statement from the school’s “About Us” page: Ralston College intends to remain without political, ideological, or religious affiliations. I guess Stephen Blackwood is trying to avoid this kind of start-up. Here’s what Fish says about Ralston—incorporating statements from the college about itself (bolds mine):

“We believe,” declares the college’s Web brochure, “that the goal of general education is to produce a person who can draw on different fields of knowledge and at the same time grasp the whole of which each field is a part.” This means that “Ralston is fundamentally about reading books, thinking about them, and talking about them.” No on-line instruction, no departmental structure, no professorial ranks, no athletic programs, no teacher evaluations (student-centered education but not on the customer model) and no tenure.

And here is Fish’s reaction (bolds mine):

The very fact of Ralston College, if it gets off the ground, might stand as a reminder of what the enterprise has always been about and might serve as a beacon, however dimly perceived, to those who value the liberal arts enterprise for what it is rather than for what it might contribute to the bottom line, to the strengthening of democracy, to the fashioning of citizens, to the advancement of social justice or any other worthy but academically irrelevant aim.

My question for Professor Fish is as follows: Do you really mean to say that those of us concerned with the liberal arts should have no concern with what our institutions “might contribute”—I repeat, ~might~ contribute—to any of those causes? Don’t you really mean that our institutions should not be centered on contributing to one or more of those causes? You don’t mean to say that those concerns are really just pipe dreams, do you? What a soul-crushing thought, worthy of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman.

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