Fish out of water

Once upon a time, Stanley Fish was a state of the art radical professor — “a scrappy advocate of multiculturalism, affirmative-action hiring quotas, campus speech codes and openly subversive strains of post-structuralist critical theory,” to quote the view attributed to his critics by the New York Times. Fish transformed the Duke University English department into a bastion of “deconstructionism” — the view that literary texts acquire meaning only as a result of the reader’s interpretive acts and that it is “the reader who ‘makes’ literature.”

Fish also taught at Duke’s law school. There, he deconstructed free speech, arguing that the First Amendment “the first refuge of scoundrels.”

These days, Fish is no longer a state of the art rad. In fact, he’s under fire from leftist academics, to the point that Seton Hall University “disinvited” him from campus because of his views.

What’s the problem? Apparently, it centers around this claim by Fish:

Race, like any other lens—sex, class, politics, whatever—is not always the appropriate perspective from which to identify and discuss what is centrally significant in a body of work. It is up to the instructor to make the choice on pedagogical grounds—the grounds of illuminating the material. To put certain topics front and center because society’s health requires that we address them—maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t—is to abandon the educational enterprise and turn the university into a frankly political instrument.

In other words, race isn’t everything in literature, professors should be able to focus on other topics when they teach it, and the universities shouldn’t be political instruments.

This is what Fish intended to tell his audience at Seton Hall. But Seton Hall wouldn’t permit such heresy to be expressed.

Fish wasn’t pleased about being disinvited. However, he’s staying true to his dismissive view of the First Amendment, insisting that there is no free speech issue here. Fish says “I have no right to speak at Seton Hall, and I have not been silenced because I was disinvited.”

That’s true. But members of the Seton Hall community have been deprived of the opportunity to hear Fish’s views. And if professors were to be required to put race front and center in literature courses, many would be unable to express themselves freely.

Fish casts his grievances in non-free speech terms. He uses the words “anti-educational” and “anti-intellectual.” His critics on the left, if they want to borrow from Fish’s playbook, might respond that these phrases are the first refuge of scoundrels.

As Steve likes to say, pass the popcorn.

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