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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Stanley Fish is Criticizing the Academy, for a Change

I must admit that I am bothered by Stanley Fish’s op-ed from a couple of days ago, entitled Professors, Stop Opining About Trump. In it, he criticizes the strongly anti-Trump “Open Letter” from a group of historians calling itself Historians Against Trump, published on July 11, 2016.

In his op-ed, Fish describes the letter as hubristic, in that it improperly seeks both to “equate the possession of an advanced degree with virtue” and to “claim for [the historians] a corporate identity and more than imply that they speak for the profession of history.” He points out that historians do not all share the same political views; that the fact that “that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field” gives them no special expertise relevant to the question of Trump’s suitability for the presidency; and that professional academic historians’ job is not to opine publicly on such matters, but rather to “to teach students how to handle archival materials, how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence, [and] how to build a persuasive account of a disputed event.”

To summarize, it seems there are two principal aspects of the Open Letter that Fish takes issue with: first, that it claims to speak on behalf of an entire profession; and second, that it implies that historians, by virtue of their professions and advanced degree, have any special standing to criticize a political figure or make political arguments.

This sort of anti-elitism from within the elite of the academy has its charms, of course, and Fish is certainly one of its most brilliant and provocative practitioners....

It appears self-deprecating to speak in this way (except for the fact that one often garners a lot of attention by doing so), and it gives the speaker automatic credibility: If I am willing to say things that are so clearly self-critical, so clearly against my own self-interest, it tells the reader that I must be speaking the truth.

It seems to me that Fish’s take on the Open Letter is both unfair and largely inaccurate, however. First, I fail to see how a group that calls itself “Historians Against Trump”—thus specifically designating itself as a subset of historians—can be claiming to speak for all historians. If I speak on behalf of a group called Mothers for Reproductive Freedom, I may be claiming that my status as a mother gives me some particular connection to, or authority with respect to, this issue—I am speaking “as a mother,”—but I am certainly not claiming to speak on behalf of all mothers. (Or, even more starkly, think of Jews for Jesus.) I also fail to see where the historians, in their letter, claim to embody “virtue,” or “moral and political superiority,” as opposed to simply expressing an informed opinion. I’m not convinced that the historians’ letter should be viewed any differently from a letter that the hypothetical Mothers for Reproductive Freedom might choose to write and publish on a website, articulating and even advocating for their views on a particular candidate. In this day and age, is it really shocking that a group of individuals with a particular identity take to the internet to express a collective political opinion?

Fish’s mischaracterization of the historians’ letter bothers me, but what bothers me even more is his second proposition—that possessing an advanced degree (in history, or presumably in pretty much any field at all) should give the speaker no particular standing to opine on areas outside one’s expertise (as defined, narrowly, by Fish) and should provide the listener with no reason to care at all what the speaker has to say. To say that historians might have a valuable perspective on world political events—by virtue of having had not only (in most cases) a rounded, four-year liberal-arts education, but in addition to that, somewhere between four and seven years of delving both broadly (with course work and comprehensive exams) and deeply (with a dissertation) into the discipline of history—is not to say that they know more than absolutely everyone else. But the views of someone whose job it is to think and examine and write about history—which of course itself touches on, among other things, human nature, politics, and social life—might nonetheless be worth listening to. I don’t see how it’s hubristic of the historians to suggest as much.

Indeed, consider again how Fish characterizes the “job” of the historian: in addition to the “handling” of archival materials, they are apparently experts in “how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence, [and] how to build a persuasive account of a disputed event.” Yet, these are precisely some of the grounds on which the letter criticizes Trump—specifically calling out his “contempt for constructive, evidence-based argumentation.” Assessing the quality of evidence and of arguments is precisely the sort of skill that Fish just acknowledged that historians possess (and that even law professors possess, for that matter).

Finally, I am very troubled by Fish’s mocking suggestion that “[t]hey are saying, here is our view of the election and you should pay particular attention to it because we are academics; indeed in speaking out, we are doing our academic job.” I have already explained why I think that, in fact, maybe some attention should be paid because they are academics, and they presumably have not only a relevant skill set but also the time that many Americans don’t have to dwell on the big picture of world events. I frankly don’t know where he gets the idea that the historians are saying that this sort of speaking out is “part of the job,” but—after all—even if they’re not on the clock while they're doing it, aren’t academics supposed and expected to speak out about matters of public importance? Especially when something potentially quite significant is at stake? According to Fish, the answer to that question is an emphatic no, but in my view, he hasn’t made a very persuasive case for why—at least not here.

Posted by Jessie Hill on July 19, 2016 at 04:11 PM | Permalink


For anyone interested in a superb (and for me surprisingly persuasive) explication of Fish's views of the role of the academy I highly recommend this review essay in the Journal of Legal Education:


Posted by: Steve Diamond | Jul 24, 2016 6:40:32 PM

(oh, and sorry for all the typos -- clicked "post" too soon)

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 19, 2016 7:22:09 PM

I agree with the first criticism of Fish, but I'm not so sure about the second. Jessie writes: "[T]he views of someone whose job it is to think and examine and write about history—which of course itself touches on, among other things, human nature, politics, and social life—might nonetheless be worth listening to."

I don't think anyone rejects the possibility that a group of people who happen to be trained historians might have something worthwhile to say. I think the disagreement is over whether what the historians actually say comes from their expertise. If the same group of people happened to have gone into different jobs, where they knew each other and decided to write a letter about Trump, is there something in their letter that is different and perhaps even unique because of their training? Put another way, do the many people who despise Trump who read the letter but lack the same training look at the letter and think, "Well, I don't know about that, but then I'm not a trained historian, so I suppose I will have to trust them as trained historians."? I take Fish to be arguing that the answer is no, and that seems like a fair conclusion to me,

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 19, 2016 6:42:46 PM

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