On University Teaching: Stanley Fish's False Dichotomy

In his review of a new book, "The Last Professors," Stanley Fish proffers a dichotomy: we teach to prepare people for work or we teach humanist knowledge for its own sake. On the one hand, we have students gathering around professors speaking of Shakespeare and tropes and Kant. On the other, we have students being prepared for the work world:

"The for-profit university is the logical end of a shift from a model of education centered in an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration to a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment."

Of course, in many ways what he says is right and it is, alas, utterly depressing. Nothing—well, almost nothing—makes me weep more than students asking me what they're "going to do" with a degree in rhetoric, as if all pedagogy must end in profit.

My answer to that question initially is: you'll use this education to think and enjoy life, to live better. And this is practical. But it does seem to reify the dichotomy between inspiration and work.

But the fact is that today's economy is a network economy and this demands a certain kind of pedagogy that is at once inspirational and "practical." This does not just mean that local economies are enmeshed. Nor does it mean solely that we live in the network of the Internet. No, what it means is that jobs themselves are a network—a network of skills.

The assembly line demanded expertise in one area—put the screw in the hole (but don't touch the engine), fix the guy's fingers (but not his anxiety), design the ad (but don't think about revenue streams). But the assembly line is, basically, dead. Today's jobs don't let you stay in your silo. Today's designers can't just draw pictures—they have to know technology and business, the competitive landscape and the behaviors of people.

This, today, is a network life, a network economy, and it demands network thinking. And this is redundant because to think is to forge connections between and amongst different things, to forge networks.

Now, the liberal tradition of the university is built on scholarship and knowledge, on philology and, once again, expertise. It is NOT premised on thinking. What the university rewards is mastering some pedantic, esoteric field no one else has mastered and this is your ticket to tenure—which will eventually allow you not to teach anymore. Thinking, per se, is rarely taught and more often than not is frowned upon.

But there is a mode of teaching that is not premised on mastery, not premised on knowledge, one that is premised on teaching a practical skill—and yet not a skill that is immediately transferable to an industry. This skill is called thinking, or perhaps, critical thinking. It involves the ability to think across disciplines, to assemble disparate trajectories, to make new kinds of sense. And this is precisely what the network economy demands.

First, we must escape the trappings of industrial thinking, assembly-line thinking, which still reigns in both industry and the academy. When both embrace the network and what it demands, then we can have a university in which thinking is, finally, rewarded.

1 comment:

Ryland Walker Knight said...

Yea, this new year job search is mostly a lot of meetings. Meeting this person and that one. Selling different parts of my brain and my person. You know what, DC? I feel pretty prepared. So, thanks. I mean, I feel scared and sad, sure, but it's still exciting. And these ramen meals will make those sushi meals past the horizon taste THAT much better. Right? Also, I figure you're supposed to be a bum as a kid.

That said, I would love to buy some new kicks and jeans and sweaters and a really great bottle of champagne to go with some delicious fish. Or, whiskey. Whiskey in the snow! It was 9 degrees Saturday afternoon here. I hear it's like summer there.

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