Save the World on Your Own Time
Oxford University Press, 2008
208 pp., $19.95
Reviewed by Abram Van Engen
Teaching Life, with Restraint
Or take the "bodies of knowledge" that professors pass on. Teaching involves selectivity: time is limited, and a teacher must choose what materials are most worth studying. But that choice involves commitments which are never purely academic. I am a religious person, for example, and I never urge a religious position on my students. Well and good. But in a course I teach about higher education, I include a week on "Religion and the University." This is a properly academic topic which I duly academicize, but it is no accident that my secular colleague and friend, teaching a very similar course (we designed it together), has no such topic on her syllabus. Who is doing the teacher's job properly? I would argue that we both are, but who we are determines what we find important and thus, in part, what we choose to teach.
Fish never gives these blurred lines adequate attention. Instead, he builds the wall even higher, maintaining a strict separation between classroom and life: "Civic capacities," he suggests, "won't be acquired simply because you have learned about the basic structures of American government or read the Federalist Papers (both good things to do)." It's the parenthetical comment that needs further explanation: why is it a good thing to read these documents? Fish refuses to provide an answer that relates to values, ethics, civics, or behavior: these documents are good to read because they are good to read. But certainly it might help one's civic capacities to read these documents—and that's one very good reason for reading them.
Indeed, I would maintain that there is a link between learning and life, and it is one that should never be abandoned, ignored, or forgotten. It is not severed by unrealistic boundaries; it is not contained by simply "academicizing." The link persists, and, I believe, it is the duty of professors to insist on that link while exploring a body of knowledge and conferring analytical skills (skills that one might use, for example, in life). The danger arises when professors try to do this linking for their students. And there, I agree, we need to practice restraint.
The model I am proposing can be demonstrated by a certain ethics professor I know. It would take ethics out of ethics, it seems to me, should we claim that its study in the classroom has no relation to life. This professor keeps that link alive. During her course, she introduces students to a body of knowledge and she confers skills, just as Fish would have her do. Then, at the end of the course, she commits what Fish would consider a breach of duty: she tells her students, "Now determine which system is right—and live it." She does not force her ethics on the students, but she does claim that what they have been studying throughout this course is nothing less than how to live.
What we look for in education is not just a good argument, but a good life. As such, it necessarily involves whole people in a search for the whole truth. That is what makes education so important—and why it requires so much restraint.
Abram Van Engen is a graduate student in literature at Northwestern University.
Copyright © 2008 Books & Culture.Click for reprint information.