Monday, July 9, 2007

Fishing Around: No More Bong Hits 4 Stanley*

New York Times Blog:By Stanley Fish

...Although [Justice] Thomas does not make this point explicitly, it seems clear that his approval of an older notion of the norms that govern student behavior stems from a conviction about how education should and should not proceed. When he tells us that it was traditionally understood that “teachers taught and students listened, teachers commanded and students obeyed,” he comes across as someone who shares that understanding.

As do I. If I had a criticism of Thomas, it would be that he does not go far enough. Not only do students not have first amendment rights, they do not have any rights: they don’t have the right to express themselves, or have their opinions considered, or have a voice in the evaluation of their teachers, or have their views of what should happen in the classroom taken into account. (And I intend this as a statement about college students as well as high-school students.)

One reason that students (and many others) have come to believe that they have these rights is a confusion between education and democracy....Educational institutions, however, are not democratic contexts (even when the principles of democracy are being taught in them). They are pedagogical contexts and the imperatives that rule them are the imperatives of pedagogy – the mastery of materials and the acquiring of analytical skills. Those imperatives do not recognize the right of free expression or any other right, except the right to competent instruction, that is, the right to be instructed by well-trained, responsible teachers who know their subjects and stick to them and don’t believe that it is their right to pronounce on anything and everything.

What this means is that teachers don’t have First Amendment rights either, at least while they are performing as teachers. Away from school, they have the same rights as anyone else. In school, they are just like their students, bound to the protocols of the enterprise they have joined. ...

Is there a single sentence in Professor Fish's latest diatribe that I agree with? Maybe a couple of the descriptive ones, but nothing normative.

Anyone who read Clarence Thomas' opinion in the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case (see my earlier post with excerpts) and thinks "he does not go far enough" occupies a different universe of discourse entirely.

Fish has written extensively on his idiosyncratic view of the role of teachers, particularly in the university setting. My guess is that he is working backwards from that to the views expressed in this piece.

What is at stake here? Is there, can there be, any question that schools are (and must be, in one sense or another) central institutions in the socialization of the young, and in their training as future citizens of a democratic polity? Is there room for doubt, on any plausible account of learning theory, that learners learn from what their teachers/role models do, as much or more than from what they say (or formally "profess"?)

What, then, are the implications for our democracy of viewing schools as totalitarian enclaves, as Thomas and, apparently Fish, would have us do?

I cannot approach the eloquence of Justice Fortas in his majority opinion for the Court in the Tinker case. Go and learn.

*There are some lively comments on the NYT Blog responding to Fish's essay, including one from which I borrowed this (revised) heading. Take a look if you have Times Select.

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