[Paleopsych] Stanley Fish: On Balance
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Fri Apr 8 19:22:10 UTC 2005
Stanley Fish: On Balance
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.1
All in the Game
An inside look at the politics of academic careers
Recently, the Supreme Court once again took up the question of whether
it is permissible under the establishment clause of the First
Amendment to display representations of the Ten Commandments in
courthouses and other public spaces. At issue is the relationship
between those displays and the "Lemon test" -- the legacy of Lemon v.
Kurtzman, a 1971 ruling that, in at least one interpretation, bars the
state from engaging in activities that endorse or promote religion.
In the course of a long legal journey that included suits,
injunctions, petitions, decisions, and appeals, those in favor of the
displays argue that their purpose is secular not religious. The Ten
Commandments, they say, are one (although not the only) source of the
values and traditions upon which this country was founded. Therefore
to display them in a public place is merely to recognize that history,
and to provide a moment of education (not proselytizing) for
In response to the findings of a district court that the Commandments
and some accompanying documents were chosen only because of their
obvious "religious references," officials of the two Kentucky counties
involved in the latest case modified the display, adding to it
political texts, patriotic texts, song lyrics, and pictures.
The idea was to surround the religiously charged materials with
materials obviously secular, on the theory that, so surrounded, the
religiosity of the suspect documents would be muted and even negated.
That strategy (which may or may not prove successful; we'll have to
wait and see) is taken from the landmark cases County of Allegheny v.
American Civil Liberties Union (l989) and Lynch v. Donnelly (1984).
In Allegheny, the court ruled that a stand-alone crèche placed in the
county courthouse in Pittsburgh "has the effect of endorsing a
patently Christian message." But in the same decision the court said
that a menorah, placed outside a government building and flanked by a
Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty, "does not have an effect
of endorsing religious faith."
In Lynch, Justice O'Connor wrote that a crèche displayed in Pawtucket,
R.I., along with teddy bears, candy-striped poles, and an
(ungrammatical) sign reading "Seasons Greetings," "does not
communicate a message that the government intends to endorse the
Christian beliefs represented by the crèche." The reason, she adds, is
that "the overall holiday setting changes what viewers may fairly
understand to be the purpose of the display -- as a typical museum
setting . . . [which] negates any message of endorsement."
I leave the issues raised by those cases to the court's deliberation.
My interest is in the mechanism by which materials bearing substantive
content (as in "Jesus Christ died for your sins") are turned into
museum pieces, that is, into texts whose messages have been
aestheticized or commercialized, in the case of the holiday setting
(and did O'Connor forget the etymology of the word "holiday"?) -- with
the result that they are no longer taken seriously as texts by
spectators or readers.
It is not simply that the "museum setting" negates the message of
endorsement; it negates any message, and that is its purpose. The name
for this transmogrification is balance: If you want to take the edge
off or pull the sting from a message that may prove provocative and
controversial, balance it with other messages that are either bland or
In that way no one can accuse you of endorsing or saying or meaning
anything. Doing the dance of balance indemnifies you from any
criticism, except the criticism that you stand for nothing in
particular, which will hardly be received as criticism given that
standing for something particular, or being perceived to stand for
something particular, is what you are trying to avoid.
Of course you could always say that what you are standing for and
indeed standing up for is the First Amendment. That really sounds
good, but more often than not it is just a fancy way of running away
from the real issues that might be debated if balance had not become
your new theology.
That is why balance is such an attractive option for administrators
when someone like Ward Churchill comes to town, or threatens to.
An administrator in that situation can take his or her cue from Bill
Maher who invited Churchill to appear on his program Real Time but
then paired him with the brother of someone who had been killed in the
assault on the World Trade Center.
That is genius and a balancer's dream. Maher gets to defend free
inquiry and to display his compassion for the victims of an atrocity
at the same time. He comes off looking reasonable, fair, and, yes,
balanced, while both Churchill and the victim's brother look a bit
extreme. What administrator could wish for more?
Obviously, balance can be very useful and I have employed it myself,
when making up search committees or appointing members of a task
force. But useful as it might prove, balance is not a real value. It
is a strategy and as such is always political in nature.
That is, balance is not the answer to an intellectual question; it is
the attempt to evade or blunt an intellectual question. You resort to
it not in response to the imperative of determining truth, but in
response to pressures that originate more often than not from
That is surely the case with respect to the demand that a college or
university faculty should display balance, in its hiring practices or
in its tenure decisions or in its course offerings or in the materials
assigned by individual instructors. In none of those instances is
balance a legitimate educational goal.
Take the insistence that faculties be balanced so that there is a
proportionate number of conservatives and liberals. That is the least
defensible form of balance -- called "intellectual diversity" by its
proponents, but is really affirmative action for conservatives --
because it assumes a relationship and even an exact correlation
between one's performance in the ballot box and one's performance in
There is no such correlation: The politics relevant to academic
matters are the politics of academic disciplines, and the fault lines
of those politics -- disputes between quantitative and qualitative
social scientists, for example -- do not track the fault lines of the
national divide between Republicans and Democrats. Thus it is not a
coherent argument to say that students will benefit from having
conservative as well as liberal professors; for with respect to the
different approaches to a topic or a subject, party affiliation is not
a predictor of which approach a professor will favor.
One might respond by pointing out that our nonacademic commitments and
affiliations -- to religions, political agendas, ethnic origins,
regional loyalties, sports teams -- will have, to a great extent,
formed the person who enters the classroom, but that is an argument of
determinism that is belied by every "tenured radical" (and there are
many) who is on the "conservative" side in the battles of his or her
It is always possible to draw a line backward from the views you
currently hold to the life events that preceded them; but preceding
does not mean producing, and the line cannot be drawn in the reverse
direction in a way that suggests that if you attended such and such a
school, or read such and such a book, or underwent such and such a
conversion, you would inevitably come out on this or that side of an
Neither the dire consequences that supposedly come along with a
predominantly liberal faculty nor the good consequences that would
come along with a "redress" of the "imbalance" exist. The only thing
you would get were you to enforce a political balance of persons hired
or promoted would be a politicized university.
The same holds for the requirement that a curriculum be balanced
between traditional and avant-garde courses. The courses a department
ends up teaching will be a function of many things -- the kind of
college or university it inhabits, the composition of the student
body, the direction the discipline is taking. All of those are
academic considerations, and in response to them a department might
well have a balance of traditional and avant-garde courses; not,
however, as a goal and by design, but as an unintended consequence of
legitimate educational decisions.
And, finally, balance is not something an instructor should aim for
when assigning texts or making up a syllabus. An instructor should
first figure out what he or she thinks important and central and then
make his or her choices accordingly. There is absolutely no obligation
to include materials from every corner of the disciplinary landscape;
there is an obligation -- and it is the only one -- to include
materials that are, according to your intellectual judgment, relevant.
I teach Milton as a poet whose aesthetic is inseparable from his
theology, and that conviction about Milton dictates the materials I
assign and the questions I introduce and entertain. I am aware, of
course, that there are other approaches to Milton -- psychoanalytic,
Marxist, historicist, feminist -- and while representatives of those
approaches make occasional cameo appearances in my class, they are, at
best, supporting actors and, more likely, negative examples --
examples, that is, of interpretive directions I consider wrong.
I see no reason to include what I take to be wrong interpretations
simply because they are there; no reason, that is, except for one
imposed on me from the outside and with political, not educational,
To be sure, educational motives might in some instances lead me to
choose balance as an organizing principle; perhaps I am teaching a
survey of critical approaches. But while balance might be the answer
to the question of what's the best way of accomplishing what I'm after
in the classroom, balance can never, in and of itself, be what I am
after; unless, that is, I want to trade in the academic life for a
frankly political one.
Stanley Fish, dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and
Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes a monthly
column on campus politics and academic careers.
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