Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Stanley Fish

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 25, 2005

It was about thirteen years ago and a group of us sat down at our usual table in the Power Plant to quaff a ceremonial beer and to put to bed, at last, what had been a remarkable tenure at the Graduate Students' Association. After my two years as president and four years on the executive we had run the gamut from staging a palace coup to fomenting student protest to managing the books and rewriting the rules of order. Victory in our lawsuit and the creation of the food bank were yet in the future, but the foundations had been laid and the house was in good hands.

And as we spent our evening awaiting the intermittent wails of the bluesman, in characteristic alcoholic wisdom I wondered, "Have I reached the peak of my career?" For a 33-year old retirement is a daunting prospect; it having been the second such in my career (my days as editor of the Gauntlet at the University of Calgary having come to a similarly frothy end) one would think that the law of averages would weigh in on the affirmative.

Spring is like that for me; there hasn't been a sping in my life where I haven't wanted to rebuild, and between the half-hearted efforts at spring clearning, the always-hopeful seeding of the garden and the contemplation of yet more grand summer projects and excesses of self-improvement, there is always this lingering doubt in my mind. There will be a day, one day, when the ritual of spring will no longer hold the same meaning, where there will be no point to planning and improving, when it will all be over.

What will sustain me then, when all that I have to live for is what I have already done?

Today I spent a morning (a morning when I should have been planning, self-improving, or at the very least writing software or answering email) reading the collected columns of Stanley Fish. A former dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Fish wrote a series of columns for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I has the fortune - almost missed - of encountering this column on the occasion of what would be its last installment. After an academic career spanning decades, Fish is retiring to a life of idyll in Florida. "I have no big projects to finish," he writes, "and I'm not looking for any new ones; indeed, I wouldn't even know where to look." The terminal spring.

And so I spent the rest of the morning reading his columns, reasoning that the conclusion of a lengthy career as writer, thinker and administrator deserved at least a few hours of passing thought. As though I could distil the wisdom of a lifetime from such a slight effort. I am painfully aware of the audacity of such a gesture, and comfort myself only with the knowledge that the thought of Stephen Downes may also the the subject of such shabby treatment, mined for a few choice quotes and insights by an imposturous academic.

And I'll confess at the outset, as Fish would do in a moment in similar straits, that my knowledge of his life and work is contained entirely in my reading of these few (too few) short columns.

But what it seems to me that I have found is that I would enjoy very much the insight of Stanley Fish, that we share, at least to outward appearance, a set of core values, and that our passion and reason for being have at their core a similar motivation. I am not, and never will be, Stanley Fish, but in his writing I see a little of myself (which is, as some theorists have suggested, all we ever read when we read discursively, but I digress).

Not that I would agree with everything he says. When he writes in Promises, Promises, for example, that academics ought be more forgiving of those well meaning pledges falling victim to fiscal austerity, I want to reply that such promises should never have been made, and ought certainly not be made in the future.

And when I read, in his assessment of Harvard president Larry Summers's faux pas, that a president's behaviour ought to be guided by the maxim of "carrying out the duties of his office in a manner that furthers the interests of the enterprise," I want to point out that to subsume one's own principle under that of an umbrella institution, even as president, is to lose that which made you worth hiring in the first place.

But from Stanley Fish I read as well not only a spirited defense of the academy but as well an insightful defense of its autonomy (and hence, the autonomy of each of its members): from the fact that everything is interconnected, it does not follow that nothing is distinct. Indeed, I would add, it is from this distinctiveness that the functioning of the whole is possible at all.

When someone writes, as Mark C. Taylor does, "Colleges and universities are not, and should not be, autonomous institutions," one is tempted to ask, "well where, then, ought they be housed?" And with Fish's analogy, to ask whether it also makes sense to assign to the stomach the functioning of the heart, and to the kidneys that of the brain?

In his essay One University Under God? I find myself reliving my GSA days, days when I would regale the administration with the advice that its function is not only to impart knowledge, but to underscore that knowledge with at least a knowledge of the fundamental values that underlie an informed life in a democratic society. For while with Lippman I may say that "Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and inquiry" I also do not hold that expressions of value constitute nothing more than mere data.

The foundations of liberalism (and perhaps to his credit, I still cannot determine whether Fish was a liberal) are foundations to which I adhere: "reason as opposed to faith, evidence as opposed to revelation, inquiry as opposed to obedience, truth as opposed to belief." And yet, what my own religion (such as it is) teaches me is that each of these liberal premises are empty without there being their counterpoint in religion. The life of the liberal is indeed empty if he cannot countenance a life borne in belief, faith, revelation and even obedience.

For after all, one man's piety is often another man's insight. Around the same time I was retiring from life as a student association president I had the fortune to have a glass door held open for me by an older man (he would have been about my present age, except cleaner and better dressed). "Thank you," I said. "To serve is a pleasure," he replied, or some such thing along those lines. I tried immediately to dismiss this bit of proselytizing from my mind, but succeeded only in erasing the words.

Some years later, in the throes of yet another spring retirement (one which would eventually land me here in New Brunswick, by way of Australia) Andrew Thompson said to me, "You have to believe in something. You have to have faith in something. It doesn't matter if it is real - you have to pick something and make it the direction of your life." To serve, indeed, is a pleasure - it is only though submission to faith, belief, or revelation that life has any meaning at all.

The only thing worth planning for, it seems to me, is for the day, when it comes, where there is nothing for me to live for except the memory of what I have done. This is perhaps the wisdom of the Christian judgement day, the knowledge that there will be a point where you are stretched out, and the absolute, only and sole possession you will have is your own character, and that it will be the one thing that carries you through to the end, and that at that moment, what you believe will be of far more importance than what you know.

I once wrote an entire essay in my head (I often write such essays; one day I expect this is all that will need to be done in order to compose, and I expect the results will astonish us), titled "Leaving Lisbon," composed from the moment the airliner left the Portugese capital through to the landing eventually in Toronto.

I had been disappointed in Lisbon, disappointed by the omnipresent poverty, disappointed in the dangers inherent in walking the streets, disappointed in being stranded in the artificial world of the conference centre and the obviously artificial bars and bistros lining the shores of the Tagus, disappointed by my having had a sore throat that disrupted the first few days of the conference (including my talk), disappointed by the plastic pretense that passed for educational marketing in 2003.

Most of all, though, I was still overtaken by the loss of my cat, who had succumbed to a brain tumour a few months earlier, who had died in my arms on the front steps of my home on a beautiful summer morning I was unsolaced by the assurance that something of Pudds would live on, that the mind does indeed disassociate from the body (a phenomenon of which I have no personal evidence, only testimonial). I had written to John Hibbs a few weeks earler that it seemed to me that the only decent thing I had ever done in my life was to care for this cat, from almost the moment of her kittenhood through seventeen years to that final minute on the porch.

The day before we were to take her to the vet, my poor cat, obviously suffering, shook herself, climbed down from her chair (yes, my cat has a chair), shambled into the bedroom and, with some effort, climbed onto the bed, made her way to my near-sleeping body, and licked my hand. From an act of piety, as I said, can come a moment of insight, and I realized that for my cat the only thing that mattered, the only thing that had ever mattered, was to be told that she was a good cat.

And as I sat in the lonliness of a jet airliner hurtling through the icy cold through a September afternoon, eyes closed, writing in my mind, all I could think is that there is probably nothing more that any of us can hope for than to be told, when we retire, that we were good, that all we can hope for, indeed, is the knowledge, in our own mind, that we were good.

And so that's how an act of faith can underlie a liberal theology, how a life based on reason, evidence, inquiry and trouth can be bounded by belief and obedience. It's not that one ever need surrender one's autonomy and rationality to the dictates of a pope or a charlatan, it's that at some point, in every life, one has to say, "Here's where I make my stand."

No surrender, no retreat. "It was the year of fire... the year of destruction... the year we took back what was ours. It was the year of rebirth... the year of great sadness... the year of pain... and the year of joy. It was a new age. It was the end of history. It was the year everything changed."

Somewhere, through the years that made me, through my experiences of justice and injustice, of starvation and of plenty, of love and lonliness, I have sought for and in some measure found an understanding of what is good, what is right, what is worth living for. That understanding in me is founded on the principle that each person, each individual voice, each mind, is, as the Christians would say, worthy of salvation, or as Kant would say, an end in itself.

My committment - captured irreverently (but, I thought, accurately) by the name of our slate at the GSA, "Forces of Goodness and Light" - solidified over the years, and achieved its current concrete form as a statement of action on my website: "I want and visualize and aspire toward a system of society and learning where each person is able to rise to his or her fullest potential..."

And, it seems to me, this is what Stanley Fish is thinking about this week.

No, perhaps Stanley Fish and I would disagree on most things. Stanley Fish said this, for example, to which I am diametrically opposed: "The unfettered expression of ideas is a cornerstone of liberal democracy; it is a prime political value. It is not, however, an academic value, and if we come to regard it as our primary responsibility, we will default on the responsibilities assigned us and come to be what no one pays us to be -- political agents."

We see service differently, we see agency differently, and we probably see liberal democracy differently.

But that which we see as being the value of a life, I think, is the same.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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