Fish on Academic Freedom: A Merited Assault on Nonsense, But Perhaps a Bridge Too Far


Larry Alexander

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In Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution, Stanley Fish turns his prodigious intellectual and rhetorical skills to debunking various inflated views of academic freedom and defending a narrow, professional account of it. Academic freedom is freedom possessed by the members of university and college departments that is not granted to those outside the ivory towers. For Fish, that freedom should rightly only extend to academics in the course of teaching, researching, and publishing in accordance with the standards of their academic disciplines. Beyond that, academics are merely employees and citizens, with no privileges other than those possessed by other employees and citizens.

Given Fish’s thesis, my job as commentator is a difficult one. A commentator is supposed to poke holes in the arguments of his target. He is supposed to criticize, not laud. I, however, agree with Fish, not only with his basic thesis, but also with his supporting arguments. In short, I’m stuck with “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Nevertheless, there are perhaps a few jots and tittles in Fish’s arguments that I can object to or at least query. I think Fish at times forgets how completely inert the postmodern critique is, a point he otherwise recognizes. And I think Fish, in attempting to hermetically seal off the academy from external justification, has taken his argument farther than it needs to be taken to secure his account of the academy and its freedom. (That’s the “bridge too far” of my title.)