Saturday, March 24, 2007

Stanley Fish is confused about learning to reason

In "Advocacy and Teaching" (New York Times, March 24), Professor Fish misunderstands the importance of advocacy for intellectual growth. He's correct that "Emily Brooker’s professor was wrong to enlist her in a political campaign," but he confuses a political sense of "public advocacy" with the curricular importance of advocacy, by his apparent complaining about "advocacy" itself.

Indeed, as he says, "a student assigned to study an issue must be equipped with the appropriate analytical skills," but that's for use in good reasoning, which standardly is used to make cases that take stands, i.e., advocate something. Fish occludes this purpose for building analytical skills.

Though it's surely useful that an "assignment is to give an account of the dispute about gay adoption rather than to come down on one side or the other," understanding each side of an issue requires seeing the claim to validity that each has as advocable stance.

One can't genuinely understand another's perspective apart from its claim to be worthwhile for advocacy, which involves doing one's best to "see" the case, achieved by taking on that perspective as best one can.

Of course, "academic performance and individual beliefs are independent variables," but analytical skills are only as good as the case-making they enable, which is independent of whether or not one actually subscribes to the well-made case. You'll never be persuasive about what you do believe, if you can't see the presumably good case for the stance you wish to change.

That said, I strongly subscribe to Professor Fish's objections to "intellectual diversity" conservatism.

Gary E. Davis