Posts Tagged ‘bugbears’

Keep The Cheese In The Master’s Room: The Stanley Fish Edition

January 19, 2009

Stanley Fish has delivered another provocative broadside against the commercialization of American culture and its impact on one of those institutions of the twentieth century that is at once opaque, instantly divisive and somehow always seeming to be self-justifying: tenure. I largely agree with what Professor Fish has to say, though I think his global tone is a little annoying — tenure may be succumbing to practicality in the United States but that’s perhaps only because the grand American civilizational experiment is coming to an end, even if only to become the second grand American civilizational experiment.

Tenure was established in the US by some of the large and old universities — Harvard, Columbia and the University of Chicago — that were established at a time when education in diverse fields, including the now-emaciated arts, was as seen as a badge of pride for the newly established colonies. It received a further boost in the mid-twentieth century when professors had to be “attracted and retained,” in the familiar jargon of human resource management, to lead the classrooms bursting with GI Bill and Baby Boomer induced enrollment growth.

Today, there are alternate modes of attraction and retention, notably through the operation of for-profit universities. And the current academic establishment has largely spent itself with theory and analysis. When we think today of the great truths of the day and the nascent discoveries that will become the great truths of tomorrow, is our first thought to look to the universities? No. The cubicle warrens of technology companies or the waterholes of the Internet or the divey coffee bars of urban conglomerations around the world are the source of our new cultures and new humanisms. Tenure is not protecting innovation; it is only the mothball that preserves the well-worn relics of a previous era.

Tenure itself is a good idea but it has today been appropriated by a class that is only seeking to protect its way of life, rather than the grand idea of freedom and diversity of thought that was the original charge it was meant to guard. Professor Fish contends that the loss of tenure will signal the loss of culture. It’s in fact the truth that the loss of his culture, and its accession to something new being cooked somewhere outside the confines of his colleagues’ traditional holds, is endangering tenure.