Astrology, Fish, Althouse, and 9/11 Conspiracy Theories.--

Ann Althouse has a good critique of Stanley Fish's op-ed in the New York Times on the University of Wisconsin professor who teaches 9/11 conspiracy theories in class.

Here is Fish:

In short, whether something is an appropriate object of academic study is a matter not of its content — a crackpot theory may have had a history of influence that well rewards scholarly scrutiny — but of its availability to serious analysis. This point was missed by the author of a comment posted to the blog of a University of Wisconsin law professor, Ann Althouse: "When is the University of Wisconsin hiring a professor of astrology?" The question is obviously sarcastic; its intention is to equate the 9/11-inside-job theory with believing in the predictive power of astrology, and to imply that since the university wouldn't think of hiring someone to teach the one, it should have known better than to hire someone to teach the other. . . .

[T]he truth is that it would not be at all outlandish for a university to hire someone to teach astrology — not to profess astrology and recommend it as the basis of decision-making (shades of Nancy Reagan), but to teach the history of its very long career. There is, after all, a good argument for saying that Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dante, among others, cannot be fully understood unless one understands astrology.

The distinction I am making — between studying astrology and proselytizing for it — is crucial and can be generalized; it shows us where the line between the responsible and irresponsible practice of academic freedom should always be drawn. Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.

And this is where we come back to Mr. Barrett, who, in addition to being a college lecturer, is a member of a group calling itself Scholars for 9/11 Truth, an organization with the decidedly political agenda of persuading Americans that the Bush administration "not only permitted 9/11 to happen but may even have orchestrated these events."

Is the fact of this group's growing presence on the Internet a reason for studying it in a course on 9/11? Sure. Is the instructor who discusses the group's arguments thereby endorsing them? Not at all. It is perfectly possible to teach a viewpoint without embracing it and urging it. But the moment a professor does embrace and urge it, academic study has ceased and been replaced by partisan advocacy. And that is a moment no college administration should allow to occur. . . .

[A]cademic freedom is just that: the freedom to do an academic job without external interference. It is not the freedom to do other jobs, jobs you are neither trained for nor paid to perform. While there should be no restrictions on what can be taught — no list of interdicted ideas or topics — there should be an absolute restriction on appropriating the scene of teaching for partisan political ideals. Teachers who use the classroom to indoctrinate make the enterprise of higher education vulnerable to its critics and shortchange students in the guise of showing them the true way.

Althouse responds at length. This is just a taste of her argument:

Both Fish and Farrell stress process over substance. It's not a question of what subjects come into the classroom. (They ignore the process point I've made, which is that I doubt that administrators could stick to substance neutrality. Again: picture a teacher of white supremacy.) Farrell emphasizes the process of multiple viewpoints and debate. Fish emphasizes the process of academic inquiry and avoiding proselytizing. He would ask the teacher whether he could set aside "your partisan identity" and not "urge political action."

I wonder how far Fish means to take that. I've heard many law professors over the years say that since everyone is really partisan in some way, it's more honest to come right out and say what your positions are. They would portray Fish's ideal professor as a big sneak, posturing as neutral, but really slipping opinion in everywhere. Is Fish saying that professors who take the open approach are wrongly allowing their "partisan identity" to appear in the classroom? It would be terribly repressive for administrators to forbid that. Maybe Fish only means for the professor to refrain from "urg[ing] political action." If so, he's not saying very much. But Fish thinks he's identified a clear line: . . .

Is that a clear line? The more I look at it, the less clear it seems. It's quite subjective. Each of the last two sentences of his essay contains the phrase if the point is. How are we to tell what the teacher's point really is? A smart person with an agenda knows how to hide it.

I have actually been studying who believes in astrology. Some indices of conservatism use a belief in astrology as a measure of how conservative a respondent is. Yet Democrats are more likely to believe in astrology than Republicans, with the most conservative subgroup--conservative Republicans--being among the least likely to believe in astrology.