Popular Rhetoric: An Academic Who Refuses
By Jawanza James Williams
The short essay “A College Education: What Is Its Purpose?” written by Stanley Fish is an interesting clarification of the role of academia in the world, and more importantly, what is notthe role of academics. Fish speaks about the over-reaching hand of academia in modern American society. More specifically, he is combating the idea that academics are charged not only with the education of the student, but with shaping them to become “responsible individuals in society.” Thorough analysis of the content of the essay yields to Fish's perspective and the reasons for and how that perspective is delivered so effectively can also be illuminated.
Fish's argument in his essay “A College Education: What Is Its Purpose” is that the academic world should not be required or concerned with producing members of society, but only academically successful students. Fish cites in his argument that the facilitators of higher education should “do their job” and not to try to do any other constituency's job. The basic idea that Fish is trying to communicate in his argument is that there are particular areas of society that are charged with a particular job and there should be a clear separation of the domains of any given field. Fish's makes a comprehensive argument.
The introduction of Fish's essay is particularly grappling for a reader for a number of reasons. The first reason the introduction is so successful is because of how straight-forward the entire essay is. Because of the title and the subtitle “Why We Built the Ivory Tower” leave almost no room for alternative interpretations by the reader. Sometimes it is critical that the reader is able to read the first sentences of an essay and have a sense of exactly what the issue is that is being discussed by the author.
Another reason the introduction is so successful in terms of argument is because the author opens with a personal statement, invariably linking the content with his emotions. In retrospect to the emotional nature of the Fish's argument, there is clearly the delineation of the academic throughout. For instance, the references that Fish uses like Marx, are clearly based in academia because it is generally academics, modernly, who use Marx as a segment of their argument. That is not to say that the reference to Marx is pivotal for Fish's argument to be valid, but it does help nonetheless. It adds to the credibility of his argument ultimately.
The language Fish uses in his essay is particularly successful at communicating his argument in an acceptable manner. The tone Fish uses in the entire essay is incredibly personal. The first sentence sets this air of common conversation, “After nearly five decades in academia, and five and a half years as a dean at a public university, I exit with a three-part piece of wisdom for those who work in higher education.” Clearly, it is more of a speech than it is a casual conversation, but there are elements that keep the communication grounded and personal. The reason this type of approach is successful is because Fish is appealing to the academic world as an academic. More specifically, Fish is having a discourse with his peers that is not trying to necessarily prove something in the absolute sense but appealing to the emotions and social values of the academic, outside of the academic realm. This notion debatable because the argument of Fish's essay is that academics are not supposed to be the champions of morality; however, Fish is requesting academics to socially respect the extent of the academic domain.
In relation with the tone of Fish's essay, his voice has a unifying quality. Fish's voice is not authoritarian because the intended readers of his essay, being other academics, are in some sense his equal. So Fish does not take an elitist stance or portray an air of sovereignty in reference to himself. This approach in terms of voice is successful in this type of argument because it is critical that Fish does not alienate his readers, but encourage them to agree with his perspective.
Fish appeals to the rational minds of his readers continually throughout the essay. For instance in paragraph 5 Fish makes an argument drawing comparison between academic approaches and partisan agendas. The paragraph is basically about the political manipulation academia for whatever means. There are numerous examples of these types of paragraphs in Fish's essay. These moments of comprehensive evaluation of the issue give the essay “beef.” That is, these reflective arguments make the essay have a more significant discussion.
In any argument, it is crucial that the author have significant evidence that demonstrates the validity of their claims. In Fish's essay the evidence for his claims are grounded in his own particular experience. As quoted above, Fish lists some significant credentials that give a foundation to his claims. It would not be possible for Fish to make an argument on the behalf of academia if were not in some significant way associated with that segment of society. Because Fish is so successful in academia, that demonstrates an understanding and credibility in relation to the field giving his opinion substance.
In terms of bias, Fish clearly has an association with the elitism of higher education. So because Fish is a successful academic, who is writing an essay concerning academia a number of assumptions can be made. The first assumption that could be made about Fish is that he is concerned with longevity for higher education. More specifically, he is going to be concerned with keeping higher education as something that must be invested in and cherished. Another assumption that can be made about Fish is that he has a particular political ideology that subscribes to. One can draw this assumption from the political terminology that is used in his essay and his positive emphasis on particular elements. Furthermore, his political identification is not entirely communicated, but it is most definitely there.
The strengths of Fish's essay center around the style of the language, the choice of language, and the evidential material that bolster his credibility. In terms of the style of language, again, the conversational tone of the essay is particularly approachable for the reader. The conversational tone sets a stage that unifies the reader with the writer. The choice of language is a bit different from style, because Fish uses language that bolsters his argument. For instance, the use of terms like “partisan” and “political action” remind the reader of the baseline of Fish's argument, that no particular constituency should dictate how an academic does their job. In terms of evidence, Fish's essay is strengthened by again, the reference to the political figure, Marx, and the political language of the essay. Also, Fish's credentials really give him the room to make all of his claims because of his success in the existing system.
The weaknesses of Fish's essay are not many but center around much of the same things that give the essay its strength. The strengths of the essay can easily be seen as the weaknesses if the reader does not expect the conversational tone of the essay. For instance, because the intended audience of the essay appears to be individuals of higher education, the simplistic approach could be considered unworthy because it does not demonstrate particularly high education. More specifically, the essay is incredibly short, and does not use as much concreteevidence that could be used.
The overall purpose of the essay is successful in its delivery because of all the above mentioned reasons. The strengths of the essay collectively support the overall purpose of the essay, demonstrating the need for delineations. My own personal opinion about the essays completely agree with Fish's stance. People have to remember that it is not always ones own responsibility to save the world. I think it is critical that we find some place in society where we are most productive and do that particular job the best we can. We should not always try to do everything. That is not to say that it is not okay to expand ones initial horizons or try to learn new things, but remember what your job is.
Fish's essay is one that strikes at the chord of American values because it challenges popular rhetoric and more importantly, the authoritative elements of that rhetoric. Fish is speaking about removing the responsibility, placed by society, from the shoulders of the academic world. His words reverberate through the academic world because they reign true, a perspective that must be at the very least entertained because of the possibly trans-formative implications.
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