Literary theorist challenges the value of a liberal arts education

Stanley Fish

An outspoken literary theorist and controversial critic of university politics, Stanley Fish will challenge the value of a liberal arts education in a talk titled Why Liberal Arts Education Cannot Be Justified at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, in Chase Hall Lounge, 56 Campus Ave., Bates College. Sponsored by the Bates College Lecture Committee, the talk is open to the public free of charge.“We are always looking for speakers whose written work suggests that they are both provocative and serious,” says lecture committee member Michael Sargent, assistant professor of psychology. Fish’s writing indicates that he easily meets those two criteria. Following his talk, the committee hopes that a lively conversation will ensue.

For example, says Sargent, in a New York Times op-ed piece, “Why We Built The Ivory Tower,” Fish “contends that college and university faculty have no business attempting to mold student character nor to cultivate citizenship; instead, we should stick to what we as academics are trained to do: teaching and research.” Fish presents this position as a critique of the stance taken by many high-profile college administrators (such as former Harvard President Derek Bok), and then proceeds to make a case for it that is, in Sargent’s judgment, “clear and thoughtful.”

A widely recognized analyst of contemporary literature, Fish is considered a leading scholar of Milton. He has also written about legal theory, interdisciplinarity and issues pertaining to free speech and hate speech. Fish writes a monthly column on campus politics and academic careers for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Careers” section.

Fish’s work includes Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too and The Trouble With Principle.

Fish earned his Ph.D. from Yale University, taught English at the University of California at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University, and served as Arts and Science Professor of English and professor of law at Duke University from 1986 to 1998. He recently stepped down from his position as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Fish lecture is the first event in a three-part series co-sponsored by the lecture committee. Next up is a talk called Globalization: Why It Has a Human Face, by Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March, 2, to be followed by a lecture titled Abrupt Climate Change, The Greenhouse Effect, and How We Can Make Money Cleaning Up After Ourselves by Penn State geoscientist Richard Alley at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 10. These lectures will be held in Chase Hall Lounge.

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