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“Versions of Academic Freedom”: Stanley Fish Delivers 2012 Stevens Lecture Ithaca, NEW YORK, September 12, 2012

On August 31, members of the Cornell community packed the Law School’s MacDonald Moot Court room for this year’s Stevens Lecture, delivered by Stanley Fish, The Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Professor of Law at Florida International University. One of the country’s leading public intellectuals, Fish has authored more than 200 scholarly publications and books on a wide range of topics, from Milton to Intelligent Design. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times Opinionator blog.

The Stevens Lecture Series, established in 1955 in honor of Robert S. Stevens, Cornell’s longest-serving dean, furnishes law students with an opportunity to expand their legal education beyond the substantive and procedural law taught in the law school.

“I can imagine no one more suited to the assignment presented by the lecture—to expand legal education—than Stanley Fish, whose groundbreaking work has provoked the legal academy as well as judges and law students for many years,” said Bernadette Meyler, Professor of Law and Faculty Director of Research, in her introduction. Meyler cited Fish’s 1980 book Is There a Text in This Class?, which shook critical orthodoxies in both literature and law, as well as his more recent work in constitutional interpretation.

Addressing a current project, Fish’s Stevens lecture was entitled “Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution.” In it, he identified five approaches to the concept, ranging from the “It’s Just a Job School” (which “may have only one member, and you’re listening to him,” noted Fish) to the “Academic Freedom as Training for Revolution school.”

Noting that, as one moves along this spectrum, the adjective “academic” loses its delimiting force, Fish characterized the more liberal schools as blurring or even erasing the line between academic freedom and freedom in general. This, he believes, is a mistake. Those who would extend their academic prerogatives beyond the “special and distinctive” purview of their professional duties believe they are ennobling their profession, he said, “but I think they’re ruining it.”

“I resist the move to view the justification of the academic endeavor as an instrument of something bigger,” continued Fish, who favors a justification flowing from the task itself. As an academic, he asserted, just about all he can do is tell students, “I’m singing a song. I want you to join in,” adding “I can’t promise that your life or your world or your marriage will be better.” According to Fish, this is both the academy’s greatest weakness and its greatest strength: its inability, and indeed unwillingness, to answer the question, “But what does it do for me.” Why, then, we should value education at all? Concluded Fish with a smile, “I haven’t the slightest idea.”

-- Owen Lubozynski