On Historians, Plumbers, and Stanley Fish


I’m an historian by discipline, but I didn’t attend this year’s meetings of the American Historical Association (AHA) last week in Denver.  I wish I had, if only to have heard the discussion of “Historical Expertise and Political Authority,” described by Colleen Flaherty in her report on the meeting for Inside Higher Ed.  This past summer, more than 900 historians calling themselves Historians Against Trump signed a public statement opposing Donald Trump’s candidacy for president.  The statement prompted a characteristically cheeky op-ed piece in the New York Times by Stanley Fish, the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University and Floersheimer Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.  Wrote Fish, “The Historians Against Trump invest their remarks with the authority of their academic credentials, and by doing so compromise those credentials to the point of no longer having a legitimate title to them, at least when they write and publish their letter.”  The session provided an opportunity for Fish to engage with some of the historians who signed the statement.

In addition to being a candidate for having the longest job title in academia, Fish is well known for his idiosyncratic and uncomfortably cramped view of academic freedom, what he has called the “it’s just a job” school of thought on the subject.  I engage at some length with Fish’s views in a review essay, “Academic Freedom and the Common Good,” published last September in the Journal of Academic Freedom.  His views have also been analyzed several times on this blog and rebutted by John Wilson in this 2013 law review article.  So I won’t belabor the critique at length here.  Nevertheless one comment from Fish, as reported by Flaherty, offers an opportunity to expand a bit on the special nature of academic freedom’s relationship to disciplinary expertise.

“As far as I’m concerned, Historians Against Trump has just as much authority as, and perhaps less than, Plumbers Against Trump,” Flaherty reports Fish telling his Denver audience.  Fish, of course, does not deny the right of individual historians to offer political opinions or advice, nor I suspect would he deny that right to individual plumbers either.  The problem, he believes, arises only “when a bunch of individuals claim for themselves a corporate identity and more than imply that they speak for the profession of history.”

Now I don’t believe the Historians Against Trump ever claimed to speak for the entire profession, but they did constitute themselves around their “corporate identity” as scholars of the past.  But what, I might ask, is wrong with that?  Let’s start with Fish’s own analogy with plumbers.  Were I a city council member or state legislator considering legislation to relax building or sewage codes, I for one would be quite interested in what plumbers thought of the proposal, and not just as individuals.  I would wonder if their professional groups had a position, or if large numbers of them were joining together to either advocate or oppose the bill.  I would, however, not care much what historians thought about the matter, although individual historians might happen to have opinions on the issue.  Why?  Because the plumbers know, well, plumbing and I don’t.  To be sure, as a homeowner I know that plumbers make mistakes and may offer differing remedies for plumbing problems.  But their judgment is important and they not only have a right but also an obligation to speak out on issues in which their expertise may be helpful, and to do so both individually and collectively.

So what about historians?  If they have expertise it is about the past and its “lessons,” insofar as these can be determined.  They may not be much use in debates over building codes, but for people trying to make up their minds about broad electoral choices and candidates their knowledge of and sensitivity to past experience may definitely prove helpful.  No one has to listen to them any more than the city council member is obliged to do the plumbers’ bidding, but informed citizens are well-advised to give consideration to historians’ professional expertise, especially if that is offered en masse, so to speak.  As Jacqueline Jones, Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas and Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History at the University of Texas at Austin (another long job title!), who participated in the panel, put it, “historians have an obligation to be involved in these national conversations, not because they always have the correct answer or all agree with each other, but because their participation invariably enriches the conversation.”

This whole discussion relates to an essential point that needs to be continually made about academic freedom.  The freedom of the faculty member to teach and research is not simply an extension of the public’s overall freedom to speak.  The First Amendment wonderfully protects the broad “free marketplace of ideas.”  In that market all can say what they please about any topic (within certain narrowly defined legal limits, to be sure).  Viewpoints may be criticized, but not punished.  The classroom and lab, however, are not such marketplaces.  Neither the student nor the professor is free to advocate any view whatsoever.  An astronomer is not free to teach that the moon is made of green cheese; a geologist is not free to teach that the Earth is just 6,000 years old; and an historian is not free to teach that the Holocaust didn’t happen.  These views may be legal, if frowned upon, in the public sphere, but we shouldn’t and don’t teach them to students.

Academic freedom, therefore, is inseparable from the defense of disciplinary authority and expertise.  To be sure, in a discipline like History such authority and expertise may be considerably more tentative and internally contested than in, say, mechanical engineering or, for that matter, plumbing.  But such authority and expertise do indeed still exist.  So Yale Law School Dean and former Committee A Chair Robert Post has argued that while democratic decisions (e.g., elections) must be made in ways responsive to the great variety of public opinion, at the same time “reliable expert knowledge is necessary not only for intelligent self-governance, but also for the very value of democratic legitimation.”  That is why, he concludes, “When courts protect the circulation of expert knowledge, they also extend constitutional recognition to the disciplinary practices and methods that create such knowledge.  In effect this immunizes such practices and methods from unrestricted political manipulation.”

In other words, no one has to take historians’ advice or even listen to them, any more than homeowners are required to make all the improvements their plumbers may suggest.  But just as the homeowner should be cautious in ignoring the plumbers, so too should voters and citizens give due consideration to the views of historians.  Indeed, I would argue that historians — actually, all scholars — will be remiss if we fail to apply our expertise to public issues, to what the AAUP since 1915 has called the advancement of the common good.  And such failure would only encourage the further constriction of both expertise and academic freedom.  As FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff has written, “education’s role in serving the proper functioning of democracy [i]s the primary reason for the existence of academic freedom.”  Experts who do not apply their expertise to such service are neither truly expert nor truly free.

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