(foto David Dickson)

onsdag 12 januari 2011

EDUCATION: Stanley Fish - "Knowing the Formal Structure of Anything"

Sculpture (photo DD)

To Stanley Fish, it seems to me, learning lies exposed on the surface of reality as much as in the deepest cultural expressions. In his being in the now, Fish’s deep erudition allows him to learn anew every day by just taking part in whatever social or mediated situations that come his way. And this, I think, is the opportunity he wants education to give young people.

In three recent blog installments I have gathered information about what I call ”the roots of Stanley Fish’s Classical turn”. What I’ve done is I’ve tried to show some facts about the sources he uses in exemplifying some very different lines of thought and action that converge in affirmation of classical education as a remedy for crisis in education. This is, however, a very limited approach on my part. To speak about the roots of Stanley Fish’s turn towards classical education, I need, of course, probe somewhat deeper than to Leigh A. Bortins, Diane Ravitch or Martha Nussbaum.

On his way to work, each new day offers him an hour and a half in splendid isolation on the motorway. It is a situation in which trivial as well as deeply analytical associations make themselves available to the mind while communing with the trivial and genial impulses presenting themselves along the road and on the wireless.

In listening to the radio, one of Fish’s favourites is the Diane Rehm Show. Here, he says, he receives ”better education than any of my students will receive from me when I get to school.” He praises ”the detailed knowledge” that is displayed ”on subjects as various as those that might be found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.” In celebration of his birthday, Fish tunes in Diane Rehm and enjoys to the full her ”blend of courtesy and firmness” a strategy of gentle insistence that never fails to elicit ”precise and nuanced answers” even with evasive debaters and interview guests. This is what Fish wrote in 2006, and with Diane Rehm still on the air the radio continues to  foster ”an engaged and connected local, national and global community” (”The Diane Rehm Show Celebrating 30 Years” http://wamu.org/programs/dr/30/ ).

It is here that the roots of Stanley Fish’s classical turn come to light. Fish is a god-gifted teacher. He is no less knowledgeable or less gifted than Diane Rehm. The reason why he can't give his students as good education as Rehm can give him is not because she is better. The thing is that he will and his students will not find Rehm’s programs ”glorious” (yes, that’s how he describes the program he listened to on his birthday in 2006), and the reason: he is and they aren’t classically educated. This is why! If you are classically educated your life-long process of learning will always keep you receptible to new knowledge - whether you're looking out the open side-window of your car, feeling the blowing of the wind or if you're listening to the Diane Rehm show on the radio.

In an article published on June 7, 2010, Fish describes the high-school education that opened worlds of knowledge to him:

    ”four years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, English, history, civics, in addition to extra-curricular activities, and clubs — French Club, Latin Club, German Club, Science Club, among many others.”  (”A Classical Education: Back to the Future”)

What this classical education taught him is not only all those facts but something that has to do with the way brains work. Through ”imitation, memorization, drill, recitation and above all grammar”, what he learnt is not only ”grammar as the study of the formal structure of sentences (although that is part of it), but grammar as the study of the formal structure of anything” (”A Classical Education”)

”The formal structure of anything”. Learning to see formal structures and learning to use this ability to see how things, ideas, languages, arts, political and economic systems are structured - that is what classical education amounts to for Fish. Learning to see, learning to use and to find pleasure in this learning, in this seeing, in this using - to Fish this is the groundwork for democracy, for critical thinking, for intellectual self-reliance. If you want to take his word for it, these are qualities for the future.

Sources for this article:
Stanley Fish: Radio Days The New York Times April 19, 2006
- - - : Happy Birthday Milton The New York Times July 13, 2008
- - - : A Classical Education: Back to the Future  The New York Times June 7, 2010

Iron structure (photo DD)

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