The Rubber Meets the Road

One of America's foremost postmodern academics, Dr. Stanley Fish, dean emeritus at the University of Illinois and professor at Duke, has come up with an ingenious idea for teaching college students to write better. Here’s how he describes it in the New York Times: “On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups, and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students.” A little drastic, maybe? Dr. Fish’s students often think so—at least at first. As he writes, “You can imagine the reaction of students who think that ‘syntax’ is something cigarette smokers pay, guess that ‘lexicon’ is the name of a rebel tribe inhabiting a galaxy far away, and haven’t the slightest idea of what words like ‘tense,’ ‘manner’ and ‘mood’ mean. They think I’m crazy. Yet 14 weeks later—and this happens every time—each group has produced a language of incredible sophistication and precision.” The key to this unusual but effective approach is simple. Fish explains that the students have to learn that “a sentence is a structure of logical relationships.” To teach them this, he makes them concentrate on form rather than content—hence the constructing of languages. They need to understand that a language—any language, real or made up—must follow certain rules and have order, and that before they can clearly say what they want to say, they have to know and be able to use those rules. Sounds like a good, solid approach to me. The odd thing is that Stanley Fish is the very last person I would have expected to be talking about the value of rules and structure. Fish, you see, is one of America’s most-outspoken postmodernists. He’s well-known for arguing against the existence of what he calls “universal standards of judgment.” He believes that there is no such thing as truth, and that it could not be knowable if there were, and that abstract concepts and principles only get in the way of clear thinking. In fact, right after September 11, as I write in my new book, The Good Life, he warned people not to call terrorists “evil.” His argument was that nations must “fall back on … the record of aspiration and accomplishment that makes up their citizens’ understanding of what they live by and live for,” instead of the “illusory justification of universal absolutes to which every party subscribes … but all define differently.” So my question to Fish would be this: If he really believes all of this, then how can he bring abstract concepts and principles into the classroom? If “universal absolutes” are “illusory,” how can they be the best way to teach his students to write proper English? Isn’t it interesting how the practical, everyday situations we all face show us what is reality and what is really just illusion? When the rubber meets the road, even one of our leading postmodernists has to admit that there just might be something to those universal, absolute truths he spent his entire professional career denouncing. The problem with a false worldview, you see, is that you cannot live with it.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary