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An engraving of the English poet John Milton.

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John Milton, the 17th-century poet, polemicist and, for a period, Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the Commonwealth Council of State in Oliver Cromwell’s government, would be surprised to learn that his writings are playing a role, almost 350 years after his death, in the current American culture wars for control over higher education.

How come? Over recent years, legislatures and governors in states with Republican majorities have led initiatives to “de-woke” higher education, to reduce or eliminate what they perceive as an excessive focus on leftist ideologies, to cleanse classroom instruction and research of direct political advocacy and activism, and to promote an intellectual diversity that would include conservative voices.

One of the centers of such activities is the state of Florida, where the 2022 Stop WOKE Act would prohibit the teaching of certain concepts related to race (a federal court has blocked the enforcement of the act in public higher education institutions). Another direct intervention into the state’s higher education landscape happened at New College of Florida, where a takeover of the institution’s Board of Trustees and presidency led to a national outcry and concerns about the quality of education and overall student experience, including a recent sanction by the American Association of University Professors. One third of the faculty left the institution in the year after the takeover, while overall student enrollment for fall 2023 increased. As New College leadership combed the country for instructors to keep the institution running after their own image, one of the world’s foremost Milton scholars, Stanley Fish, answered the call.

At the age of 85, Fish looks back at a distinguished career, which led him from a Ph.D. at Yale University to the University of California, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University and Duke University to a deanship at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and then to Florida International University and multiple guest appointments in positions connecting literature, law, political science and religion.

His 1967 book on Milton, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, revolutionized Milton studies by applying a reader response approach to Paradise Lost, an epic poem that was the English response to Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Fish followed up with articles and two more books on Milton: How Milton Works (2001) and Versions of Antihumanism: Milton and Others (2012). Like Milton himself, Fish also became a polemicist who intervened in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere, on various controversies. With irony and learnedness as his weapons, he dispensed the kind of realpolitik advice about academe that made him many enemies, especially by demanding that academics keep personal political activism out of their professional work. He did so long before “wokeism” was a thing, most prominently in his 2008 manifesto, Save the World on Your Own Time. Marxist critic Terry Eagleton branded him, back in 2000, “a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect,” the “Trump of American academia.”

Fish’s defense of the purity of the advancement of knowledge against faculty imposing their own opinions and identity politics on students intersects neatly with the goals of the new leadership at New College. At the same time, his definition of academic freedom as the guarantee “to do one’s academic job without interference from external constituencies like legislators, boards of trustees, donors, and even parents” would seem to implicate Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s interference with the educational process.

When interviewed about his decision to teach at New College, and whether he felt that his name and status in the academy were being used to endorse the takeover of the Florida institution, Fish answered that such a reading of his actions was something he couldn’t predict or control. “What I can control,” he continued,

“… is the kind of teaching I do, and of course I wouldn’t want to get engaged in a classroom experience if I felt that that classroom was being monitored for political or ideological reasons. But I’ve had no hint of any such monitoring in my discussions. The kinds of courses that I offered seemed congenial to the administrators—it was the kind of course that they hoped to see taught, especially the Milton course. And I felt equipped to teach that course after a lifetime of reading and commenting on Milton.”

To the New College administrators, Milton is “congenial” because he represents the traditional cultural canon of America as an Anglo-Saxon and Christian country, and landing a scholar like Fish as an instructor (actually: “Presidential Scholar in Residence”) lends prestige to this strategy. Had they done a little more digging, they would have found that many throughout history have actually deemed Milton’s charismatic and sympathetic depiction of Satan in Paradise Lost and other views on the Christian faith heretical, even suggesting “he cannot justifiably be called a Protestant or even a Christian.” They would also have found that the epic had been removed by the Orange County, Fla. school district from its libraries for allegedly exposing students to “sexual conduct.”

Fish seems even less concerned with such controversies now than in the past. He sounds like someone who is simply grateful—at this point in his life—for one more chance to share Milton’s works with an interpretive community of students, to express his nostalgic gratitude to the writer whose cultural capital enabled his academic career. He has shown similar nostalgia in his support of Ralston College, in Savannah, Ga., a nonaccredited institution that wants to “revive the conditions of a free and flourishing culture by providing transformative, rigorous education in the humanities,” with “commitments … to truth, freedom, beauty, and fellowship” as its founding principles and neoliberal culture warrior Jordan Peterson as its chancellor.

While the political company he keeps is questionable, Fish’s nostalgia is understandable. His and Peterson’s humanities, i.e., the great texts of the Western tradition, have been losing ground as a consequence of the overall decrease of student interest and humanities program cuts throughout North America and Britain. This downward turn is worse for the interest in the likes of Milton since, for many progressive faculty, who outnumber conservative faculty by 11.5:1 on U.S. campuses, he is a paragon of the “old,” white, Anglo-Saxon authors they started to replace even before the canon wars of the 1990s. Worse, Milton celebrates Christianity, and so he is complete anathema to the predominantly secularist graduate students and faculty in current English departments. Writing a Ph.D. thesis on Milton no longer guarantees a tenure-track job; the selections from Paradise Lost in anthologies of Brit Lit surveys have been shortened or cut; enthusiastic claims about Milton’s continued relevance seem to protest too much; and there may well not be need for a third edition of the Modern Language Association’s Approaches to Teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost, while there is definite need for additional exhibits on Why Milton Matters.

The one Milton poem that has escaped cultural upheavals and curricular revisionism alike is the poet’s touching reflection on how he copes with losing his eyesight (he dictated Paradise Lost to several aides, including his daughters). The sonnet “On his Blindness” is short enough for inclusion in anthologies and has found a space in studies of disability and resilience, two quickly growing concentrations in the humanities. Feminist recognition of Eve’s seminal role in Paradise Lost, and Milton’s advocacy in favor of divorce, may also prolong interest in his texts.

However, I find it doubtful that Fish will focus on any themes or approaches that feel like an imposition by the forces of the current academic Zeitgeist. He may, rather, enjoy having his students discuss Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), the most impactful treatise on the centrality of free speech and freedom of the press in early modern Britain. There, the students may find Milton’s famous dictum, asking for “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” They may be free to read this dictum as directed against the forces of an overpowering woke activism, but perhaps even more so against the forces intervening in the marketplace of ideas at their own institution.

Richard Utz is a professor of medievalism studies in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Institute of Technology.

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