The issue of objectivity in the college classroom is widely misunderstood outside and even within colleges and universities. Frankly, many of us in academia contribute to this confusion by failing to adequately explain our larger mission.
On the one hand, this dereliction deprives the defense of academic freedom of potential allies. On the other, it makes higher education more vulnerable to external partisan groups intent on stifling open educational discourse and imposing their own narrow agendas. In what follows, I’ll sketch what I believe to be the essential responsibilities of college teachers.
First, any attempt by a teacher to slant discussion by knowingly misrepresenting, shading, or distorting information is unacceptable by any standard. Beyond that I doubt if one can be anything but subjective in most teaching situations. In fact “objectivity” is an inappropriate term.
Inevitably a teacher’s perspective will accompany any course. In my opinion there an element of dishonesty involved if this “bias” is camouflaged behind so-called detached scholarly neutrality. Given this fact, I try to be as up front as possible about my subjectivity. Presumably, faculty have spent considerable time and study mastering their subject. Their primary responsibility to that subject “is to seek and to state the truth as they see it.” (AAUP Statement of Professional Ethics) But no teacher has the “objective truth.”
Second, I readily plead guilty to not being neutral about the topics addressed in my own courses, from sexism, racism and homophobia to what I view as the the destructive nature of globalizing corporate capitalism, virulent nationalism and the misuses of religion. As a student I was invariably put off by teachers who feigned neutrality about the grievous state of our world: “Okay, Native Americans (or holocaust survivors, domestic abuse victims, starving children in Africa, etc.) we’ve heard your story, now let’s be fair and give equal moral weight to the other side! ”
Third, I’ve always found much to admire in the European tradition where professors are expected to “profess” something. As long as I don’t penalize students for disagreeing it’s imperative that students know what I think. So far, anonymous evaluations have never accused me of belittling a student’s right to disagree or lowering their grades for it.
Fourth, students are evaluated by appropriate scholarly standards for materials in a given course. And here a crucial distinction must be made. While I always respect students, I don’t always respect the content of their opinions. Why? Because all opinions aren’t equally valid. For example, a “student has no ‘right’ to be rewarded for an opinion of Moby Dick that is independent of these scholarly standards. If students possessed such rights, all knowledge would be rendered superfluous.” (AAUP)
Fifth, what students personally subscribe to at the end of a course is entirely their free choice. For example, in a biology course you would be expected to understand the theory of evolution but you could still “believe” in creationism in your personal life.
Or in astronomy you might retain the belief in a flat earth, but just don’t put that on the final exam. In other courses you’d be expected to demonstrate thorough familiarity with critiques of capitalist economics — receive an “A” — and then be free to go on to become a wildly successful Wall Street ruler of the universe.
Finally, in my ideal college, as students move from course to course they’re exposed to differing interpretations of the world from teachers who defend those positions with evidence, skill, and conviction. Am I confident that exposure to my radical version of “truth” will measure up well against these contending views and more importantly, against a student’s life experiences? (e.g. ZNet authors will offer a more convincing case to students for how the world works than any alternative perspective). Well, I suppose I am. Why else would I have devoted my life to this pursuit.
Again, I hope all teachers feel as strongly as I do about what they’re doing in the classroom so as to provide a worthy contest in the marketplace of ideas. Again, the only way truth can emerge and falsehoods be exposed (as Chomsky’s famous charge to intellectuals put it)is if, in the larger curriculum, we value tolerance and are open to hearing all points of view. Democracy depends on free expression and independent voices.
That mission is jeopardized when powerful voices outside the academy attempt to dictate not only how subjects are taught but by whom. Some of these folks believe that any independent, critical thinking by students is inherently subversive. They prefer a certain conformity of perspective even at the cost of faculty authority, academic freedom and democracy itself.
Beyond all the reasons cited earlier, I would argue that this last chilling threat is the clinching argument for protecting the autonomy of colleges and universities, yet another reason to provide students an environment where they can emerge from the shadows of Plato’s Cave and view the world for themselves. At least that’s my subjective opinion.
Gary Olson, Ph.D. is Chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem,PA. Contact: [email protected]