FISHY OBJECTIVITY

Posted in Rants on July 1st, 2008 by Ed

Stanley Fish has given the world a one-paragraph summation of how academic objectivity in the college classroom should look:

A classroom discussion of Herbert Marcuse and Leo Strauss, for example, does not (or at least should not) have the goal of determining whether the socialist or the conservative philosopher is right about how the body politic should be organized. Rather, the (academic) goal would be to describe the positions of the two theorists, compare them, note their place in the history of political thought, trace the influences that produced them and chart their own influence on subsequent thinkers in the tradition. And a discussion of this kind could be led and guided by an instructor of any political persuasion whatsoever, and it would make no difference given that the point of the exercise was not to decide a political question but to analyze it.

That is all well and good. Unfortunately he has chosen an example that is not generalizable. If we are discussing philosophies or pure ideas (What is human nature? Is socialism a viable form of government in a democracy? Who's right, liberals or conservatives?) then a statement by a professor would look very much like Fish's hypothetical. But what happens when we step outside of the conceptual world and into the practical? How does it serve students to ignore the fact that one idea may be more correct than another?

Examples in which Fish's logic would fail range from the straw man extreme (i.e., must we devote equal time to the competing theories of heliocentrism and geocentrism without mentioning that, you know, the latter is wrong?) to the politically or morally sensitive. The real problem with Fish's argument is that it is another salvo in his ongoing campaign to introduce subjectivity where it does not belong. Lots of subjectivity. And you know how I feel about that.

How, for example, would Fish suggest we teach about Supply Side Economics? Opinions differ on this issue. Should our goal be simply to describe it, compare it to alternatives, and mention its place in history? Fish suggests so. Conversely, I'd say that some other facts are relevant. Far from simply describing it and leaving the students to "draw their own conclusions" as we are so often told to do, I think it might be important to point out that A) all available evidence from real-world implementation of supply side policies suggests that they don't work and B) even on paper, supply side policies only make sense if income inequality is a non-issue (which it often is in business/economics classrooms).

At best, Fish's logic employs false equivalencies – here are two opposing ideas, kids. They're both equal and you can pick the one you like best. At worst, Fish is continuing his disingenuous campaign to allow students to opt out of having to confront and question their own worldviews behind a Trojan Horse of "objectivity" and academic freedom. While I follow Fish's example of Marcuse vs Strauss, I seriously question to which subjects this applies and to what extent he intends for this idealized narrative to govern our classroom behavior. His assertion that teaching is "inherently apolitical" does not stand up to much scrutiny.

(h/t Crooked Timber)

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