FISHY OBJECTIVITY

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)

3 thoughts on “FISHY OBJECTIVITY”

  • It's an interesting issue you raise; one I've had my own experiences in the classroom with. On the one hand, you have academics absolutely strident in their attempts to make the "soft sciences" of political science, sociology, history, philosophy and the like, to appear as apolitical as possible. This they hope will provide the necessary veneer of objectivity required to prove that these subjects are indeed sciences that can and should be taken as seriously as math or physics. Even after decades of espousing the view that the humanities are "real" or "practical" studies, those who teach and do research in such areas are stricken with an inferiority complex when measuring themselves against their peers in the "hard" sciences. So really, demonstrating the "objectivity" of subjects such as sociology and positing it as a "science" that is both useful for analysis and even for predicting future behavior and policy, serves as a way of justifying sociologists' tenure more than any other purpose.

    You're right on the money in claiming that injecting such "objectivity" into things like philosophy and political science leads inexorably toward a bland but dangerous subjectivism. Where all theories are allowed equal footing, qualities such as morality and judgment cease to have meaning. And while it may be an interesting exercise to try to divorce yourself wholly from the subjects you study, it does a disservice to critical thinking if such a practice is perpetuated as the only "correct" form of academic analysis.

    On the other hand, there is a camp of radical social scientists that, through the device of histrionics, claims that no substantive objectivity is possible. In this instance, the aim seems to be in undercutting the perceived biases of establishment interpretations of the social sciences. Unfortunately, this vein of reasoning, although well intentioned, frequently ends one back up in the realm of subjectivism. I tend to side with this group however, as it at least allows for opinions and inductive (rather than deductive) conclusions about the social sciences.

    There has always been a conflict over the purpose and aim of the Humanities, and while both sides have a few good arguments at their disposal, it really comes down to a matter of what length you are willing to go to to prove your objectivity on subjects that can never be fully impersonal. Cultural consensus tends to be the ultimate arbiter of the merits of the works and ideas of the Humanities, whether it turns out that the dominant ideas of a culture are correct or not.

    It should be noted that the most popular and influential works of the social sciences tend to be in no way objective, while the most objective and scholarly works go largely unnoticed and forgotten by society. Because of this, I tend to view the social sciences as a reflection of society rather than view the social sciences as a "guiding light" of society or some such nonsense. From what we know of history, its very near conclusive that people adopt sociological ideas and practices as they become convenient and useful.

    I may be running into a chicken and egg argument by saying that, but I think that's the way things almost invariably go.

    I say there's room in political science, and philosophy for one's opinions. To be frank, I think opinions matter more in these areas than the cataloging and parsing that dominate academic circles.

    Hmm. That's probably a little more explanation than was necessary to show that I agree with your opinion, Ed!

  • My own attempt at this:

    Student: Ms Larkin, do you know who Pat Robertson is?
    Me: …yes. He's a well-known… preacher. Why do you ask?
    Him: I took a test online that said the Christian leader I'm most like is him! What do you think of him?
    Me: Well, many of his views are… controversial. He has said… some very hateful things. About… groups of people.
    Student: Like what?
    Me: Oh, various groups. He has a very specific set of beliefs about how people should behave.
    Student: Oh, ok. Cool. [wanders off]
    Me: I cannot believe I just survived that conversation.

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