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Confronting the Cult of Objectivity

As the end of the semester draws near on campuses across the country, I thought I’d reflect on one of the largest threats to academic freedom in this country.  I’ve long labeled this threat the “cult of objectivity,” represented in a variety of different pathologies that afflict students, faculty, and administrators.  The problem I’ve always had with “objectivity” as a concept is that it doesn’t have an agreed upon meaning.  It gets used and abused in so many different ways that I’ve avoided even using it until now.  Suffice to say, I don’t believe that the word is meaningless, just that it has been misappropriated in mainstream academic discourse.  Objectivity could have value as a pedagogical approach, if it was defined as attempting to provide students with an accurate understanding of how the world really works (independent of political propaganda) – based on active engagement with available evidence.  Sadly, objectivity is rarely understood in this way, as it has been systematically perverted in pursuit of conformity to the status quo.

As far as I can tell, there are three ways in which “objectivity” is used in collegiate settings – all of which are deeply problematic.  The first is the one most commonly appropriated by students and angry parents (although a minority of them).  Typically students who are angry with controversial points discussed in class will complain in end-of-semester student-teacher evaluations about professorial “bias.”  This is most often reflected in their anger at a teacher’s refusal to parrot right-wing drivel and propaganda disseminated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.  The “bias” complaint almost never comes from left-leaning students, probably because there are few open right-wing teachers in higher ed, but also because most liberal-to-progressive students I encounter seem to be much more open to freedom of thought, disagreement, and contrasting points of view.  Usually the angry reviews of right-wing, reactionary students are few and far between, but if nasty enough, they may provoke the ire of administrators.  Critical administrative attention is likely if students accuse a professor of intimidation (rightly or wrongly) and “suppressing” their ideas.

The problem with these evaluations (at least the ones I’ve received) is that they are usually made by students with little to no understanding of how empirically-based argumentation works.  For example, you don’t get to simply dismiss an assignment that discusses the scientific consensus on global warming by writing that you “didn’t agree” with the reading, without properly summarizing the debate and arguing why you disagree by providing credible data or evidence.  And yet, the outright dismissal without reflecting on evidence that challenges right-wing views is common among lazy students – those who learned from parents that the way to “win” debates is by attacking others (usually ad hominem) for “stifling” their creativity, while avoiding issues and evidence that run counter to your positions.  Angry student evaluations and angry parent calls to Deans are often effective in disciplining teachers against promoting critical thought – especially when federal court rulings over academic freedom have ruled that professors don’t, in reality, have free speech.  The problem of right-wing intimidation posing as “objectivity” is real at the college level and even more common in K-12 where teachers have less intellectual freedom from school curricula imposed from on above.

A second pathology masquerading as “objectivity” is the pressure from administrators (who often respond to student or parent complaints, or conduct their own formal in-class evaluations of professors), pushing teachers to engage in “false balancing.”  This is the belief, mindlessly embraced by higher-ups, that one argument must be as good as another if some political leader (or many) is willing to promulgate it.  It should go without saying that this is a formula for moronic “teaching,” if you could call it teaching at all.  Administrators lack the necessary expertise in any social science subject area to judge what material should or shouldn’t be present in class.  Tragically, this hasn’t stopped them from pushing false balancing to avoid class controversies.

What’s worst about false balancing is that it has little to do with the teacher’s proper role in the classroom.  Simply put, as a teacher, your job is not to argue that “each argument is as good as another.”  What good is it to promote “debate” among students concerning political claims that are, in reality, political propaganda?  For example, one could entertain a “discussion” in class about whether Obama is really a “Nazi” or not (as many right-wingers claim) or a “Marxist,” as is common on Fox News (Nazism and communism are two completely differently things, but who’s keeping track right?).  One could have a “debate” in class about whether or not Obama wants to kill granny and Down syndrome children (a la “death panels”) or discuss whether there is anything to the “birther” conspiracy, which asks whether Obama is a secret Kenyan.  But no self-respecting teacher would entertain such “discussions.”  When you pit misinformation against reality and pretend there is learning going on – even on less controversial issues than the ones above – your students will come out of the exercise more confused than before, and you will have failed them as a teacher.

There is nothing inherently valuable about false balancing; in fact it’s quite toxic.  The main job of a teacher, as I see it, is to develop expertise in the specific areas one is teaching.  That expertise should involve a deep knowledge of the available academic research in that field or sub-field.  With that knowledge in hand, the professor then has a professional obligation to maintain a discussion in class about competing explanations of political and social phenomenon – the entire time providing students with the needed empirical context for competently evaluating which arguments are better and which are worse (in terms of the available evidence).  I don’t do my students any favors by telling them that “some claim the media are liberal and some do not” when most academic studies suggest that there is a broader pro-government and pro-business bias in the news.  Most Americans may accept the “liberal media bias” claim, but that doesn’t mean I have to take it as seriously as other theories that have more evidence.  This should be the true definition of objectivity (accurately and critically describing reality), that’s practiced in the classroom.  If a professor has done his or her job correctly, students should come away from the class with a clear understanding of which arguments have more and less empirical evidence in their favor.  Throughout most of my undergraduate and graduate career, I rarely saw professors engage in this kind of teaching (the seeking of “truth” through weighing of available evidence, in search of clear conclusions by class’s end).  Most of the time they were happy to avoid responsibility for critical thought or (most commonly) to talk about arcane research and academic findings with little to no practical utility or application.  By avoiding critical issues altogether, one doesn’t have to worry about taking stances that may prove controversial.

It’s obvious why so many teachers avoid critical approaches to objectivity.  To suggest that some arguments have more evidence than others is inherently controversial, and most professors prefer to avoid controversy for fear of reprisal in student evaluations or from Deans or other administrators.  After a number of complaints for raising critical points, many professors conclude that it’s better to avoid controversy, so they can go back to focusing on activities that receive the accolades of administrators (I’m thinking mostly here of esoteric research with limited practical value; for more, see my previous online Counterpunch piece “On the Cowardice and Irrelevance of Social Science Scholars”).  I’ve even heard professors openly admit that they eliminate “controversial” readings due to student complaints, so there is nothing conjectural about the claim that critical thinking is suppressed in the classroom.

“Objectivity” – defined as omission of controversy and critical thought – is the most dangerous of the three practices discussed here.  This version of “objectivity” is the most harmful to students because it is the hardest for them to identify.  Students know when professors are making an argument; they usually don’t know when some critical point or conclusion is being entirely left out of the class.  By engaging in omission, teachers aren’t being “objective” – they’re displaying the deepest form of cynicism and contempt for students by discouraging the development of critical thought.

Administrators are quick to parrot mindless psycho-babble jargon – “objectivity” being one example – if they think it will help them avoid controversies or critical thought among faculty.  They’re often all-too happy to discipline professors for taking unpopular stands in the classroom, as this practice fits within the larger reactionary mindset of college administrators.  In the name of “controlling” the campus climate and “protecting” the school’s “brand name” from criticism, administrators have at various times sought to intimidate critical faculty members.  This intimidation is done in the name of avoiding controversies – specifically in order to suppress challenges to administrative ideas and agendas.  I’ve encountered this many times in college committee meetings.  Administrators will use the rhetoric of “objectivity” to push through bad reform after bad reform – most obvious in the gutting of general education requirements (formally) and the pressuring of professors to grant students better grades (informally).  The latter practice is useful for increasing college “completion” and ensuring student academic “success.”  In this context, behaving “objectively” usually means you are expected to agree with administrator’s ideas (which are inherently “good” and represent the “objective truth”) without rocking the boat.  To criticize administrative agendas is to be “rude,” a “rabble rouser,” to be overly “emotional,” and to refuse to “see the good” in their proposals.

Such psycho-babble rhetoric is used to push through some of the dumbest proposals imaginable for watering down higher education.  One recent example I can think of is the wholesale effort to exempt students from social science general education requirements such as history or government, since students have already “taken these classes” in high school (the idea of “higher” learning obviously has no meaning for these administrators, as disturbing as that is).  By this logic, students shouldn’t need any general education at all, since they also took math, English, and science at some point before college.

The wisdom of gutting general education, however, is ultimately beside the point.  Administrators adhere to a pathological approach to governing the university/college.  So many of them view themselves as “there to manage”; as a result, anyone who stands in their way is someone who’s out to “make the school look bad” or “undermine” administrative credibility and authority.  While those opposing the gutting of higher education are most certainly trying to undermine bad administrative agendas, understanding the value of such undermining (if it’s in defense of high academic standards) is largely beyond the cognitive abilities of most administrators I know.  This opinion is not mine alone, but the feeling of many (perhaps most) social science faculty I speak with.  Not every administrator I know fits the above characterizations, but the frequency of their inability to think critically is disturbingly apparent across the board.

Back to the issues of false balancing and “objectivity” via omission of critical views, there is growing evidence that students are unhappy with such practices.  My students often complain that they dread taking American Government when they first enter my class.  By semester’s end, however, most all claim that the class was vital to improving their civic and political knowledge, and they’re glad they took it.  Most wouldn’t have, but were forced to because it is a required general education course (perhaps not for long if admin have their way).  Sadly, much of student apprehension for this government class has to do with poor instruction in K-12.  Students often tell me that their high school education was little more than No Child Left Behind-style memorization of factoids and dates in preparation for standardized tests (the most common form of omitting critical thought in K-12).  Their previous classes devolved into little more than sterile “lessons” where students were pressured to avoid discussing controversial issues for fear of “offending” other students and because time needed to be taken up with “more important” matters such as preparing for the test.  When these students realize (while taking my class) that politics can be interesting, tied to current events and argumentation, and driven by regular in-class discussion and dialogue, they become far more open to the subject of politics.  Unfortunately, most professors I know at four year colleges consistently refuse to promote critical, interactive discourse as part of in-class activities.  Supposed engagement in “critical thinking” is one of the greatest clichés in higher education.  Literally all professors claim it’s important in their syllabi and rhetoric; almost none of them practice it when it comes to engaging in contemporary controversies or staking out (empirically-based) critical positions in class.

The worst part about the cult of “objectivity” is that we’re turning off a generation of students from the value of learning.  By lobotomizing our classrooms to avoid complaints and controversy, we push social science into further obscurity and irrelevance.  Furthermore, students actively want passion from their instructors.  One of the most harmful components of traditional “objectivity” is the idea that an individual must always remain cool, cold, and “dispassionate” (the latter a word typically used in dictionary definitions of objectivity).  Passion, as seen in the expression of critical thoughts, is deeply appreciated by most students.  It makes them more interested in learning for the sake of learning, rather than memorizing factoids in pursuit of a degree and job.  The modern social sciences are filled with controversial issues and problems that should arouse the passions of both students and professors alike.  And while professors must be careful to treat students with respect during in-class discussions, the stakes are too high to fall back on mindless notions of “objective” teaching that are stripped of critical engagement.  In an era of endless money in politics, a broken and gridlocked Congress, the imperial presidency and disregard for the law, record income and wealth inequality, continued societal racism, the decline of civil liberties protections, a broken health care system, and the rise of public anger and protest, there is no reason to be stripping courses of critical discourse.  Few government teachers I know seem to passionately argue for greater student civic participation in challenging official propaganda, misinformation, and failed representation of the public.  This is disturbing, considering that most Americans agree that these are major problems in U.S. politics.

Teachers need to be pressured to rediscover passion and critical engagement.  The time’s come to end the generic, mindless conformity that is mainstream “objectivity.”  Without a revolution in teaching across the country, we will continue to churn out degrees of questionable value, divorced from critical thought and active citizen engagement.  To change the system, however, professors must be willing to take a leap of faith – challenging sacred cows of “objectivity” and “neutrality” in favor of a more humane approach to critical pedagogy.

Anthony DiMaggio holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He has taught U.S. and global politics at numerous colleges and universities, and written numerous books, including Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2009), When Media Goes to War (2010), Crashing the Tea Party (2011), and The Rise of the Tea Party (2011). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com.

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Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: The Politics of Persuasion: Economic Policy and Media Bias in the Modern Era (Paperback, 2018), and Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2016). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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