Unbiased Scholars vs. Activist Academics?

Unbiased Scholars vs. Activist Academics? November 30, 2017

When I shared a post and meme about the classic notion of the academic in an ivory tower recently, I also shared on Facebook some of my own experience that led to my change of perspective. Here is what I wrote:

In my own teaching experience, several things helped me shift away from the classic model of the “disinterested” researcher and “impartial” classroom moderator. One was the recognition that, in the interest of being non-partisan, I was staying silent about unjust structures that negatively impacted colleagues and students. Another was the recognition that even in asking students to consider evidence that might lead them to revise their views, there were values and commitments that I was advocating – to a particular approach to religion, one that is not shielded from but responds positively to new (or in some cases quite old) information. The academic who stays isolated in an ivory tower is not impartial in a positive sense, but is most likely contributing to injustice through silence and disengagement.

Both of those realizations – that I was not genuinely keeping my own values out of the classroom, and that hiding my own views was leaving others to experience oppression without allies – jolted me into a different approach, one of engaged scholarship. Had I not had that experience, I might not have spoken here publicly about so many issues in the way that I have. There is still a place for seeking to be honest and let the evidence determine our views rather than vice versa. That element of the academic endeavor remains valid – so long as we do not pretend that doing so is not itself an expression of certain ethical commitments and values. And precisely because of our commitment to that approach, we can be activists without hopefully being ideologues.

In other words: It is possible to be both open-minded, and to passionately work for justice. One is not forced to choose one or the other.

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  • It is possible to be both open-minded, and to passionately work for justice. One is not forced to choose one or the other.

    I say it is necessary; after all, the worst crimes against humanity have been committed by ideologues. After all, white supremacists are ideologues, and tried to suppress any dissenting viewpoints. Also, religious extremists (whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc) let their views inform the evidence, and are quite horrible to those who disagree.

    Muslim reformer Irshad Manji has a great viewpoint on this: she says we need to take a stand, but be willing to consider other viewpoints and possibly change our minds.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I like the thought you had that, in some cases, maintaining silence or “trying to be fair to both sides” can actually be a promotion of injustice. A difficulty comes from the fact that you have to perceive the injustice. To person who thinks of an issue as just two political views, taking a stand on one is just going to seem like favoritism and suppression. Hence, the alt-right’s complaints.

    They’re wrong, of course, but just to point out that part of the challenge of doing this as an academic professor is being prepared to articulate why a given issue is not simply a matter of two, opposing pragmatic views and is actually an issue of justice.

  • arcseconds

    Can you give a specific example of where this is a problem?

    I thought the humanities were generally pretty good about seeing their activity as not some kind of completely neutral or unbiased thing, and recognising that even treating certain questions as important and others as not is more something one brings to the phenomena being studied rather than something derived from the phenomena.

    • We have become better at this, but the traditional model of the professor was someone who keeps his (yes, it was traditionally men) own biases out of his classroom and his research. And that idea of the impartial moderator is still influential on many of us. A specific example would be me not bringing up, or not coming down on one side or the other about, a subject such as same-sex relationships in the context of biblical studies. It might seem that I am being fair and letting students make up their own minds. But if I have a view that is relevant to how people are treated in the present day, and I do not even advocate for it as my perspective, as one among others, then I might fairly be accused of failing to provide something that I ought to.

      • arcseconds

        I asked partly because it seemed to me you can provide a radical and challenging perspective simply by giving your students the biblical studies mainstream 🙂

        There is something of a tradeoff here, or at least a risk that means some care needs taking, no?

        I mean, presumably what we really want out of tertiary education is graduates who can think for themselves. ‘Making up their own minds’ perhaps, but using the approaches and knowledge they have been taught. If they find their lecturers vigorously advocating for their own views, this runs the risk of having the university be a kind of authoritarian enclave or an echo chamber.

        I got told about a philosophy professor who would advocate for the view of whatever philosopher they were covering in the curriculum at the time. I think a student stands to learn a lot more from that than getting the particular person’s own views. Particularly as, if I haven’t got the individual mixed up here, he was a bit of a reactionary conservative, particularly after 9/11!

        On the other hand, university staff tend to have left-wing political views. But most lecturers don’t know that much about the relevant fields, so most of them are at best educated laity on the matter. So I think conservatives have a point that there’s a bias here that allows certain views to be freely expressed without any hindrance, and other views get marginalized and shouted down, and this is not because the academy has proven beyond reasonable doubt that e.g. free markets don’t work, and all academics are familiar with the research that proves this.

        This would particularly be true of course if lecturers felt entitled to advocate for any view they felt strongly about.

        Yet one could certainly make an argument that by not advocating vigorously for a decent social welfare system, one is implicitly allowing the status quo to perpetuate, which involves people working incredibly hard at thankless jobs for pittance and dying of preventable diseases, etc.

        • The challenge is that I head a panel of students from minority and traditionally marginalized groups who specifically mentioned the hurt caused to them by faculty members who “play devil’s advocate.” Sometimes advocating whatever view we are presenting means sounding persuasive in favor of racist or other demeaning views that have been articulated against categories into which students in those very classrooms fall. And so yes, there is risk involved and care that needs to be taken. We want students to think for themselves – but in ways that are well-informed and empathetic rather than hostile towards those who are different from them. And in many instances, we want very much to come down on the side of inclusivity rather than leaving it as a matter of indifference whether people in this or that category are welcomed or ostracized.

          • arcseconds

            I certainly think that tertiary education needs to be inclusive towards the individuals that comprise the institution. Preferrably the institution itself should clearly state it values inclusivity, so someone advocating for it can always point out that they are encouraged to do so by the institute itself. And I certainly don’t think that academics should be advocating for morally bankrupt ideas universally acknowledged like slavery even as an intellectual exercise. If it is genuinely important to explore such a thing, I think it would be best to make it very clear that the authors do not hold this view themselves and it is just an intellectual excercise, but one should take great care with such an activity and not assume the ivory tower gives you the right to pursue it if you like.

            How would you deal with, say, material that advocates for libertarianism and a student or small group of students who are keen on the idea? If you need a framing that explains why you would be doing such a thing, then one could imagine this coming up in a science fiction and society course as there are plenty of mid-20th-century science fiction narratives that promote such a thing.

            Libertarianism and support for laissez-faire capitalism are minority views in the academy but there are plenty of academics who advocate for them in the literature, and the latter may well be the majority view in economics, so they can’t really be said to be ‘crank’ views.

          • In areas such as economics, I think it is possible to genuinely believe that different systems make for greater justice. I would be more concerned to take a stand that justice and equity are things that we ought to be concerned with. I find that there are few pure libertarians, anarchists, or communists or capitalists. Some think they are, and so I am more concerned that they recognize that, while they may think they are simply “free market capitalists,” most think that at least some matters are best handled collectively. I would then want them to reflect on whether other issues might not also be appropriately handled in a similar manner,

          • arcseconds

            So you are more inclined to advocate less for this issue and just point out a couple of salient facts, yet on say homosexuality or race issues, you are going to advocate your own view more?

            What is the relevant difference in the two cases? You believe at least that the version of capitalism that holds in the USA is highly suboptimal and unjust, so I’m not sure why you’d not advocate strongly for justice in this case, but advocate strongly for justice when it comes to same-sex relationships.

            You say that one can ‘genuinely believe’ that a different system make for greater justice. This is no doubt true: many people appear to be genuinely convinced that unfettered capitalism is the best idea. But many people are also genuinely convinced that the Bible is the Word of God and unambiguously condemns same-sex relationships. So I don’t see how the possibility of genuine belief makes a difference here.

            I’m not just trying to be problematic for the sake of it here, this is a genuinely important issue that I do not see a clear answer to.

            If one thinks that even in the context of the classroom advocating for justice is more important than a space for open discussion and debate, then I can’t see why one wouldn’t advocate for social economic justice just as passionately as one would for a progressive attitude towards same-sex relationships.

            But this comes at the cost of marginalizing the views of students which are in some sense reasonable to have. Plus one would presumably also have to allow that one’s colleagues convinced of the virtues of unfettered capitalism to advocate for their views with equal vigour.

            On the other hand, if one thinks that it’s more important to allow different views to be aired and discussed and one is only going to put a few salient points forward for one’s own position, as you suggest here, then the same considerations you’ve already pointed to seem to be in play: the quasi-neutral position is implicitly allowing an unjust situation to be perpetuated without adequate criticism.

          • Outside of the classroom, I am happy to offer my own personal opinion on a range of issues, acknowledging when I lack relevant expertise. Libertarian economics come up less unless we are discussing the Jubilee year in Leviticus. That is another challenge – conveying clearly when one is commenting on a matter of personal and professional expertise, and when one is merely offering a personal opinion.

          • arcseconds

            Maybe you need to wear your robes, and doff your fancy hat when not speaking ex cathedral 🙂

          • Or perhaps a “Sarcasm is my Spiritual Gift” t-shirt would convey the point even better? 🙂

            But my feeling is that, in the classroom, I ought to be sticking to matters wherein I specialize, for the most part…

          • arcseconds

            Only if you’re happy for students to suppose your opinion is actually the opposite of what you are saying 🙂

            (Although I suppose heavy-handed sarcasm might be one way of handling the discussion: “Sure. Unfettered free markets — that’s a great idea! Of course it would be a problem if all investors decided to withdraw their investment all at once… or if people were to dress up unrecoverable debt as a sound investment and continue to trade it… but I can’t see that ever happening! Enlightened self interest will see us through!” )

            How did the discussion about libertarian economics and jubilee go?

          • I have never had such discussions with an extreme libertarian involved who self-identified as such, at least not in the classroom. When I have blogged about the Jubliee law, on the other hand, I seem to recall getting some push-back…

          • arcseconds

            Universal debt cancellation is quite a radical idea in today’s environment, you hardly need to be a libertarian to think that it’s a crazy idea that’ll destroy society because people won’t take responsibility for their financial decisions, so I’d be surprised if all of your students were completely comfortable with the idea?

            I might go and peruse your Jubilee posts and see for myself the pushback at some point…

          • I’m going to share some links to them in a blog post tomorrow, and so that may end up saving you the trouble…

          • arcseconds

            Speaking of Jubilee and libertarianism, I found ‘The New Economic Archaeology of Debt’ extremely interesting, and commend it to your interest.

            (Not that I know much of anything about this topic)

            I actually thought I got to that article from here, but there’s only one reference to Michael Hudson I can find on your blog, and that was me!

            It is interesting for example how practices in Sumer and Akkad are used as an object economic lesson, despite their great antiquity, and how they are read differently by different people depending on their own economic framework. Samuel Kramer for example has neoliberal economic beliefs (which is interesting in itself), and wrote to Reagan in the 1980s to advocate for lower taxes on the basis of Urukagina’s reforms!

          • Looks fascinating – thanks for the recommendation!

            Hope you found this morning’s blog post interesting in light of our previous discussions on this topic! http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2017/12/scribblings-margins-law.html

        • Mark

          “On the other hand, university staff tend to have left-wing political views.”

          Well, they tend to be Big-State Democrats, given that the universities are basically a Big-State program. In other words they have the position the vulgarest Marxism would impute to them. They weren’t even reliably Democrats until the Republicans started their war on the universities in the 80s. (After this thirty year war, the Republicans whine that now they’re all Democrats.)

          There was of course a lot of lefty posturing in some humanities in the 70s 80s on down, but if you look into it, the same people are e.g. all in favor of outsourcing lecturing to under-employed PhDs, hyper-‘meritocratic’ etc etc. They’re Clintonites, in a word. A standard left wing account of the whole vogue for French ‘theory’ in the humanities in the 80s 90s etc was that it gave you radical-seeming formulas and postures – so that you felt like your old 60s or 70s self – with empty Sensible Liberal content.

          A different account is needed for the last couple of years, but earlier on, the much-maligned ‘political correctness’ characterizing university environments was really coming from university lawyers not wanting trouble.

          • arcseconds

            I am not referring to just American institutions.

            It’s true that the management of Universities in the English-speaking world at least is carried out in a broadly similar manner to the management of large companies, and this perhaps isn’t surprising as even outside the USA where most institutions are state-funded, a market model has been put in place, so they behave more or less like largish companies, albeit large companies receiving their business from the State.

            However, just as in a large company the politics of management is not necessarily shared be the workers, there are a great many academics (and other university staff) who are not at all happy with the situation in Universities. I assume you are one of these people, and I would be surprised if you were the only one of such an opinion in your own institution, and world-wide you have plenty of colleagues who are of a broadly similar mind.

            In the context of the discussion, though, all I was meaning was that if a student is inclined to voice support for e.g. a publicly-funded health system or acceptance of minorities their lecturer is likely to agree with them, and to disagree with the opposite views. Perhaps this is less true in the States, or has been less true until recently, but even so the chances of their lecturer having such a view is much greater than in the general population. This is obviously quite compatible with the lecturer failing to be a ‘real Leftist’ in some sense.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Back in the 1980s it occurred to me how contrived and misleading it was to call television newscasts “balanced and fair”.
    This is similar to your description of “disinterested and impartial”.

    I’m sure that the news producers in the Soviet Union and in fictional Airstrip One would have claimed to present news which was balanced and fair.
    The act of choosing which stories should be presented and which ones should not is a powerful way to influence the way that the public thinks.
    Then, the actual stories themselves are far from being the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    “Fair and balanced” or “Pravda” (truth) are both easier said than done.

  • Gary

    Activist scholars are nothing new. The 60’s brings to mind the extreme. Angela Davis (Communist), and Timothy Leary (LSD advocate). I viewed them as a curiosity when I was going to college (physics). Now, as an older person, I would rather have my grandchildren go to an unbiased professor, than an advocate for either Communism, militant feminism, or drug use. State the facts, and keep your personal opinions to your self, in the classroom environment. Activists (as Professors), are no different than lobbyists in Washington DC, except they are presented as “hero’s” to their students, and therefore have tainted opinions dumped on young, and impressionable kids, that don’t know any better, and take on their professor’s causes.

    • Gary

      I suspect that most people know activist professors as “kinder, gentler, old dudes, that seem to be doing the world some good”. Try going to the UC System, and see what true militant activist professors are like. Might change your mind.

  • John MacDonald

    One of John F. Kennedy’s favorite quotations, which he attributed to Dante, was that “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”