“Objectivity” As a Barrier to Education: Teaching Intellectual Responsibility and the Role of the Citizen
Often, when people wonder if American higher education might follow the fate of journalism, falling victim to inability to adapt to new technological milieux, they are thinking in terms of money and its impact. The financial structures of protected and centralized institutions can collapse when product becomes cheaply and widely available, both for creation and consumption, even to individuals with few skill-based assets. But the parallels extend further, into a preceding erosion of the quality of the “products” each “industry” produces. It was this erosion that set the stage for what was to follow for journalism, and that is setting it now for education, and it stems in part from fears, in both fields, that public opinion can adversely affect the income, the status, and the prerogatives that had become so cherished by those in power.
Certainly, by the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, once vigorous newspapers and colleges had become timid. Financial success of unexpected and unequalled degree led first journalism and then higher education into protectionist stances where the primary desire of the institutions came to be maintenance of income and status, not improvement of the product—a problem, of course, that many other industries have faced. As happens so often to stagnant enterprises, the products of journalism and education became, or will become, vulnerable to competition from unexpected sources. But there is a difference between these institutions and industry in general. At least one basic and critical function of each of these particular institutions sets them apart from just about any other American institution or industry, and that is their function in preparing people for their role as citizens in the American democracy. This, not just ability to turn a profit through new, possibly risky endeavour, has been atrophying.
One sure sign of timidity, providing a false sense of “objectivity” through a reliance on “balance” instead of on evidence and on confidence in one’s own ability to stake out and defend a position, can be seen today in both journalism and education. This sign, often also manifest as an unwillingness to step outside of “traditional” methodologies (hiding behind them, more accurately), became more and more evident over the decades before the collapse of journalism in the early years of the twenty-first century, with education soon (and currently) following its example. It was, and is, best exemplified by the withdrawal of willingness to take a public stand on any issue, except in defined corners of either operation, and claiming a dispassionate “objectivity” as the goal. The real reason for this, though, is that the stakes have become so large, the rewards so great, that these institutions, and the individuals in privileged positions within them, have reached the point where they are not willing to do anything that might jeopardize the funding stream. The unspoken goal of much of academic research is now primarily the continuation of funding, not the solving of problems, scientific or otherwise. This attitude extends far beyond the sciences: in all of education, as in journalism, the goal certainly is no longer the creation of an educated citizenry, once a purported objective of both. Certainly, the overriding goal of retention of income streams precludes concentration on, or confidence in, anything outside of protection of fiscal position. Necessarily, it precludes risk.
Ever since the money involved became enormous, journalism and academia “players” have been reacting like winners at poker who have grown cautious after amassing huge numbers of chips. While this may be judicious in a situation where the sole goal is monetary gain, in realms dominated by creation of product, especially ones that have taken on civic roles and responsibilities, it leaves much to be desired. When the top becomes risk averse, also, the attitude trickles down even to those like me operating in support positions, who then find themselves taking little risk on their own, worried about the possibility of offending superiors whose goal, now, has little directly to do with the activities of us subordinates.
The timidity from the top reaches down into the methodologies of the news story, for journalism, and the classroom, for higher education. Though manifest in a variety of ways, it is easily seen in the tendency of retreat toward false balance, a result of that unwillingness to risk taking a stand, particularly on controversial topics but eventually, through imitative analogy, in almost everything printed or taught. In journalism, this has led to the opening that bloggers took advantage of, once developing technologies had provided the tools. In higher education, it has not only helped open the door for new “for profit” colleges willing to move into areas the older institutions fear, but it has allowed those feeling shut out by extremely hierarchic and code-bound institutions to sense an area of weakness—and to attack.
All sorts of justifications are put forward for the attempts to present what is claimed as “detachment” or “objectivity” or “balance” in both venues, from a sense of fairness to an odd re-conception of intellectual honesty. In many cases, however, it is mostly, as I have written elsewhere, “indicative of a complete lack of principle and an abundance of opportunism” no matter how well dressed up it is. I was paraphrasing a statement in a Washington, D.C. newspaper, the U.S. Telegraph, on October 7, 1828 attacking a new Baltimore paper’s claim that it would endeavour towards neutrality of opinion. That older suspicion of “objectivity,” unfortunately, was already dying, as the claims put forward by that new Baltimore paper hint. Journalist and commentator on his field Davis “Buzz” Merritt describes quite succinctly what has happened over the years since and the attitudes that have developed as a result:
The dominance of scientific thought and methods sanctified the most distanced observer as being the most reliable. Others attribute it to a crasser impulse: the need of publishers in competitive situations to move away from highly politicized, opinionated coverage so as to please a broader audience and offend fewer advertisers…. Detachment, it is almost universally believed by journalists, is the fount of their credibility…. The newspaper is separated from other institutions by its duty to report on them…. If we maintain the proper separations, then surely our product is pure and will be perceived as such: its objectivity is insured and we therefore will have credibility.
Following journalism scholar Jay Rosen, Merritt refers to this as “separation fever,” a false belief that it is possible for the reporter to remove herself or himself so completely from the story being covered that real “objective” reporting results.
The pose of impartiality, however, reduces all positions to “opinions,” and this creates problems not only in presentation in journalism but in effective classroom learning and in public debate subsequent to reporting in the press and education in the classroom, calcifying belief and making compromise (as we are seeing in contemporary American politics) almost impossible. This, of course, not only runs counter to the purported goals of the institutions, but it actually subverts the very sorts of discussions and compromises both journalism and education are supposed to promote in a democracy. In an era of constant strife between foundationalists, who believe in knowable “truth,” and pragmatists, for whom “truth” is little more than “current understanding,” attempts to find “balance” inevitably tip the scale instead, making the relativists look lame and lightweight, lacking confidence in contrast to the solid certainties of the foundationalists. The differences, as Michael Bérubé, writes (characterizing the faculty as, for the most part, “liberals”), are stark:
In any standoff between secular liberals and religious conservatives, then, each side will have a drastically different conception not only of the issues at hand in the standoff but also of the consequences of the dispute itself: the liberals believe that the religious conservatives will craft social policies that will hurt gay men, atheists, and rape victims, whereas the religious conservatives believe that a just and omnipotent deity will consign the liberals to unending torment in hell, where they belong. Surely you don’t have to be a secular liberal to see that, in this game, the deck is stacked.
Certainly, such situations rarely lead to compromise or attempts to understand the viewpoint of the other.
The believers in “balance” set themselves as a third camp, ignoring the irreconcilable differences between the other two. In fact, they pretty much disregard them. They are, generally, those who see themselves as neither foundationalists nor pragmatists but as “realists,” starting from the claim that, as Richard Rorty puts it, “the only true source of evidence is the world as it is in itself” and from a belief in the possibility of understanding the world without the intercession of human bias and limitation—the underpinnings of any belief in objectivity. When they think of them at all, they look down on the other two groups, the former for seeing the world through belief, the latter for not believing in the “real” world at all.
The arrogance and confidence of all of these attitudes, even the third, is distinct from that of William James’s “most useful investigator” who “is always he whose eager interest in one side of the question is balanced by an equally keen nervousness lest he become deceived.” This does not necessarily translate into a lack of confidence or into an inability to go onto the public stage and perform, as it were. Nor does such an attitude hide belief behind a veneer of objectivity, nor worry about whether or not its base is foundational. Instead, this one is a constant questioner, listener, and evaluator, someone ever attempting to undercut her or his own assumptions and even cherished beliefs—even while presenting to an audience. Unfortunately, this investigator has almost completely disappeared from the American classroom, just as it has in American journalism.
James does go on to extol “the dispassionately judicial intellect with no pet hypothesis.”This “objective” position, though it is an impossibility or simply a theoretical starting point, is what many journalists and educators claim to establish at the end, a claim that foundationalists love to undermine, when journalists and academics make it, easily showing both the claim’s arrogance and its falsity—and its essential timidity when used as an excuse against “opinion.” It is this, and the lack of confidence that it generally hides, that set journalism up for its fall within the last decade—at least in part. And this, too, may prove to be a factor in any coming downfall of the current American system of higher education.
People such as David Horowitz, a right-wing activist and author of (among many other books) The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, are finding it easy, today, to hoist many scholars by their own petard, showing that their cherished objectivity is no such thing. They use this as a tactic towards a strategic design, the replacement of the current “liberal” establishment from its seat of dominance within American universities with much more conservative leaders. As Paul Starr, author of Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications, wrote in a review of Impostors in the Temple: The Decline of the American University by Martin Anderson (quoted in Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?), “Mr. Anderson seems to want to do for the universities what [Newt] Gingrich and his confrères have done for the Congress: bring the institution into such disrepute that conservatives, long stuck in minority status, will have a chance at gaining power.” The strategy, shared by Horowitz, hasn’t changed over the twenty years since Anderson’s book, either in politics or against academia. As the ascent of Sarah Palin shows (not to mention later permutations of the anti-politician politician such as Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, and Herman Cain), belief and personality now trump knowledge and skill in the political arena—and even in journalism, where entertainers such as Glenn Beck, Andrew Breitbart, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh hold greater influence than anyone who has made a career of studying issues rather than audiences. Unless things change, this will soon be the case in American universities as well. David Barton, a self-styled “historian” with a clear and self-proclaimed “Christian” view of American history, is already more influential than most with real training and experience in that field of study. Bill O’Reilly has found as much success as serious popular historians as Ron Chernow and David McCullough with the bestselling Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever (written with Martin Dugard), a work riddled with historical error and examples of amateur scholarship. In a comment on the book, novelist Nelson DeMille goes so far as to write, “Add historian to Bill O’Reilly’s already impressive résumé.” The term “historian” is thereby reduced to equivalence with “entertainer,” with accuracy, care, developed skill, and even peer approval jettisoned completely. Disrepute indeed.
People within academia, including me, have allowed this to happen through our own growing unwillingness to grapple with hard issues and to publicly defend the positions we establish, especially if our positions challenge our own institutions. Ira Shor, one of the rare American academics who refuse to bow to the forces of inertia, complained of this more than fifteen years ago though, in keeping with what seemed to be the case at the time, he blamed political pressure instead of financial protectiveness:
A teacher’s authority to question the status quo… varies with the changing tides of politics. Different eras have different political climates, encouraging or repressing democratic activism. In what I have called the “conservative restoration” following the activist sixties—the reactionary period from Nixon through Gingrich—it became increasingly harder for me to pursue experiments, as students, colleagues, and administrators pulled in their sails, in tune with the declining social movements and the rising reactionary politics of these decades.
In the mid-nineties, the financial imperatives stemming from the attitudes of the Reagan era (speaking culturally and not simply politically) were not so starkly apparent as they are today. The destructive impact of the synergy of politics and money on journalism and education, certainly, was not yet quite so visible as they have become, especially, since 9/11. They have even had an impact on teachers as outspoken as Bérubé:
in the years since, as conservative students and pundits have begun to mount campaigns against what they perceive as liberal “bias” in American universities, I’ve had many occasions to wonder whether I’ve always dealt with [conservative] students… in the best possible way. Although I’m a fairly opinionated and outspoken liberal-progressive writer outside the classroom, I keep most of my political opinions to myself when I enter the classroom, and only very rarely do I encounter an undergraduate student who’s familiar with my writings for Dissent or the Nation or major-city newspapers. Nor do I pry into my students’ personal beliefs; ordinarily, I neither know nor care where my students stand on abortion, the minimum wage, genocide in Rwanda or Sudan, war in Iraq, the regressive Social Security tax, or the policies of the World Bank.
Though I do much the same thing, I am beginning to believe I am wrong—not wrong to never pry into student beliefs (Bérubé’s bringing that up shows the power that has developed around the quest for “balance”) but wrong to leave my own beliefs, for the most part, outside the classroom door. I would be a stronger example to my students if I met questions on such topics directly (which, I suspect, is how Bérubé actually approaches things), instead of avoiding them by saying something like “That’s not really relevant to the topic under consideration.” Doing so only makes me look weak and makes it harder for my students to learn. Why? Because questions that might lead to debate, that might spark interest, are thereby shown to be easily shunted aside. Good education focuses as much on attitude as on topics. At the very least, if we force attitude aside, we leave education dull.
In addition to weakening the institutions of journalism and higher education and reducing the likelihood of compromise in political debate, the quest for “objectivity” has also weakened, within universities, any defence of academic freedom. After all, academic freedom is a freedom for teachers, not simply for scholars, one necessitated by the role of professor as exemplar, as one both willing to take a stand and also to doubt it—and to invite students to do the same. So important is this to academic freedom that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, addresses teaching directly: “Academic freedom in this sense comprises three elements: freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action.” The Declaration goes on, reflecting early recognition of the problems that financial success for educational institutions can entail, but that were not yet generally a controlling part of academia:
If education is the cornerstone of the structure of society and if progress in scientific knowledge is essential to civilization, few things can be more important than to enhance the dignity of the scholar’s profession, with a view to attracting into its ranks men of the highest ability, of sound learning, and of strong and independent character. This is the more essential because the pecuniary emoluments of the profession are not, and doubtless never will be, equal to those open to the more successful members of other professions. It is not, in our opinion, desirable that men should be drawn into this profession by the magnitude of the economic rewards which it offers; but it is for this reason the more needful that men of high gift and character should be drawn into it by the assurance of an honorable and secure position, and of freedom to perform honestly and according to their own consciences the distinctive and important function which the nature of the profession lays upon them.
As Shor indicates, the status of all teachers, including university professors, has been diminished over the past generation in a climate that has become distinctly anti-intellectual. No longer are professors accepted as authorities, certainly not with the enthusiasm of the past when college professors could be popular local lecturers. In part because they have not defended their positions (it is too easy to blame the public alone), professors have lost status to the point where lightweights like Barton and O’Reilly can easily challenge their place of authority within the public imagination. The timidity brought about by fear of losing funding, a timidity academic freedom was supposed to protect against, has combined with fundamentalist and conservative distrust of the universities (especially strong, coming off of the role of universities as hosts to sixties leftist movements) to create a situation where anti-intellectual momentum becomes nearly impossible to counter.
Showing that, even a century ago, the members of the AAUP understood the dangers of money, at least, in an academic environment, the Declaration is used to try to establish a firewall between the financial needs of the educational institution and its scholarly and educational needs:
In the political, social, and economic field almost every question, no matter how large and general it at first appears, is more or less affected by private or class interests; and, as the governing body of a university is naturally made up of men who through their standing and ability are personally interested in great private enterprises, the points of possible conflict are numberless. When to this is added the consideration that benefactors, as well as most of the parents who send their children to privately endowed institutions, themselves belong to the more prosperous and therefore usually to the more conservative classes, it is apparent that, so long as effectual safeguards for academic freedom are not established, there is a real danger that pressure from vested interests may, sometimes deliberately and sometimes unconsciously, sometimes openly and sometimes subtly and in obscure ways, be brought to bear upon academic authorities.
The Declaration goes on to describe problems that public universities might have, different from those of the private schools in that the funding source is the government, to a large degree, but still parallel in that both instances require the protection of the faculty through academic freedom as an explicit aspect of a successful university. In both cases, academic freedom is meant to provide a barrier against the influence of both money and public opinion:
The tendency of modern democracy is for men to think alike, to feel alike, and to speak alike. Any departure from the conventional standards is apt to be regarded with suspicion. Public opinion is at once the chief safeguard of a democracy, and the chief menace to the real liberty of the individual. It almost seems as if the danger of despotism cannot be wholly averted under any form of government. In a political autocracy there is no effective public opinion, and all are subject to the tyranny of the ruler; in a democracy there is political freedom, but there is likely to be a tyranny of public opinion.
An inviolable refuge from such tyranny should be found in the university.
It still could be such a refuge, were academics willing to protect their reputations and show their strengths by standing their ground in the classroom and in public debate. Instead, when attacked, today they tend to fall into a defensive, protectionist posture, one that makes them appear weak. One that invites attack. When coupled with negative public perception of other aspects of academia, including tenure, this makes many people see the professor’s position as little more than a sinecure.
It is no wonder that the profession has fallen into such low repute. The “public intellectual,” the academic playing the role of advising authority in the public sphere, almost disappears as a result of the deliberate attack on the professors and of our inability to defend ourselves. We rarely do what the effective teacher, the one who can lead in the classroom by example, does, in part because we do not maintain the respect the professor had once earned within the wider community, to say nothing of the classroom.
“Teaching by example,” once one of the most important aspects of what occurred in colleges, includes showing what it means to take a position, understand it well enough to defend it, and to stand by it in the public sphere. And, just as importantly, to publicly change one’s position when shown its errors. The crumbling of support for academic freedom over the past few years stems, at least in part, from the inability of so many of us professors, like so many journalists, to take courageous public stands on issues and to demonstrate an intellectual ability to change one’s mind in the face of new evidence. It has led an increasingly timid profession to back away from its own responsibilities within the citizenry. At the same time, emphasis on impartiality has provided cover for other fears, such as the one Horowitz and others on the right perceive and use in their attacks on academia, fears of the professoriate being perceived by the wider public as composed of propagandists instead of scholars.
In “My Pedagogic Creed,” John Dewey wrote: “I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.” Taken seriously, this leads teachers to model for their students, to show how one ought to act in the public arena of a democracy. It means that “teaching” must be much more than simply providing a conduit for “content.” By withdrawing from this responsibility under the cover of impartiality, academics have opened themselves up to the charge that, given new technological means of obtaining information and even of developing skills, their services are no longer needed. Furthermore, they continue to create easy openings for attack from the right. Assuming (they do it for this argument only) that all stands are opinions only, certain conservative forces attack syllabi as one-sided if, for instance, creationism is not offered as an alternative to evolution or doubts about climate change are not given equal weight in the classroom to evidence for it. This is crazy, for it teaches students that no opinion is better than any other, an attitude that will make them less than prepared to deal with the questions the future will certainly raise. Dewey writes:
With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.
Accepting “balance,” students can never next grasp the essentials for reasoning, for any one idea is considered as good as the next, making the act of reasoning irrelevant:
I believe that ideas (intellectual and rational processes) also result from action and devolve for the sake of the better control of action. What we term reason is primarily the law of orderly or effective action. To attempt to develop the reasoning powers, the powers of judgment, without reference to the selection and arrangement of means in action, is the fundamental fallacy in our present methods of dealing with this matter. As a result we present the child with arbitrary symbols. Symbols are a necessity in mental development, but they have their place as tools for economizing effort; presented by themselves they are a mass of meaningless and arbitrary ideas imposed from without.
In the news media, a consistent stance, rather than reasoning, has become a commentator’s stock-in-trade. In news entertainment, which is the largest part of journalism today, changing one’s point of view merely confuses audiences and creates problems for those responsible for booking guests on television and radio shows where the intent is often to feature competing opinions as the basis for the conflicts that drive the shows. As a result, most anyone whose views evolve will eventually drop from sight, for they cannot be guaranteed to provide entertaining opposition. The attitude that one must be consistent in opinions is now carried over to an unprecedented degree to politicians, who are pilloried if they change their minds on any issue. Because they have not publicly held themselves as models for how and why attitudes can change (not recently, at least), college professors are seen in the same light. That, their attackers conclude, they should not have opinions at all but should be “objective”—and should stick to “content” alone.
An opinionated faculty, however, is part of what has made American education effective. The radical behaviourist B. F. Skinner once told me how rhetorician I. A. Richards would introduce him during his annual visits to Richards’ classes at Harvard: “And now I introduce… the devil!” Skinner laughed, enjoying the recollection—and the fact that two men who disagreed dramatically could both be friends and listen to the other—and even allow the other to put forward his own views to his classes.
These two weren’t interested in “balance,” but in debate and continued learning. Each fervently believed in his own theories, but each was willing to be challenged. Each was confident in his position but open to be proven wrong. Each was modelling for students an attitude towards learning and towards intellectual discussion of a sort that the quest for “balance” has helped to erode over the decades since their heyday.
How is what they were providing different than what the political right wants, when it asks that creationism and climate-change doubt be included in the classroom? Simply this: Skinner and Richards were opinionated and proud of it; they did not, however, hold “opinion” itself in high regard. Instead, they valued support of a position, confidence in one’s ability to consider and evaluate evidence, and a willingness to take into account new information. They could do this because they knew they were protected by the principle of academic freedom. Even when their opinions were at odds with prevailing cultural winds, they were protected—not as people who will imbue certain beliefs into the students (it was expected that family and culture could take care of that) but as exemplars of the process of search, conclusion, and action. But academic freedom has itself atrophied, becoming little more than job protection—a right and not a responsibility.
Skinner remains one of the most significant cases in point for the value of traditional academic freedom, especially for those whose beliefs run counter to prevailing cultural winds. Long vilified for, supposedly, raising his daughters in a Skinner box, for hating ‘freedom and dignity,’ and for reducing every human action to stimulus and response, he is now recognized (though not yet fully) as a visionary. The ‘Air-Crib’ he developed and wrote about in an unfortunately titled article (“Baby in a Box”: in a note in Cumulative Record, Skinner claims he did not create the title) for Ladies Home Journal in 1945, foresaw such household commonalities as monitors in cribs that allow parents to hear a child’s breathing and activity from anywhere in the house. It was not the operant chamber, or Skinner box, that was used to teach generations of students about operant conditioning. And, though it took a generation for his book Verbal Behavior to recover from a scathing review by Noam Chomsky (Skinner would later say to me that he had never responded to Chomsky because Chomsky’s review did not deal with the points of the book but with Chomsky’s own vision of a type of behaviourism, often called ‘methodological behaviourism,’ that was not Skinner’s), it is now of increasing importance to the study of language usage. Finally, Skinner’s take on technology in education, though still mostly ignored today, probably should become the starting point for development of effective “hybrid” (combined classroom and online) education. His words on the subject more than fifty years ago certainly remain relevant today:
There is more important work to be done—in which the teacher’s relations to the pupil cannot be duplicated by a mechanical device. Instrumental help would merely improve these relations. One might say that the main trouble with education… is that the child is obviously not competent and knows it and that the teacher is unable to do anything about it and knows that too. If the advances which have recently been made in our control of behavior can give the child genuine competence in reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic, then the teacher may begin to function, not in lieu of a cheap machine, but through intellectual, cultural, and emotional contacts of that distinctive sort which testify to her status as a human being.
This, of course, is the most important role a teacher plays. But it is also the one that, through timidity, we have been giving up. We have, in fact, been allowing measurement and “outcome” to replace teaching in almost all of American national discussions on education: “under the blandishments of statistical methods, which promised a new kind of rigor, educational psychologists spent half a century measuring the results of teaching while neglecting teaching itself.” Now, it has been a century.
The result? A system of education that, all too often, takes engagement out of education, replacing it with boredom:
Though physically present and looking at a teacher or text, the student does not pay attention. He is hysterically deaf. His mind wanders. He daydreams. Incipient forms of escape appear as restlessness. “Mental fatigue” is usually not a state of exhaustion but an uncontrollable disposition to escape, and schools deal with it by permitting escaped to other activities which, it is hoped, will also be profitable…. A child will spend hours absorbed in play or in watching movies or television who cannot sit still in school for more than a few minutes before escape becomes too strong to be denied.
By college, the disengagement between student and teacher becomes almost complete, the courses following an “almost universal system of ‘assign and test.’ The teacher does not teach, he simply holds the student responsible for learning. The student must read books, study texts, perform experiments, and attend lectures, and he is responsible for doing so in the sense that, if he does not correctly report what he has seen, heard, or read, he will suffer aversive consequences.” Yet it is through interaction with teachers that a student really learns:
It has been said that an education is what survives when a man has forgotten all he has been taught. Certainly few students could pass their final examinations even a year or two after leaving school or the university. What has been learned of permanent value must therefore not be the facts and principles covered by examinations but certain other kinds of behaviour often ascribed to special abilities.
Those other kinds of behaviour include actions such as continued search even in the face of failure, change of direction in light of new information, and engagement with others pursuing intellectual goals. These are gained, usually, through interaction with real scholar/teachers and through notice of the examples set.
The reasons education fell into the timidity of “objectivity,” while sharing an essential protective component with journalism, are somewhat different. Those of journalism are explored by a number of scholars and journalists, including Rosen (What Are Journalists For?) and Merritt (Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News Is Not Enough). Those of education have not been as well explored.
Unfortunately, a certain portion of the blame for what has happened in higher education can be laid to a misapplication (and often a misunderstanding) of one book, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In it, Freire describes ‘the banking model of education,’ something that has become the bête noire of many educators and an excuse, couched in leftist terms, for removing oneself from responsibility in the classroom and from the engagement Skinner promotes. Freire argues that the contents of courses, through this banking model (which is more talked of and vilified than understood), tend “to become lifeless and petrified.” It turns students “into ‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher.” Freire sees the solution to the tendency to fall into this pattern in development of a paradigm where all in the classroom act both as teachers and as students. It removes the lectern, so to speak, making everyone involved explicit learners. He writes:
The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students’ creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed. The oppressors use their “humanitarianism” to preserve a profitable situation. Thus they react almost instinctively against any experiment in education which stimulates the critical faculties and is not content with a partial view of reality but always seeks out the ties which link one point to another and one problem to another.
The irony, today, is that Freire’s own suggestions have been turned to that same preservation. Adapted into a situation that cannot maintain it honestly, Freire’s own model of education simply becomes another means of protecting the status quo. What Freire envisioned was a complete revamping of the system of education, including its hierarchies. It is impossible, for instance, to institute a real community of equal learners when one member of the community is invested with the necessity of evaluating all of the others and when that one has been selected for membership in an elite fraternity. Shor, who collaborated with Freire on later projects, recognized this, writing that, “in terms of transforming undemocratic power relations, I cannot instantly shed or deny the authority I bring to class. Many students won’t allow that. They expect me to install unilateral authority; in some ways, they prefer it or want it, more than just expect it.” Grafting Freire onto an unchanged hierarchy cannot work. More has to be done. Yet a flawed and bastardized version of Freire’s pedagogy, taking none of this into account, has become the unquestioned standard for too much of contemporary classroom teaching, at least in the humanities.
Small groups, short activities, sitting in a circle: these have become the core of any acceptable teaching in more and more eyes and are enforced through peer classroom evaluations. Lecturing is out. People extol ‘the guide by the side’ and bemoaned ‘the sage on the stage.’ But teaching is much more than that, as Shor says. As Bérubé does, like Freire himself did, and Dewey and Skinner. These are (or were) all real teachers, not people satisfied with a restrictive methodology coupled with a timid approach to their topics or the world. Freire argues that teachers should be as much learners as students, but never meant that to reduce teachers—he meant to enhance learners and teachers by emphasizing the contribution learning makes to teaching and that teachers constantly learn about teaching through their students. Following that line of thought, Shor writes, “critical pedagogy is a constantly evolving process which calls for continual change and growth, in me and the students.
Taking inspiration from Skinner, psychologist Fred Keller wrote an article, published in 1968, called “Good-bye, Teacher.” It wasn’t, as it might sound, an argument for ridding schools of their instructors but a presentation of a plan expanding what is done in our schools. Use technology, yes, but not solely; use teachers, but not alone and not in the traditional fashion, focusing their energy on organization, motivation, and example. Take things in small steps, students sometimes working alone, sometimes with classroom peers who have already mastered the assignment, sometimes with former students of the course now acting as proctors, making everyone in the classroom clearly teachers to some degree. Called the Personalized System of Instruction or the Keller Method, it actually works—but it requires extra effort on the part of the teacher, far more than does assigning tasks to small groups, keeping activities short, and letting students talk in a circle. It requires planning and also requires confidence on the part of the teacher, confidence that the traditional classroom role can be given up without loss of authority.
Shor writes that students are “talked at, talked about, talked around, and talked down to, but rarely talked with in traditional schooling. Keller wanted to change this as much as Freire did (both of them developed their methods in Brazil in the early 1960s). This cannot be done through halfway measures where students are not given the full picture of the teacher’s role or when parts of what can make up effective teaching are utilized without the rest, as Skinner makes clear by saying that technology in education is not, by itself, enough.
Whatever the method used, education will never regain its strength it we do not actively pursue the school’s participation within the culture as a tool for improvement—not just of individuals but of the society as a whole. We teachers need to be aggressive in our agendas, and those need to extend well beyond the classroom. Dewey writes:
I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment properly to perform his task.
This is not objectivity—but it is education.
Aaron Barlow, The rise of the blogosphere (Westport, Conn: Praeger. 2007), 61.
Davis Merritt, Public journalism and public life: why telling the news is not enough (Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1998), 23-24.
Michael Bérubé, 2006. What’s liberal about the liberal arts?: classroom politics and “bias” in higher education (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 289.
Richard Rorty, 1999. Philosophy and social hope (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 150.
William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The will to believe, and other essays in popular philosophy(New York: Dover Publications, 1956), 21.
Bérubé, op. cit., 277.
Amazon.com. Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America. http://www.amazon.com/Killing-Lincoln-Shocking-Assassination-Changed/dp/0805093079/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1321281355&sr=1-1.
Ira Shor, 1996. When students have power: negotiating authority in a critical pedagogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 25.
Bérubé, op. cit., 2-3.
Edwin Seligman, et al, American Association of University Professors 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/policydocs/contents/1915.htm.
B F Skinner,. Cummulative Record: A Selection of Papers (New York: Appleton, Century-Crofts, 1972), 427.
Ibid., “The Technology of Education,” 156-157.
B. F. Skinner, The technology of teaching (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968), 94.
B. F. Skinner, 1965. “Review Lecture: The Technology of Teaching” (London: Proceedings of the Royal Society B.1965), 441-442.
Paulo Freire, 2000. Pedagogy of the oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2000), 7.
Shor, op. cit., 18.
Shor, op. cit., 4.
Shor, op.cit., 16.
Dewey, op. cit.