REVESZ: No academia is objective

The addition of ethnicity, race and migration as Yale’s 78th standalone major has prompted criticism from campus conservatives, who claim that the major will only enhance the dangerous brew of politics and academia. In a way, they are correct. The project of ER&M — which questions conventional views of nationality and identity — contributes a political perspective that is largely ignored by most thinkers within and without the ivory tower.

But ER&M’s critics err when they assert that the major — along with others broadly thought of as area studies — is different in kind from anything else the university offers. Indeed, nearly all of Yale’s 79 majors are inherently and inextricably linked to a political worldview.

It is curious that global affairs, Yale’s 77th standalone major, did not elicit claims of politicization. After all, the major rests on the idea that Americans ought to understand the world through the lens of benevolent developers helping ameliorate the plight of impoverished nations. Its methodology, which includes a capstone project where students consult on how best to solve problems of economic development and international security, is grounded in the notion that America should solve the world’s major dilemmas.

This idea is hardly objective. Neither are the fundamental beliefs about government on which political science rests or the concepts about the utility of markets that are largely accepted throughout the Economics Department. History — often written by the victorious and the privileged — makes controversial claims about the best ways to understand the past.

And while the sciences may be the least political of Yale’s disciplines — politics, after all, concerns itself with humans and society in a way that chemistry does not — we see in the national debates over the beginning of life and origins of humanity that even their claims cannot be divorced from the hyperpolitical world in which Yale exists.

If the political message of economics is less obvious than that of WGSS, it is only because we are more acculturated to the former. Politics cannot be divorced from the classroom, and those who assume it can tend to do so in only the cases where the political perspective has been most marginalized from mainstream discourse. Queer theory is no more dogmatic or bias-inducing than the idea that democracy is worth valuing — it merely has fewer adherents. So we should be at least as critical of GLBL 366: “Promoting Democracy in Developing Countries” as we are of WGSS 339: “Feminist Fictions.”

Pedagogy is a particularly potent brand of politics because it is so hard to question. A literature professor, in constructing a syllabus, makes a host of political claims hard for any of her students to counter, simply because the power dynamics of the classroom dictate that learning takes place within that class’s political framework.

This reality should not scare us. We come to Yale to learn, and learning cannot be extracted from the political environment in which it takes place. By embracing the politics of the classroom — politics that will be there whether we like it or not — we make it easier to understand the basic worldviews and methodologies that majors exist to organize.

So all courses of study — not just ER&M and global affairs, but also sociology and English — should be more up-front about the politics behind their academic approaches. Classes like “Introductory Microeconomics” should start by divulging the assumptions behind the course, and only students who find those claims worth studying should take the class. Professors should think harder and divulge more about how their politics affects their syllabi and lectures. That way, we can move beyond the misguided idea that the academy should or even could be a space hermetically sealed from subjectivity and ideology, and we can graduate from Yale with a superior understanding of how politics shapes every aspect of our world.

Joshua Revesz is a junior in Calhoun College. Contact him at joshua.revesz@yale.edu. 

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