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. 

Comments

  • tisquinn

    While Mr. Revesz is quite right to assert that at least all humanities classes bear some political bias, he misses the point of Zelinsky’s and others’ critiques. It is not the fear that the individual classes of ER&M will be biased, but that the major as a whole is biased, i.e., that each class in it will suffer from the same bias. His citations of the history and political science department reveal this misunderstanding: yes, much of history may be biased towards the “victorious and the privileged,” but the Yale history department’s course offerings are not uniformly so oriented—they are anything but; nor does the political science department writ large take for granted the notion that democracy is an intrinsic good or one worth promoting. Alongside “Promoting Democracy in Developing Countries” is taught “Ancient Political Philosophy,” the vast majority of whose syllabus consists in anti-democratic thinkers.

    No academia, at least in the arts and humanities, may be objective. But this obvious truism cannot serve to excuse the lack of intellectual diversity within a major.

    • bytheway248

      “His citations of the history and political science department reveal this misunderstanding: yes, much of history may be biased towards the “victorious and the privileged,” but the Yale history department’s course offerings are not uniformly so oriented—they are anything but;”

      I thought Revesz made a strong argument that all academia is inherently biased

    • jwr

      @tisquinn: I don’t find this super-convincing. What’s the difference between ER&M and Economics, by your definition? Even if it’s true that one or two Econ classes are taught with an explicitly anti-market ideology (and I can’t find any evidence for that in OCI), I think it’s fair to call Economics a “uniformly biased” department by your definition.

      • JohnnyE

        >Even if it’s true that one or two Econ classes are taught with an explicitly anti-market ideology…

        Yeah, that would be desirable. So would teaching creationism in Biology classes.

    • grumpyalum

      Can someone tell me the ‘bias’ in ER&M? That they focus on Hispanics? That they probably think that it’s a bad thing that people suffer?

      • ycollege14

        Good question. Also, ER&M doesn’t focus on Hispanics. Almost all of the current classes listed under ER&M are also cross-listed with other departments. The narratives and histories discussed span a wide range of cultures, societies, and geographic regions.

  • bcrosby

    Exactly right. Great column, Josh!

  • River_Tam

    • grumpyalum

      Well, he doesn’t know the world very well. Also, he is correct: social sciences aren’t in fact, truth avenues in the way that hard science is. Well, that’s what happens when you’re trying to discuss things that aren’t about the physical properties of the universe.

  • btcl

    It doesn’t matter if the subject matter is inherently political if the method of inquiry isn’t:
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/stanley-fish/

    • grumpyalum

      But that’s silly! The method of inquiry is always going to be political because you did choose one metric over the other and that has consequences!

      Mind you, it might not have “political” consequences in terms of politics, ie. government structures and elections and stuff, but it certainly does have political ramifications.

  • River_Tam

    Mr. Revesz makes the sweeping claim that all of Yale’s majors are inherently political, and then cites only other social sciences (and nominally history) to bolster his claim.

    Despite my love of conservative and libertarian Mathematics like algebra and topology, I do see the value in liberal mathematics like fractal geometry and complex analysis. Same goes for Computer Science, where I really do understand the partisan divide between stable and unstable sorts.

    • jwr

      River_Tam: I’d probably concede Mathematics to you – I did say “nearly all,” and admit my argument is better for the Humanities & Social Sciences.

      But don’t you think there’s something political – or at least, ideological – about CS’s emphasis on efficiency? I haven’t taken any Computer Sciences courses here and will happily admit to ignorance, but there IS a (somewhat controversial) political message to valuing speed over beauty, and to the extent that the whole business of computer coding does that I think it’s fair to say it’s political.

      • Leah

        In CS and math, efficiency *is* elegance.

      • River_Tam

        > but there IS a (somewhat controversial) political message to valuing speed over beauty, and to the extent that the whole business of computer coding does that I think it’s fair to say it’s political.

        To be honest, I think it’s pretty obvious you haven’t taken any computer science courses.

        There are philosophical implications to code beauty and the like, but these are not what computer science is about as an academic discipline and it is not taught in courses. It certainly isn’t political.

        • jwr

          Rhetorically, it’s silly to call me out for ignorance when I admit to it!

          But more to the point, let me make three arguments that might be more convincing:
          1. I hope you’ll agree that the way we think through problems is a political act. How perfect governmental programs (pun intended) need to be in order to be valuable is a matter of contemporary debate. And I imagine the things a college-level Computer Science course teaches you could inform that sort of judgement.
          2. More concretely, the list of CS courses every year has a bunch of classes that are prima facie political – Technology & the Law, etc. (these are generally not cross-listed, to my surprise). I’d be curious to know if there’s really an impermeable wall between those sorts of courses and other CS courses.
          3. Relatedly, “hacker culture” is obviously very political. I’d need to know way more than I do before asserting to what extent the CS major actually inculcates that culture and to what extent the association is correlative, but it’s worth thinking about!

          • River_Tam

            > I hope you’ll agree that the way we think through problems is a political act. How perfect governmental programs (pun intended) need to be in order to be valuable is a matter of contemporary debate. And I imagine the things a college-level Computer Science course teaches you could inform that sort of judgement.

            I feel like you’re just saying “learning changes thinking, and thinking changes politics”. This is trivially true, but we can distinguish between directly political actions (eg: reading Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States) and indirectly political actions (eg: playing soccer). The distinction should be clear – let me know if I’m not making it so.

            > More concretely, the list of CS courses every year has a bunch of classes that are prima facie political – Technology & the Law, etc. (these are generally not cross-listed, to my surprise). I’d be curious to know if there’s really an impermeable wall between those sorts of courses and other CS courses.

            None of these are courses that count towards the major. They are offered so that the CS department can say “look, we have X students enrolled in CS courses”.

            > Relatedly, “hacker culture” is obviously very political. I’d need to know way more than I do before asserting to what extent the CS major actually inculcates that culture and to what extent the association is correlative, but it’s worth thinking about!

            It certainly is! But hacker culture is not as inextricably tied to the CS department as you would think – certainly a vast majority of CS students are not l33t hax0rz and have no interest in that particular strain of left-libertarian politics.

            I do believe that learning CS and Math (anything! Chess! Soccer! Gears of War!) has a tendency to shape one’s political views, but I think that phenomenon is very obviously distinct from a discipline being “inherently linked” to a political worldview

          • jwr

            “I do believe that learning CS and Math…has a tendency to shape one’s political views, but I think that phenomenon is very obviously distinct from a discipline being ‘inherently linked’ to a political worldview.”

            I basically agree with this statement except for wording quibbles. If the entirety of a discipline shapes political views in a way we can reasonably relate back to its academic project, then I think it’s “inherently linked.” But these definitional debates aren’t too helpful, I guess – I learned a lot from this thread, so thanks!

      • morse_14

        In computer science, efficiency is elegancy — much like mathematics, where the most elegant proofs are often unexpectedly short. Computers are no more than a tool; when we engineer them, we tell them what to do. Telling them to do so in a way that takes less time and uses less resources has no political connotations: given a tool, we simply wish to make the best use of it possible.

        Using a hammer rather than a stone to bang in a nail might be more efficient, but it’s also more beautiful. Beauty and efficiency are not always in opposition.

  • ernie

    There seem to be worthwhile arguments on both sides here. Revesz is surely right that no discipline is objective in any absolute sense, and it’s surely valuable to be self-reflective about the ideologies implicit in what we study and how we study it. But recognizing that objectivity is an impossible ideal doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth striving for. At its best, academia pursues methods of evidence and analysis that allow rational argument, rather than competing ideologies simply talking past each other. Pursuing objectivity, then, shouldn’t be about pretending ideology doesn’t exist, but about acknowledging its permanent presence in order to find ways of arguing that achieve _relative_ independence from it.

  • claypoint2

    It was a pleasure to read the article and the comments above. My thanks to Joshua Revesz for producing an excellent piece that stimulated intelligent conversation… and to the contributors for their thoughtful, insightful commentary. I wish that more YDN threads looked like this one. Cheers.-

  • disneyguy

    This is a wonderful piece. Thank for pointing out some of the errors in the logic of those who arbitrarily point to ER&M and WGSS as “political” majors, while ignoring the fact that all of academia and its various departments are influenced by assumptions which could easily be classifed as political–English, economics, anthropology, even the beloved hard sciences.

  • jorge_julio

    uhh, there’s a difference between a partisan assumption and a political assumption. A department may make certain political assumptions, but if they’re not particularly controversial, there’s no more reason to call the department “subjective” than there is to call math “subjective” for making presuppositions about logic.

    I’m much more worried about a department which takes as its basic premise a highly-charged, liberal, post-colonial narrative of oppression.

    • ycollege14

      Except that that’s a central facet of colonial history.
      A narrative of oppression.

    • bcrosby

      So jorge_julio, what you’re saying – quite literally – is so long as the politics of a department supports the status quo, that is, is “not particularly controversial,” then it doesn’t count as political in a meaningful sense? Thanks for laying out exactly why we need departments like ER&M.

  • Dedwards

    The addition of this major is just a glorified make work project for professors

  • yayasisterhood

    Mathematics, Physics, Philosophy, Chemistry, to name a few.

    • bcrosby

      Wait, sorry, you think that philosophy isn’t political? REALLY?

  • NewCampus

    Josh,

    Implicit in your editorial is the belief that political assumptions are effectively the same as expressed positions. I’m not so sure that’s true.

    In the more obviously politicized majors, there tends to be a political goal, a broad narrative of an oppressed group’s struggles that most scholarship in the field is devoted to supporting.

    And this leads to a difference in the academic quality of work. While undoubtedly many political science professors take it as a given that democracy is superior, if a political scientist made an argument that say, fascist governments are more economically efficient and less corrupt (not true, of course), the work would still be considered political science, and part of the scholarship in the field, albeit presumably some of the poorer scholarship.

    If, however, someone interested in African Studies wrote a paper making the (incorrect) argument that European colonization improved the lives of Africans generally, that research would never be considered part of the African Studies body of scholarship. It might be responded to, or argued against, but it would not be published in the relevant journals and its author would not be hired by African Studies departments. The field is inherently self-segregating in a way that other fields, political by your definition, are not.

    And that’s a something to worry about. I once read a Marxist’s paper about Wuthering Heights. It was a striking read, because for the author, somehow everything significant in the book was related to class differences. It was not a convincing read, nor particularly good scholarship. Scholarship in which the conclusion, a Marxist understanding of literature in this case, is assumed, tends to be unimaginative, repetitive, and unenlightening.

    • River_Tam

      Marxism is a closed system, much like Freudianism. Any attempt to argue against the system can be explained away, since the system either A) threatens your position of power or B) threatens the position of power of someone who’s obviously brainwashed you.

    • jwr

      NewCampus,

      I think you’re making a good argument, and agree that the Marxist interpretation of Bronte sounds subpar. But I’m not sure I accept the dichotomy you’re setting up. To give a counterexample, I’m not sure that a Marxist take on economics (which might be unimaginative, repetitive and unenlightening, but which seems to me to be no different in kind from your African studies example) would be accepted by the discipline any more than the colonization piece would. I suspect that, if we get down to it, all fields are self-segregating to varying degrees.

      • NewCampus

        You make a good point; most fields are inherently self-segregating.

        In addition, if one makes the perhaps-too-optimistic assumption that most academics are well informed about their fields, it follows that they will probably agree with most other academics simply because the body of evidence supports their jointly held views. The ignored dissenter is more likely to be a poor scholar than an unheard genius.

        But I am not sure that that is the end of the argument. In economics, for instance, the consensus view has several times dramatically shifted from a largely conservative world view to one that seems to support a liberal approach to economic policy, and then back again. This may not speak well for the accuracy of economic arguments, but does suggest that the field is fairly open to new ideas.

        Can you imagine a WGSS department that holds conservative views? Could such a department ever be anything but leftist in its approach and conclusions? I’m not sure it can. This is not to say that such politicized approach to scholarship cannot be accurate or valuable, but perhaps the concentration of a great deal of such scholarship into fairly narrow majors is something that should be looked at with caution.

        • jwr

          I mean, it depends. I agree with you that econ has shifted over the last century, but to the exclusion of various worldviews – the Leftist idea that we should value equality over efficiency is way outside the economic mainstream, as are most of the ideas of the Austrian economists on the right. Maybe you’re right that WGSS has a narrower spectrum of acceptable beliefs, but I think the better explanation is the one I tried to outline in the column – that WGSS’s view is simply less accepted than economics’. Unless people want to democratize academia and only teach popular ideas – and I hope people don’t – then I’m not sure that’s a problem with WGSS.

          The other thing I might say is that I don’t know what it would mean for a WGSS department to hold “conservative views” because I associate conservatism with a refusal to engage with WGSS’s ideas rather than with a disagreement with them. But yes – I’d like to think that a self-described “conservative feminist” like Christina Hoff Sommers could get a job in a WGSS-type department.

          • grumpyalum

            Could an Andrew Sullivan position in the 90’s get a position in academia in WGSS? I think so. That would be a ‘conservative’ opinion, in terms of homosexuality. He believed that gays should assimilate and gay married and all of that jazz. If the conservative position is “the homosexuals should all probably go away”, then, well, yes. No one is going to take that seriously. No one would take the guy saying “ignore all numbers” in the History department seriously or the person talking about how ‘people buy things as commanded by God’ seriously either.