On authority and objectivity

I’m continually struck by how many students seemingly prize the ideal of “objectivity” and neutrality, but more than that, how many of them are convinced those ideals are actually–or should be–manifested in scholarship and the media. I suppose we could argue they just haven’t (yet) become cynical, and that that is a good thing, but I’m more concerned they sometimes don’t realize they need to be critical–and what that might mean in realms beyond our classrooms–which is where this musing is ultimately headed.

This attitude particularly struck me in my introductory US survey, where students consistently mentioned newspapers as sources they believed to be objective, as opposed to “biased” sources such as personal journals. They seemed confused that 19th-century newspapers attacked politicians, editorialized on the morality of slavery and Indian Removal, and faced suppression by several different presidential administrations between 1790 and 1865. Very few seemed able to reconcile this belief that newspapers are neutral/objective/independent with the content and history of those newspapers that would suggest otherwise. They remained convinced that somewhere they would be able to find “historical fact.”

This attitude carried over to my historiography course, where students were admittedly more skeptical of primary source materials–including legal documents and newspapers–but initially very confused by the notion that historical scholarship is contested rather than authoritative. Our common topic in that course was the French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War, and we started by reading excerpts from Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe, followed by excerpts of Francis Jennings’s Empire of Fortune. One nice thing about this combination is Jennings calls Parkman “a liar,” so there’s little doubt we’re seeing a historiographical debate–well, probably an argument in this case. But again, many students were taken aback by the disagreements, and one summarized that confusion by asking, “Parkman says one thing, and Jennings says exactly the opposite, so who’s right?”

Most of these students have had upper-level courses in the major by this point, so they have seen scholars working with primary sources, and are willing and able to approach primaries critically. But many have a harder time with the idea that scholars disagree, and I wonder if that’s partly because in our courses we are generally assigning scholarship we think is exemplary–we perhaps don’t critique the weaker elements of a book or essay, and students rarely see examples of poor scholarship and learn to critique it. As instructors, we also perhaps don’t feature enough the major debates in our fields (probably because we tend to align with one side or the other) that would effectively illustrate the contested nature of historical interpretation.

By neglecting to do so, we perhaps feed the notion that historical scholarship is about consensus-building and finding out “what really happened,” a central theme in Peter Charles Hoffer’s Past Imperfect (which we also read in this methods class). Hoffer covers the development of the historical profession, and points out that one of its early objectives was to settle historical fact/truth; once established, that piece of history was no longer contested. Hoffer points out that this fed American scholarship’s construction of consensus history, which celebrated American exceptionalism and coalesced around familiar metanarratives.

That, of course, got blown up across the 1960s and 1970s, a fragmentation/growing complexity that continues today, but which introduces its own problems. One of the aspects of this new history is its honesty about the limits of its methods and understandings, the introspection about our motives as authors and scholars. But that’s something that again troubles many of the students in this class, who sometimes then perceive the honesty among practitioners as a lack of objectivity and therefore bias, leading them to worry that what they are reading is either bad history, or that any historical scholarship is equally valid because it’s informed by personal perspective.

Encountering these attitudes in both classes at the same time prompts me to wonder why it is that students so value that ideal of objectivity and neutrality, and want so much to believe it exists. Part of the answer, I think, goes back to the professionalization of both fields (journalism and historical scholarship), which involved both a credentialing program and the establishment of professional standards that would allow the professions–and the ideas and information they generated and/or conveyed–to serve a civic purpose. They could establish certainty in shared truths, rather than simply reproducing the diverse and possibly irreconcilable opinions/perspectives/arguments of a large number of self-interested people. (One manifestation of this in our students, I think, is their resistance to using the first person. I know that’s partly been trained into them by teachers hoping to help them distinguish between opinion and argument, but the result to such strictures is that many just contort themselves to avoid first-person pronouns without actually recognizing what those rules are trying to accomplish.)

Now of course, part of the point here is that these are students–they are learning to be skeptical, critical receivers and producers of information and ideas, and those in the historiography class had clearly advanced beyond those students in the intro class. But in teaching them (hopefully, anyway) to approach scholarship skeptically, are we effectively conveying the message that other areas of expertise should be equally open to critique, or does that message remain insular? Does the inability or refusal to self-examine–or the lack of visibility of such introspection–in other institutions and professions lend them a greater degree of perceived authority because they don’t question themselves?

Here I’m thinking in particular about news again, which seems to retain that kind of authority even through scandals involving funding, corporatization, the narrow lens of American media, the confirmation bias built into different outlets, etc. Again, if so many of my students feel like it doesn’t matter where one obtains news because it’s the duty of the media to be objective and informative, not to shape public opinion and manipulate citizens, and then they contrast the bombastic certainty expressed in the information outlets like Fox News and MSNBC convey with the qualified and cautious arguments propagated by scholars/academics, is it any wonder so many people accept dubious claims about climate change, immigration, Islam, free markets, health care, guns, and other politically fraught issues? Clear positions seem to derive from a certainty that scholarship has often actively distanced itself from, and claim an authority that scholarship is cautious to assert.

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2 Responses to On authority and objectivity

  1. Steve says:

    One thing that struck me as I was reading your post was perhaps part of what you’re describing is a characteristic of this generation of students. This is not a “bash the students” comment, but we know that current students are different in some ways than the generations of students who came before them. At a minimum, they went thru K-12 during the No Child Left Behind years, which seems to teach that every question has one correct answer. Thus, a students job is to identify that one.

  2. Jason Sellers says:

    I definitely see some of that, too–I often compose essay prompts for assignments and exams that ask students to argue either side of a question that is a major historical debate, and many find it frustrating that there isn’t a clear answer. However, some of the students who really struggle with this in the methods course, especially, are also a bit older, and precede the No Child Left Behind stuff, so I’m not sure that works as a satisfactory explanation. I still think more of it is about expectations of disciplines–that the sciences (and social sciences, I suppose) operate in pursuit of certainty and truth, and the humanities are the realm of uncertainty and perspective. All of which assumes characteristics of disciplines assigned to those categories that aren’t necessarily accurate anyway, but which also then struggle to accommodate degrees of certainty/uncertainty.

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