Alternative facts, fake news, and the anguish of the “objective” teacher

Lists now circulate that ostensibly tag the most ideological, agenda-driven professors among us, those who are “too politically correct,” or “too liberal.” But even before we entered this newest chapter of politically-driven teacher intimidation, thoughtful instructors have felt compelled to police themselves in service to some vague ideal of objectivity. Some of the pedagogical questions are pretty obvious, say, how to fairly grade essay exams, while others connect to the most basic course content, including the readings we choose (and avoid), and the terms we use to frame lectures and discussions. At every turn we are invited and compelled to consider questions about objectivity.

Like lots of liberal arts teachers, when students ask if I want them to do objective research or “just” express their opinion, I help them analyze what’s implied and assumed in such a falsely dichotomous question. We can, then, usually quickly agree that common thought is unhelpfully dualistic, since there is, in reality, often a continuum of more and less reasonable positions one might take, rather than either/or fact or opinion. And perhaps most importantly in our era of “alternative facts” and “fake news” — what we used to simply call lies and propaganda — we can see how having the mere shape of objectivity — as, say, pro/con style debates do — may do little to preserve genuine objectivity, and may even subvert it.

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The simplistic courtroom-like scenario in which alternative sides are “presented,” and from which students are supposed to “choose,” has done great damage to both journalism and education. The dramatic fallout of this cartoonish model emerged recently as reporters and editors were rightly criticized for engaging in “false equivalency,” that is, for giving “equal time” even to views and voices that were unserious and patently false. Pouring from the mouth of this clownish caricature of objectivity, ridiculous positions and falsehoods take on a patina of substance and legitimacy that they have not earned. We see it, for example, when public school science teachers are forced to present biblical “creation science” neutrally, right alongside Darwinian evolution by natural selection. An ad hoc, pseudoscientific myth is considered in the same breath as a well vetted, empirically supported, powerful explanatory framework. Ironically, the quest for, or pretense of, objectivity is precisely what may undermine genuine objectivity.

University instructors, who, in this climate of rabid, ultra-conservative anti-intellectualism, are increasingly afraid of losing their jobs, are in a tight spot. We are all reminded of why tenure matters as instructors agonize over how to frame a “controversial” issue — maybe better to avoid it altogether? — even when they know that the designation of “controversial” is itself a political intrusion into their pedagogy. And, of course, the resulting present-all-views approach is a disservice to students and an insult to professorial expertise. Issues, theories, arguments, facts and phenomena about which professors are legitimate authorities are reduced to interchangeable consumer goods from which the student is supposed to be encouraged to “choose.” While there often is, of course, room for reasonable disagreement about interpretations and implications, and while it is ennobling to help students develop such tolerance, facilitating shallow debate among falsely equivalent options encourages intellectual and ethical laziness. And, worse, it suggests that practicing intellectual tolerance and civil discourse is much easier and less consequential than it actually is, that it is more or less like picking out a new sweater at the mall.

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Though the notion of objectivity being used to beat instructors (and journalists) into line by the radical right is simplistic, falsely dichotomous and dangerous, some instructors actually take pride in their pursuit of it. They congratulate themselves in their quest for a supposedly scientific disinterest, boasting of how they hide their passion for social justice so that they don’t “influence” students. But what are the consequences of this recklessly misguided relativism? Students may learn that even values that are foundational to the notion of an authentic university as such — tolerance, equality, democracy and respect — are just side dishes on a buffet that also includes white supremacy, fascism, and censorship, not to mention “alternative facts” of all sorts.

Genuine objectivity is much messier and diffuse than we typically acknowledge, emerging only in broader context, against historical and social backdrops that include more and less powerful voices. Across their educational careers, fortunate students will have heard from passionate professors representing a broad range of reasonable disagreement, with some more apparently “ideological” than others. This is not a problem. My lone teacher’s voice is merely one of many in the cacophony of perspectives competing for their attention, a din that includes the shriek of the “alternative” media. When universities succeed, students emerge from the whole experience having mastered the language of facts and reasons, and with a developed sense of accountability to reality. They will be more appreciative of the empathy and open-mindedness required to grapple with multiple perspectives, but not because I’ve presented them with an intellectual tasting platter.

So, while it is an obvious disservice to reactively “penalize students for their opinions,” it is also a travesty to cultivate or politely tolerate the expression of views that are unmoored from reason and reality. And it only deepens the insult to the student’s intelligence and to the teacher’s mission when educators deliver such shallow fare in the name of objectivity and tolerance, as the radical right has defined it. Sure, we may feel more secure about our jobs as we neutrally fan out an array of options before our students — again, tenure matters — but our vocational integrity may well be the price we pay. We are, then, not merely consenting to a worldview in which up means down and war means peace, we are also actively recreating a perverse, anti-democratic social order.

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