“Objectivity” and the Classroom: Ten Historians Respond

Above Image: Myself giving a lecture on the thorny topic of historic Bosnian and Serbian relations (Nov. 2015). Based on my past experiences with students, Jacksonville seems to have a large population of both Bosnian and Serbian immigrants, sometimes resulting in somewhat heated classroom discussions of related topics if not framed well from the outset.

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I have seen many of my Facebook friends post stories about political or cultural bias on college campuses, sometimes expressing concern about what sort of education their children may be getting in the classroom, followed by expressions of lament for the high costs of college tuition on top of it. On rare occasions, I have also posted such stories and expressed similar incredulity, as in the case of a recent report about one university level U.S. history course that compared the “founding fathers” with the Westboro Baptist Church. When I did, it prompted a bit of a debate with one former academic, who defended the right of professors to use hyperbole to stir class discussion and thinking about historical events from different perspectives. I can appreciate the point more generally, yet in this particular case I see the rhetoric used (as reported) as too extreme, to the point of no longer really teaching “history” by modern professional standards. Yet, as I noted, some of my colleagues appear to disagree and have a more nuanced perspective.

As a result, I had been thinking about the topic of “objectivity” in the classroom when I came across a recently released statement by the American Historical Association issued in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent election victory. Consequently, I may have initially read it in a slightly different context than many of my fellow historians. It noted:

An unusually bitter and divisive election has been followed by continuing evidence of polarization to the point of harassment seldom seen in recent American history. The American Historical Association… condemns the language and harassment that have charred the American landscape in recent weeks. The AHA… [emphasizes] mutual respect and reasoned discourse—the ongoing conversation among historians holding diverse points of view and who learn from each other. A commitment to such discourse—balancing fair and honest criticism with inclusive practices and openness to different ideas—makes possible the fruitful exchange of views, opinions, and knowledge. The American Historical Association reaffirms its commitment to mutual respect, reasoned discourse, and appreciation for humanity in its full variety. We will strive to demonstrate these values in all aspects of practice, including in our roles as teachers, researchers, and citizens.

As I read these words, I wasn’t thinking so much about how historians dialogue with each other (which I can assure you is sometimes quite inflammatory), but with our students in the classroom, a captive audience, thinking these stated ideals would apply nicely there as well. The statement does, at the end, mention that these values should be demonstrated in our roles as teachers, after all, as well as more generally.

In response, I reached out to ten historians to see if they might offer some brief thoughts on the topic of “Objectivity in the Classroom.” To be clear, I fully realize that complete or “true” objectivity is not possible, but nevertheless there are things a professor can do to insure some degree of objectivity or neutrality (“as much as humanly possible”) in how they frame and discuss sensitive political, religious, or cultural topics in the classroom. It’s interesting to note that the AHA statement cited above nowhere uses the word “objectivity,” but does emphasize “mutual respect” and “reasoned discourse” in its place.

Consequently, I was curious to see how the other historians considered such issues.

The participating historians, in alphabetical order, include the following:

  1. Alfred J. Andrea– Professor Emeritus, University of Vermont; Former President of the World History Association.
  2. Rachel Fulton Brown- Associate Professor of Medieval History, University of Chicago.
  3. Paul F. Crawford- Professor of History, California University of Pennsylvania
  4. Wayne Dynes- Professor Emeritus, Hunter College- CUNY
  5. Daniel P. Franke- Assistant Professor of History at Richard Bland College of William and Mary
  6. Paul Hyams- Professor Emeritus of Medieval History, Cornell University
  7. Steve Muhlberger- Professor of History (retired), Nipissing University
  8. Helen J. Nicholson-Professor of Medieval History, Cardiff University
  9. Matthew Phillips – Professor of History, Concordia University, Nebraska
  10. Diana C.M. Reigelsperger- Professor of History, Seminole State College of Florida

I should highlight that they teach (or have taught) at schools ranging from ivy league universities to former community colleges, thus they offer a unique variety of perspectives on teaching students from diverse backgrounds.

Keeping it simple, without any additional background information, I asked them, simply, to respond (in two to three paragraphs) to the following questions.

To what degree, if at all, is it necessary for history professors to keep their personal political and religious views out of the college or university classroom? To what degree, if at all, is objectivity possible on the part of the instructor?

Below are their responses.

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Alfred J. Andrea- Professor Emeritus, University of Vermont; Former President of the World History Association

Objectivity is a bugaboo of historians, namely an object of almost irrational anxiety. It seems to me that only historians and anthropologists obsess over this issue, which probably speaks well of the practitioners of both disciplines.

I would like to put this term into cold storage and replace it with “honesty.” No human being is capable of objectivity, but it is the historian’s (and anthropologist’s) responsibility to be honest–to be mindful of her/his perspectives and to deal with them as fully and openly as possible.

This is not an unreasonable burden. In fact, it goes to the very heart of what we do as historians. History is a constant and ever-shifting dialogue between the present and the past. We ask questions of the past that have relevance to our day and society. The perspectives that we employ to view and analyze the past are informed by our particular time and place.

This does not mean that we cannot be and should not be as exacting in our work as is humanly possible. We can build upon the work of our predecessors and colleagues and gain a greater and reasonably valid insight into the past, thereby gaining a bit of wisdom, but we must be honest enough to realize that our insights are provisional and even relative. Moreover, we must be humble enough to realize that we will never achieve the last word on any historical issue.

Rachel Fulton Brown- Associate Professor of Medieval History, University of Chicago

Objectivity is a red herring, especially in the sciences like history that deal with the study of our fellow human beings. As Dorothy Sayers might put it, it is much the same problem as complaining about being able to talk about God only in metaphors or through analogies:

The fact is, that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things… To complain that man measures God by his own experience is a waste of time; man measures everything by his own experience, he has no other yardstick.

Likewise, when we are talking about the thoughts and experiences of other human beings: to complain that we measure their motivations, level of knowledge, skills, behaviors, emotions, language, or art by own experience is a waste of time. We have no other yardstick by which to make sense of their experience except by analogy with our own. Our purpose as teachers is not to disguise the yardsticks which we bring to our study of history, but rather to make our students aware of ours as well as their own, at the same time as we teach them to appreciate the yardsticks which the authors of our sources brought to bear on their descriptions of the world.

What most scholars think of as “objectivity” is actually a yardstick by which professions of faith are excluded from serious intellectual engagement. It is assumed from the outset that any perspective other than that of the secular humanist is faulty or biased, when in actual fact the secular humanist perspective is fully as biased as that of the believer in God. Similarly, perspectives in favor of democratic capitalism as opposed to those in favor of socialism or communism carry with them certain values and assumptions which the “facts” of themselves can neither support nor contest, given that it is the frames that we bring to the question of human flourishing that determine what counts as facts in the political or economic workings of human society. This is not to say that there is no objective reality or that the world is entirely a construct of our imaginations. It is to say that arguing “objectively” about the benefits of capitalism or the existence of God (the kinds of topics that we as professors typically have most difficulty with) inevitably depends upon the yardsticks which we ourselves bring to the discussion.

In our interactions with our students, we would do better to strive not for “objectivity,” but “impartiality”: making clear to our students what effects their own yardsticks have on the way they view the sources and events of the past, while at the same time modeling for them the effects of yardsticks they might not otherwise consider. In my own teaching, I try to mark my yardsticks explicitly for them–“Here, I am arguing as a Christian; here we are trying to imagine why someone might find The ABC of Communism compelling”–so as to encourage them to become aware of their own perspective. Ultimately, I try to show them, there is no perspective from which we can stand outside ourselves as human beings; the study of history is at root moral because it requires us to make a choice which yardstick we use to make sense of the world.

Paul F. Crawford– Professor of History, California University of Pennsylvania

Total objectivity is impossible.  It is also undesirable.

If we truly have no opinions about what we’re teaching, then we must be remarkably empty-headed (not to mention rather dull human beings!). In fact I don’t think it’s possible to have no opinions, or to keep them entirely out of the content we teach.  For one thing, our very choices about what to include, and perhaps more important exclude, from our teaching are dictated primarily by our opinions, and we may as well recognize and accept that fact. In any case, we do not lose our civil rights just because we step into a classroom.

What we do have is several obligations.

We have an obligation to be as faithful as possible to the sources from which we ought to be teaching, and to approach those sources with the humility that I once heard Jim Powell advocate with great eloquence. Let the sources tell us what to think about them, as he counseled, as opposed to retroactively imposing our own modern and post-modern concerns onto the past. Let those sources speak to us, challenge us, instruct us.  We have an obligation to approach the sources with the attitude “What do these people have to teach me?” rather than “How shall I proceed to condemn them for deviating from my own preconceptions?” If we do that, and if we teach our students to do that, then I think no one will need to object to our expression of our own opinions, because those opinions will be formed, as our students’ ought also to be formed, by the reality of what we are studying together (to the degree that that reality is recoverable, which it at least partially is).

As a corollary, we have an obligation to make sure our own opinions are grounded in reality, not unthinking adherence to this or that political trend or even religious shibboleth.  Trends, shibboleths, fads, various “correctnesses”—none of these have any place in the mind of a genuine scholar, and we should eschew them rigorously.  Think, and for yourself…but do so while firmly grounded in reality, fact, and evidence, and with the awareness that one’s own perspective is never omniscient.

We have an obligation not to conceal our opinions when asked.  The young in general and students in particular have a right to know what their elders are thinking, and why, and it is reasonable and even wise for them to question us and expect us to respond intelligently and openly. But we also have an obligation not to insist that our students share our opinions; the important thing is that their opinions must be based on, and must accommodate, the facts.  Opinions in contravention of fact are simply wrong opinions.

We have an obligation, in most cases, to point out where reasonable observers might differ from our conclusions. Not all opinions deserve equal time.  But where a reasonable, informed mind could arrive at conclusions different from ours, we should probably note that fact to our students.  They will not think less of us if we do.

We have an obligation—and a very serious one—to teach truth, to the best of our own understanding of it, even when that may bring us into direct conflict with the popular opinions of our own era.  In fact we *especially* have an obligation to do so in that case, particularly if we have been gifted with that privilege known as tenure.  Rather than shy away from such conflict out of a misplaced respect for chimerical “objectivity,” we ought to pursue it actively; we should not allow our own pursuit of truth to be shut down by demands for “objectivity.”

We also have an obligation to present our views about the scholarship we are conveying with courtesy and with an awareness that even a university freshman is capable, on occasion, of pointing out flaws in our arguments, of offering us a revolutionarily new take on what we had thought was settled truth, of pointing out that “the emperor has no clothes.”

So rather than flee from the presentation of our own opinions and views in pursuit of an unattainable and undesirable “objectivity,” we should, I think, present them with clarity, humility, and the caution that comes of long acquiantance with realities that are greater than we are.  That will require us to tolerate the presence of opinions that we think are wrong, at times.  But all good things come with a price, and this one is worth paying.

Wayne Dynes- Professor Emeritus, Hunter College- CUNY

My academic career has been passed as an art historian.  In their classroom presentations and publications, art historians study objects, while “regular” historians are generally concerned with reconstructing events.  To take two rather different examples from the former realm, the “David” of Michelangelo and “The Hay Wain” of John Constable, students can verify our slide presentations by consulting the objects “in the flesh,” which are shown in the Academia in Florence and the National Gallery in London.  Events, of course, involve a vast range of problems, from as the Norman Conquest of England to the rise of the Communist Party in China.

Sometimes of course there are complications, as with works that have not come down to us intact, as with much classical sculpture, or even destroyed, as with paintings and other works that did not survive World War II.  Here the enterprise of restoration may introduce a subjective element.

Authorship may be disputed, as with objects that are suspected of being forgeries.

Other complications occur when contextualization is offered.  The “David,” for example, belongs to the history of the nude.  Moreover, is its significance primarily Biblical, or does it symbolize the resistance of republican Florence to threatening foreign powers?  For its part, “The Hay Wain” marks the culmination of the Western tradition of landscape painting.  By the same token, it also projects a certain sense of timeless Englishness.  Other interpretations of these pieces could be offered, so that here is where subjectivity begins to encroach on objectivity.

The iconography of some famous pieces has given rise to contention.  For example, the traditional interpretation of the Parthenon frieze is that it depicts a Panathenaic procession, celebrated each year to mark the birthday of the goddess Athena.  Within this framework some details, though, are disputed.  Nor does the contention stop there. Recently, Professor Joan Connelly of New York University has proposed that the frieze actually culminates in a scene of human sacrifice.

In such cases the instructor is obligated, in my view, to offer students a range of possibilities, being objective in the reporting of views, but subjective in the choice of the array. Of course, one can go too far in an overzealous interpretation of fairness, as in giving time in an ancient Egypt course to theories of “Pyramid Power” and extraterrestrial visitors; these are best left out, though the instructor must be prepared to answer student questions in this regard.

Daniel P. Franke- Assistant Professor of History at Richard Bland College of William and Mary

First of all, thanks for the invite! I’ve been working up an article on this topic since “Historians Against Trump” emerged in July, and this is pushing me to return to the analysis in the somewhat altered landscape of November 8. At the meta-cognitive level, of course, it is impossible not to bring one’s own views into the classroom. That’s basically a given—what we choose for lesson material, the way we moderate discussions in the classroom, even how we lecture, all signal, or can signal, our beliefs, values, and opinions. The question, to my mind, is how we distinguish, to ourselves and to our students, what is historical fact from personal belief. Both can be debated, but one is the core concern of a history class—what you are under contract to do, so to speak—and the other is extra-topical. At the same time, I think helping students explore the connection between historical study and personal beliefs can be very rewarding if it is done right.

Practically speaking, I have come to love this syllogism, posted by an anonymous user on Erik Loomis’ Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog on July 16 (Loomis was basically chewing out Stanley Fish, who had chewed out the Historians Against Trump group). The poster put it this way (I’m roughly paraphrasing): 1. Hitler killed lots of people, 2. Killing lots of people is bad, 3. Hitler was a bad person. The point here is that historians study #1—we want to know how many, in what way, by whom, etc. But whether it was bad or not cannot be answered by history. That is a question of religion, morality, ethics, and philosophy. So, history is essential to assessing Hitler, but is not sufficient by itself to get us to understand the immorality of the Nazi state. And when historians forget that, you achieve the perfect conditions for a class long on ideology and short on content (particularly when you start comparing people to Hitler, whether it’s Saddam Hussein or Donald Trump).

Ultimately, I think maintaining this distinction is what is comprehended by “objectivity.” This semester, when I had my students debate whether the Roman Empire and the British Empire were “good” or “bad,” I explained first that what we were doing was not strictly “history,” because we were debating #3, rather than studying #1. The side with the better grasp of historical facts would probably make a better argument, but fundamentally these were not issues on which I would dictate their beliefs, because I had no mandate to do that. All I could require of them was that they entertain facts and interpretations with which they might disagree, without feeling that the existence of historical facts threatened their sense of identity or self-worth. After all, it is in this context that most students will encounter history outside the classroom. And that makes “objectivity,” artificial as it might seem sometimes, to be perhaps the most important means for making the study of history a rewarding one for students.

Paul Hyams– Professor Emeritus of Medieval History, Cornell University

Being retired, teaching is what I miss most. It is what I came into the game for, since it did not occur to me at that time that I could contribute much of my won to knowledge. I suspect that objectivity became a worry for historians just about the time that Weber showed it was impossible. So I too am in the Honesty camp, and used to fuss little with objectivity. I used to tell my students that bias was best reserved for lawn bowls (which I had to explain in the US) and making good women’s skirts. It was an unhelpful notion for working historians. When I first went to Cornell, and for the first time got evaluations that claimed neither to understand my British accent nor my jokes, I felt I had more explaining to do. So, I would warn students at the first session of lecture classes to watch out for my delicate philosophical irony which ‘you Americans’ call abrasive sarcasm and how to bring complaints safely to my knowledge. I also briefly outlined my own social and political positions and why they should take these into account. Cornell was all too liberal on the whole, so the conservative students sometimes felt unappreciated or even oppressed.

All this was important to me, and not just because of the way I felt I was struggling to win acceptance at first. I love my history, and a teacher’s first task is to pass on to the students that love and intellectual excitement. But then, my generation was (almost) the first to experience the call for ‘ relevance’.  My first response to this was to offer to kit the class up on how to critique the newspapers – there were then many! – and the media more generally, to sift through the unbalanced information that reaches us and look for the best conclusions one could draw. Start first with the kind of questions that make gut sense, questions that really matter. Make them matter, I told my classes, as much as whether and when to cross a busy road, when getting it wrong threatens your life and limb! The issue to me is not the existence of Truth. I never doubted that it exists! But I do not expect to know full truth about any question really worth posing. Which is why we need to learn how best ways to test the hypotheses, to argue for and against them. Which in its turn means learning to listen to those with whom we disagree, and to understand how they come to be so misguided as not to see things as we do. 2016 is a good year from which to see how important that is – on both sides of the Pond. This is a good point at which to explain the scholastic DISPUTATIO, and maybe (if there is time) to hold one in class about, say, the existence of Santa Claus (http://falcon.arts.cornell.edu/prh3/151/SantaQ.htm).

Another good forum for cavassing this kind of skill was, I found, classes on belief. or on sexuality. These are subjects which the young feel much more passionately about than most of them do about actual politics. Take monastic vows as an example. One of my better students once called me after his return from a monastery visit in Central New York, taken as part of a colleague’s class. He was massively excited by what he had seen there. Indeed, he told me, he would seriously have considered taking vows, but for two things. He did not believe in a God, and could not imagine renouncing sex. There is nothing objective about the lessons he learned that day. The experience was subjective in the extreme. But he emerged with a respect for a way of life he could not enter that stays with him to this day. I know; he has bothered to keep in touch. One may be objective in setting out life choices for others, but not for oneself. (This is what the history of religious belief is largely about.) Honesty is more to the point there once again.

This perhaps explains why, in a sense, I turned most of my survey classes into sketches for the Western Civ class I never got to teach, or even instructions in Civics. Liberal Arts implies that we try to turn out better citizens, not just better honed minds, right? But I am starting a fourth paragraph, which exceeds my allowance…

Steve Muhlberger– Professor of History (retired), Nipissing University

When I was asked by Andrew Holt to contribute to this, he allowed me to see the short essays that had already been written.  I found some well-expressed thoughts in them which naturally have influenced me here.

I think Alfred Andrea has hit the nail when he offers “honesty” as a more important historian’s virtue than objectivity.  I confess I don’t know when objectivity by that name became so important to working historians, but it was clearly in some era where historians thought the main business of their profession was establishing the facts:  counting what could be counted, measuring the measurable, interpreting documents (especially documents produced by governments and other important institutions) and using them to create a valid and accurate picture of the past.

But it has been a long time since most historians have been content to find and record dates and places and facts and figures (if there ever was such a day).  As Rachel Fulton Brown has said, following Dorothy Sayers, historians seeking to understand human experience and its significance must use the yardstick of their own experience.  In doing so they go well beyond establishing facts that can be validated “objectively.”  In re-creating the past, the yardstick must be described as well.  Thus the answer to one of the questions we have been asked:  it is unlikely in the extreme that teaching historians will be able to keep their political and religious views out of the classroom.

But those views aren’t there to be carelessly flung in raw form at the students’ heads, in hopes that they will stick in the student brain.  Professors’ opinions need to be used as tools in an unending effort to understand other people.   Objectivity may well be beside the point; disciplined and honest interpretation, based in part on personal experience is the heart of the matter.

I think it is quite important to acknowledge that we are practicing an art and a discipline when we talk to the greater public about what we do when we do history.  It’s not just a matter of honesty.  We can’t expect the public to accept any claim that we have all the answers.  If we emphasize that we work in a discipline (and actually do it!), and teach the discipline as well as the facts at every opportunity, our position in intellectual life will be more secure.

Helen J. Nicholson-Professor of Medieval History, Cardiff University

I have always tried to keep my personal political and religious views out of the classroom. But surely no one can be completely objective, because an instructor’s views colour their approach to their subject, and influence them to ask certain questions and leave other questions out. In any case, an instructor’s love for their subject (or not) comes through in their teaching, and if they try to be completely objective that enthusiasm would be muted.

An alternative is to be up-front about one’s views, but then we have the problem that the students aren’t objective. Suppose a history professor admits to being a member of the green movement (for example), and many in the class are totally opposed to the green movement. This will prejudice the students against the professor – so perhaps s/he had better keep her/his mouth shut and let the students judge for themselves. By their fruits shall ye know them, and all that; the students should be able to tell what the professor’s views are, from the way the professor approaches the subject. But – if the professor doesn’t tell them, the students may be making all sorts of wild guesses (‘she’s saying nice things about Muslims. Is she a Muslim?’) I fear that some students think that if the professor tries to be objective then s/he is prejudiced in favour of the group s/he’s being objective about – we can’t win!

When I’m teaching medieval religion and heresy I tell the students that I am going to be equally insulting about all parties, and if they feel at any point that I am not being even-handed they should point this out and I will endeavor to correct this. This usually raises a laugh, and to date no one has complained to me.

Matthew Phillips – Professor of History, Concordia University, Nebraska

A human being may never be completely objective.  However, objectivity in relation to political views should be a goal for history professors, especially at a state-funded university.  A professor’s classroom should not become a place for political advocacy.  The historian should also seek to inculcate empathy for human beings from the past.  Having written that, I might find it difficult to be objective about Communists or Nazis when considering their horrific evil actions.  Certainly, empathy might be even more difficult.  Yet, even in these cases, history professors can present the proper sources to understand those individuals within their historical contexts.

In relation to religious ideas my circumstances tend to differ from someone at a state-funded university.  At my university we officially hold to a Lutheran confession of the Christian faith.  Sometimes this means I explore more specifically theological ideas in my World Civilization course than I might if I taught at a state university.  However, even under these circumstances, I would attempt to fairly and objectively present the ideas of those with whom Lutherans might disagree.  For instance, when teaching the history of the Reformation, I present as objectively as possible the Roman Catholic understanding of issues.

Whether it’s political or religious views, professors must be prepared to understand numerous points of view in order to properly teach history.  This often leads me to play ‘devil’s advocate’ regarding any historical figure’s ideas or actions.  Sometimes, this makes students (and even me) uncomfortable.  Lastly, when I do express personal views on a subject I usually tell my students that it was ‘free wisdom’ upon which they won’t be tested.

Diana C.M. Reigelsperger– Professor of History, Seminole State College of Florida

Since I tend to present history as a series of debates or discussions, I believe it is my responsibility to present all sides of those discussions fairly. If I ask detached analysis from my students I must set the example by practicing it myself. When I weigh in with my professional historical opinion, I try to make my reasoning transparent, much as I would expect to do in a professional publication.

In the past I have not revealed my own politics because I worried that students might feel they were at a disadvantage in my class due to their political ideas. I wrestle with this regularly since it would also seem reasonable to show students what my ideas are so that they can better evaluate my interpretations for themselves. Then again, the more I learn, the more my ideas evolve as well.

When teaching, rather than asking for objectivity, I ask students to try to see an event from as many different perspectives as possible. In practical terms this means a heavy focus on primary sources, preferably conflicting accounts. This shifts the conversation from objectivity to the practical work of evaluating arguments and evidence. I also try to explain to students that they don’t have to agree with or even like a particular viewpoint to evaluate it. What they must do is determine whether or not this view or argument held persuasive power for people at the time and why. Having amassed all the evidence, they are free to then draw their own conclusions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some students find this liberating and others do not. Some younger students in particular are still looking for a textbook with an “objective” narrative and rebel against the apparent lack of “right”, or even definitive, answers. Nevertheless, I feel this approach to historical study is important from the standpoint of profession integrity. It also (hopefully) contributes to improving students’ information literacy.

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