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"Lower Ed": Objectivity vs. knob-jectivity

By Bernard Chapin
web posted March 24, 2003

One of the most radical statements that you can make in the American academy today is that "there is such a thing as objectivity." On the insensitivity abacus of politically incorrect felonies this statement is worth organizing a rally over but it still ranks slightly lower than a professor's announcement that this country is truly a land worth defending or that we should say the Pledge of Allegiance before the beginning of each class. Yes, it appears that the universities of today are dedicating themselves to a full-fledged guerrilla war against common sense.

Let us first define our terms. Webster's Tenth Edition states that "objectivity" is "expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations." It then describes "subjectivity" as "relating to or being experience or knowledge as conditioned by personal mental characteristics or states."

My own far from revolutionary belief is that much of our lives exist in the infinite expanses of thought that lie between objective fact and subjective impression. Just as no idea or discussion can be completely subjective, no idea or discussion can be completely objective either. Such an obvious view is repugnant to many in the academy who would argue that anything I say is my own personal interpretation and it does not apply to others. You see, I, and my statements, are marginalized by the fact that I am "a white male." I am a slave of my "Eurocentric" background and my perspective taints my thoughts being applicable to people who are of differing backgrounds. They would view me as only being capable of knowing my own experience. My answer to their analysis is the same as General McAuliffe's was to the Germans at
Bastogne: "Nuts!"

Their arguments against objectivity are fallacious. As usual the best way to combat their misconstructions and misconceptions is to use examples. Incidentally, if you read works by Roger Kimball and John Ellis you'll get a much more artful and thorough explanation of the objectivity vs. subjectivity debate than I can provide here. After reading the two of these authors I wondered what exact defense would be left to those who would regard objectivity as fantasy other than for them to obfuscate their positions but, of course, that's exactly what postmodernists have done all along.

There are some objective truths that are so readily discernible that arguments against them will seem completely without merit to the majority of the population. When I write "Bill Clinton was once President of the United States" I will find everyone who is reading in agreement with me. Such a statement is not based on my "Eurocentric" view. It is based on everybody's views. It is a sound and valid statement of fact. Please note that it's best to use Clinton as an example because "George W. Bush is President of the United States" opens you up to accusations from leftists that he is really an illegitimate president, that he was anointed, blah, blah, blah. Then you have to cite the Miami Herald and explain why the Florida Legislature takes precedent over the Florida Supreme Court and it all becomes a monumental waste of time. Besides, there's never a good reason for letting the subjectivists get off the topic -- just use Clinton.

Another often cited example of an objective fact is "the earth revolves around the sun." We, all of us, know this to be true. I say "we" here of course with the knowledge that one or two of us may be in the thrall of Paris-site deconstructionists who would take issue with the sun as the acolytes of Foucault and Derrida cannot see the light streaming into their windows past the clouds created by own their Clove cigarettes.

My brief career as a instructor in a masters program for teachers (I have now taught five courses and am about to begin my sixth) has taught me that the objectivity vs. subjectivity debate is being used to poison any attempt at intellectual rigor in my own classroom and on the campus classrooms which lie beyond. Sadly, I have had to battle the invective spewing "this is no such thing as objectivity" dragon during each of the quarters that I've taught.

My habit of giving a midterm and a final to my students has resulted in constant blowback and complaints every week that I teach. My students view me as being a reactionary for giving them dreaded tests as a means to assess their performance. My midterm and final are considered documentation of Neanderthal leanings and my complete misunderstanding of what it means to educate others.

The outrage began in my first class. Unfortunately, due to bewilderment, I did not put forth a good accounting of myself as the recapitulation below indicates. A few minutes into the initial night all twenty-five students looked at my Research Design and Statistics syllabus and said "Tests? You're giving us a midterm and a final?"

I looked around for empathetic faces. I found none. "Yes" I answered.

"You're the only person in our program who has given us a test."

I laughed. "Really?" They nodded. I told of this exchange to several professors thereafter and found that what the students said to me was true. I was the only one who gave them tests. I responded to their pouting by saying "But I can't imagine why an education student would bother to read a statistic textbook unless they were being tested on what it contained." Was my statement too cynical? How many teachers read during their spare time, let alone read a statistics textbook? Most of the teachers I work with at my day job watch at least four hours of television a night. Our teacher's lounge has large banners for betting (for fun -- not money) on who will win whatever vapid "Survivor" episode is being aired that week. Well, for the record, none of the students had any rejoinder to my statement but that didn 't stop one of them telling me, after getting a C on the midterm, that it was impossible for her mind to think this way.

"What way?" I asked.

"This way. The test." She whined.

"You think?" I questioned. Well I don't think so. Anybody who read the book could pass any test that I give and I'm talking about only one reading. I am not referring to actual studying. What I'm leaving out about my tests is that they are some of the easiest pieces of fluff ever constructed. It is all receptive vocabulary from the chapters assigned. I never deviate one preposition from the book in my wording of definitions. There are many True/False questions that would be laughable to the common man who may pass it without even reading any of the chapters assigned. All manner of silliness is also included to make answers more obvious and easier for the students to correctly answer. I have multiple choice questions on infant development containing names like "Habermas, Trotsky, or Malthus" and make references to the infamous Dr. Spock as being a character on Star Trek. Yet still, their environmentally based revulsion to tests never dissipates.

Later in the quarter during the same statistics course a student came up to me with a syllabus from the class that immediately preceded mine. The news was as bad as it could be. The professor who taught the class is a Ph.D. in comparative studies (I have no real notion as to what that degree signifies) and she wrote on the first page of her syllabus -- I'm reconstructing from
memory -- that

I will not grade you in a formal way. I will not give you "points."

At the end of the semester I will give you a grade based on how

I feel [italics mine] you did in this course. I will not test you. I do

not believe in objectivity.

Wouldn't you feel content being a guinea pig in a course like that? What if you forget to compliment her one time? What if she holds an irrational vendetta against you? Without points or actual grades how could you prove that deserved to pass if she failed you?

Well, there may have been more offensive protocols to record from her syllabus but I stopped reading after those sentences. The short amount I read had made me go ballistic. I could not believe that someone had actually put something like that on paper. I was astounded. I recall stammering a little. I had a dilemma, as to not acknowledge another professor's lies on their syllabus was the class thing to do, but, since her statement completely undermined my purpose for being in the room, I decided to say something.

Now I want to call to your attention to your other professor's

syllabus from your earlier course [the courses met back to

back on Thursday nights]. She's got here that there is

no such thing as objectivity and that's clearly false. She's

wrong about that. We can say that some things are more

objective than others but we cannot say that that objectivity

is not real.

So much for me possessing class. I then went into my examples about Clinton and the sun. They had little response to my diatribe but the reason I had to give it is that accepting her statements at face value would mean that there is no reason to study statistics in the first place. We must always respond to these people because if we don't they'll be no imperative to venerate truth above all else. I closed the episode with my show stopper based on the old doctor analogy that when you're spleen is being removed, isn't it more soothing to know that the surgeon who's doing it had to pass his or her anatomy tests rather than write an essay on what "the internal organs mean to me."

Yet there were other times "on the job" when I have been indecisive and weak. Last summer, during a learning class, I attempted to "get with the program" by copying the department head's syllabus verbatim and executing it en masse. It was chock full of subjective assignments and projects and, most strikingly, no tests. My grading was a total failure as I had no way to tell an A from a C. For the final project, I asked the students to fulfill ten criteria for the curriculum papers that they had to write. Half of the class did not meet five of the ten criteria. What was to be done? Fail them? Fail them even after being given a lecture by the department head for handing out four C's in my first class? No, I could not do that. The department head would have just overrode the C's as was done on the last occasion and I'd be out of my side job. Instead, I did what every other coward did; I gave them B's. After that experience I swore that it was tests and measurements only for any subject I'd teach. That way I could honestly defend whatever grades I gave out.

This topic came up again on last Saturday and it marked the first time this quarter that I got a group of students to laugh at themselves after I spontaneously responded to their canned, repetitive complaints about how I shouldn't give them a final at all. In response to the chaotic chirping I raised my voice to a thunderous level and bellowed

"Friends, did you know that testing has been found to be

particularly discriminatory among graduate students

under the age of 70? Yes, that's a fact and that's why I'm

giving a final to you next week. Pure malice and for no

other reason. You see in the 60's they had a name for

people like me: "The Man." I am The Man and I represent

"The System" and I exist to oppress you." I then waved the

book up and down at them menacingly.

Perhaps because they were not expecting such sarcasm out of me they guffawed loudly and did not give me grief about the final for at least another thirty minutes. I was grateful for the reprieve.

After class I told them "Thank you" for the inspiration as I said that I would soon be writing an essay called "Objectivity vs. Knob-jectivity." One student asked me what knob-jectivity was after class and I told her it was a joke. Perhaps I'll forward this to her. No, I don't think so.

As a means to close on the topic, I'll recount how that statistics course ended. I walked in to give them their final on the last day and saw that the same troublesome comparative studies professor had written a piece of advice on the board for them before leaving. It was to read Barbra Ehrenreich's 2001 socialist book Nickel and Dimed. I decided to cross the line of tact once more by erasing it in order to replace pulp fiction with masterpiece. I wrote the title of Howard Schwartz's book, The Revolt of the Primitive, over the spot where Ehrenreich's name was. I hoped that one of them might read it as it completely dismantled the political correctness that had harangued them for at least six years of their undergraduate and graduate studies. I don't think any of them did as no one copied the name or title down. Perhaps they had seen all of the "primitive" they'd ever want to see revolt in the form of the relic of Western Civilization who had oppressed them with tests designed to force them to study the books for which they had paid so much.

Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at emeritus@flash.net.

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