Archive for September 1st, 2009

Objectivity

The University’s first activity of the year is Convocation, bringing together all incoming new students to listen to a campus speaker (this year it is Dr. Allison Hepler, Historian) and discuss a common reading.  This year’s reading is Objections to Objectivity by Howard Zinn.

At one level’s Zinn’s argument in this short piece is straight forward and seems obvious: no historian is or can be purely objective.    There is so much historical evidence to choose from that any telling of any event or era will leave out a lot.   What one includes, how one sees/describes/interprets it, and what one emphasizes is always driven by bias.

Zinn’s example is the 1914 Colorado coal strike, which led to the Ludlow massacre.   It’s a dramatic and tragic story of how Rockefeller’s Standard Oil company teamed with state and national government to undermine and break a major strike against the company, killing innocent women and children.    When one reads about it, it seems obvious that all students should learn about this chapter in history, and others like it.  It warns against the danger of centralized power, and gives a story of an effort by workers to fight against injustice.  But, Zinn notes, this gets left out.   He speculates that it may be seen as “Communistic” to write about class struggle in the US; most history taught in our textbooks and schools romanticize American culture, posit US ideals as universal, and try to make it appear that our development has been peaceful and progressive.   Those bits that don’t fit the story line are left out.

Of course, Zinn recognizes that he is also biased:

“I decided early that I would be biased in the sense of holding fast to certain fundamental values — the equal right of all human beings, whatever race, nationality, sex, religion, to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.  The study of history was only worth devoting a life to if it aimed at those ideals.  I would always be biased (leaning toward) those ends, stubborn in holding to them.  But I would be flexible, I hoped, in arriving at the “means” to achieve those ends.  Scrupulous honesty in reporting on the past would be needed, because any decision on means had to be tentative, had to be open to change based on what one could learn from history.  The values, ends, ideals I held need not be discarded, whatever history disclosed.  So there would be no incentive to distort the past, fearing that an honest recounting would hurt the desired ends.”

Zinn, of course, is very controversial.  His willingness to tell stories about aspects of American history that show the country and how it operates in a negative light strikes some as anti-American, or radical.   One might say, “Yes, the My Lai massacre was horrible, but there is no need to tell the details, separate out heroes and villians, and teach it to young children learning about their country.   We need to help children learn about the greatness of our ideals and history.   When they are older, they can then better deal with the imperfections, and understand them in context.  Zinn confuses them and sows radical and anti-American attitudes.”

This Anti-Zinn approach has a particular bias as well.   Note both Zinn and Anti-Zinn do not necessarily dispute the historical evidence, only its emphasis and importance.   For one My Lai is symbolic of a pointless war that not only killed 50,000 plus Americans, but over a million Vietnamese, and at times turned good young American soldiers into perpetrators of atrocities.   This is something we have to look at directly and learn from.   Not to do so would be to risk another tragic error.   For the anti-Zinn, My Lai was an aberration, and Vietnam is really the story of part of a global struggle of democratic capitalism against the evil and dehumanizing force of Communism.   By elevating an aberration to seem symbolic of the war one indirectly supports greater evils: communism and anti-Americanism.

The Anti-Zinn perspective is one that puts its own various values forward.   It’s important to support America, to recognize the superiority of capitalism to socialism, and even while learning that any system with people has its flaws, ours is an incredibly humane and successful experiment, achieving levels of equality and freedom rare in human history.   The Anti-Zinn would ask Zinn what impact his style of history would have on children.  Would they learn to cherish and love their country and its freedoms, or would they risk being suckered into false utopian ideologies like socialism, with their idealism making them prone to manipulation by leaders and politicians who don’t share a desire for freedom and equality?

The Zinn response, of course, would be to argue that being honest about the negatives of history and their meaning does not mean rejecting the positive, and of course requires we also consider the negatives of other countries and the meaning there.  Talk about the 20 million Stalin killed, and the 30 million killed by famines due to one decision by Mao Zedong in China.   Note the Cambodian genocide perpetrated by a Communist dictatorship (as well as how US policy in Vietnam helped lead to it), let students see the world in its complexity and deal with reality, not a simple “we’re the best and we should indoctrinate our children into thinking that way too.”

Ironically, both Zinn and anti-Zinn may each think they are adhering to core values similar to those in the Zinn quote above.   They disagree on the social consequences of a particular view of history.   Such a dispute shows that history is inherently politicized.   No one can be neutral or objective.   Those who claim to be either are hiding their biases, or simply trying to be as objective as possible.

As a teacher, I think the best I can do is to try to show students different perspectives, and why people believe them.  Like Zinn, I’ll be open on my perspective (which is similar to his in many ways).  But ultimately education is about liberating students to think for themselves.  To replace one biased set of assumptions and interpretations with another biased set simply reproduces the same error.   That devalues academia and makes history the subject of political war.   But trying to be objective only hides the political and philosophical biases behind any historical read.  The key, it seems to me is: a) note facts that are not contested (e.g., Bach died in 1750) and then b) show the students the variety of perspectives that can exist about any issue or idea.

To simply give the sanitized view Zinn criticizes is indoctrination.   To focus only on negative interpretations and events and paint the opposite picture is also indoctrination.   To claim there can be true objectivity is dishonest.  To show a variety of perspectives and give students the tools to make their own calls is education.

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