The ideal of objectivity is too important to be left on the scrapheap of history
We are digging into our archives this week to re-publish a series of thought-provoking essays on higher education we’ve published over the past two years. As this year’s high school seniors finalize their post-graduation plans, we thought it might be worth revisiting some of the big questions facing higher education today. We hope you will enjoy this series of pieces from the vault. Today’s by Mark Schwehn originally appeared on September 27, 2022.
Objectivity is a kind of academic holiness, though it has for some time now been spurned by postmodernism as a delusion. Many Christians—including George Marsden and some of his admiring contributors to last year’s fiftieth anniversary issue of Christian Scholar’s Review—have given thanks for the deconstruction of objectivity since it allegedly provides “seats for all perspectives, including Christianity, at the academic table” instead of pretending that value-free neutrality is or should be a requirement for seating. Such Christian embrace of postmodernism is both salutary and understandable, but it is also dangerous.
In recent years increasing numbers of academics have come to realize that the clearest, most immediate danger in stressing the impossibility of absolute objectivity is that it plays into the hands of those most ominous political and social forces of our times that are only too eager to disparage all claims to truth and reality as spurious. The slide from regarding objectivity suspiciously to believing that all truth claims are simply power plays, or that any view is without remainder the product of one’s own biased and self-serving position, is alarmingly easy and frequent. Christian professors have learned from teaching experience that such thoughtless elisions regularly take place. No sooner do freshmen learn that there can be more than one plausible and legitimate interpretation of a poem or historical event than they become sophomores who promote what I call the “one sophomore, one vote” view of knowledge whereby one interpretation is as good as any other. Unfortunately, some professors have simply surrendered to this reality, permitting class discussion to decline from principled argument based on evidence to serial psycho-photography.
A second danger threatens Christianity itself, for taking too much delight in the imprimatur of postmodernism can weaken the force of Christian truth claims. Christians should not be satisfied by a place at the academic table if the price they must pay is the abandonment of any effort to establish the universality of at least some Christian truths. Ideally, of course, Christian scholars should simply want to be taken seriously by their colleagues of all stripes in a common pursuit of the truth of matters—a condition that is more often the case today than it was thirty or so years ago, thanks in part to the postmodern turn and Christian scholars like George Marsden. Nevertheless, it behooves all Christians to be clear about just how many postmodern claims they are willing to endorse and how they will avoid reducing Christian truth claims to the status of provisional or merely parochial observations.
Instead of letting the cogency of their own positions depend upon an alliance with such recent trends in hermeneutics, Christians should retrieve the best of their own tradition. In fact, they may plausibly claim to be among the first “postmoderns,” since they invented the hermeneutics of suspicion long before that mode of interpretation came into vogue during the latter part of the last century. Throngs of Christian writers—from the early monastics, church fathers and mothers up through the Reformers and to the present day—have insisted that we are more often self-deceived before we deceive, that we are notoriously self-serving (especially when we deny being so), and that we must therefore begin any Christian social, political, or cultural criticism with self-criticism. Indeed, centuries before postmodernism justifiable doubts about the possibility of objectivity began within Christianity. Given Christianity’s own persistent feeling for nuance, paradox, and ambiguity, however, the tradition has always both suspected and aspired to claims of objectivity.
Christians should also assert with renewed vigor their venerable defense of (something like) objectivity when construed as a spiritual practice of self-denial. Historian Tom Haskell had this to say about his similarly “self-denying” discipline of history:
Historical scholarship. . . . requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers. All of these mental acts—especially coming to grips with a rival’s perspectives—require detachment, an undeniably ascetic capacity to achieve some distance from one’s own spontaneous perspectives and convictions, to imagine how the world appears in another’s eyes, and to experimentally adopt perspectives that do not come naturally—in the last analysis to develop, as Thomas Nagel would say, a view of the world in which one’s own self stands not at the center but appears merely as one object among many.
There is, in other words, a very important family resemblance among terms like detachment, neutrality, self-denial, and objectivity—the stance of being one object among many. And Christians ought to recognize that their own tradition has been for centuries committed to both ethical and epistemological practices that are averse to self-centeredness and hence congenial to objectivity.
Finally, Christians should remind themselves that, in the same way that they have never abandoned their quest for holiness, rightly understood objectivity can be approached in like manner. Even though Christians have always insisted that the full human attainment of holiness is impossible, very few if any Christians think we should abandon ideas of holiness altogether, that we should jettison holiness as an aspiration, or that we should allow purity to become the enemy of goodness. Similarly, academics—Christian and secular alike—can continue to practice self-denial and aspire toward objectivity even as they continue to confess that they cannot attain it fully. To reaffirm devotion to ideals of holiness, objectivity, or both is simply to honor and renew traditional strengths within both Christian and secular intellectual life.
For the Christian academic, it is often both easier and wiser to renew long-established Christian practices and habits of mind than to forge alliances with fashionable and sometimes dubious intellectual movements within the secular world. It is wiser still to understand such renewals of Christian tradition, not as an alternative strategy to secular alliances, but rather as the best way to forge just such alliances with secular colleagues. A collective dedication to objectivity as academic holiness may well be the way to attain a more durable community of scholars from all beliefs and backgrounds unified in their devotion to discovering the truth of matters.
Mark Schwehn is Senior Research Professor in Christ College, the honors college of Valparaiso University, and editor of the second edition of Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be.
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