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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 15, No. 6. April 24, 1952

Academic Objectivity

Academic Objectivity

All this is (or is one aspect of) what I call "academic objectivity." It is based on an attitude which regards important issues as matters to be discussed (and if possible settled) by patient argument, which involves a readiness to approach problems without having made up one's mind in advance about their solution, to listen open-mindedly to reasonings pro and con, and to change one's opinions when confronted with cogent arguments one had not noticed or appreciated before. Such an attitude seems to me to be the only one whereby I can either keep my own thinking honest or treat my students as adult human begins who ought to be learning to think for themselves and not to be receiving the kind of spoon-feeding which is appropriate only to an elementary stage of education. It is an attitude which has been hardly won and precariously maintained, and it will be a sad day when we in Universities cease to uphold it, for in all conscience you won't find much defence of it anywhere else. It has, however, nothing whatever to do with regarding the issues one is discussing as of no importance; in fact, the more important they are, the more urgent it is to treat them in this "objective" way. (One can, of course, discuss things in colloquial and flippant terms and still take them seriously; that's quite another matter.) Nor, in my own case at least, has it any connection with Mr Benda's view that truth is not the same for everybody: I'm sorry if I introduce dessension into the ranks of the staff here, but it seems to me that if a statement is true, it is just true, not true "for" so and so, whatever that may mean.

All this, of course, raises the question. "Should a lecturer tell?" Should he disclose his opinions, when he has them, to his students? I think a judicious use of this practice can be defended, partly because it brightens a lecture—adds a little comic relief, one might even say; partly because it enables the student to discount the lecturer's bias—for the person who is most destructive of academic objectivity is not the lecturer who announces his views but the one who keeps quiet about them, though they go on influencing what he says, so that no one knows where the discount has to be made; and partly because, if the opinion is not merely stated but also defended, it can (one hopes) serve as a model—for it isn't much use saying to one's students, "think things out for yourselves, devise arguments and criticise other people's ideas" unless one can show that one occasionally indulges in this pastime oneself. Nevertheless, the practice has its dangers, dangers which I confess I suspect you may be inclined to underestimate. For there is the possibility that one may lead students to think that one's personal opinion is the approved opinion, the one they are intended to hold, which they will be rewarded for repeating and penalised for disagreeing with; and when this happens, very serious harm is done indeed. There can't, for example, be any secret in this college about my own religious convictions, yet I am prepared to give high marks for a carefully thought-out defence of atheism and none at all for the most impeccably orthodox statement of atheism unsupported by any arguments; but if students are not prepared to see things like this, then I fear that most of my case for showing my hand from time to time will collapse. There is also the danger that by giving students in advance what they may take to be "the answer," one may lead them to avoid the painful struggling towards an answer which is the process by which they learn how to think better. It is, I suspect, a wholesome realisation of such dangers which may have led some members of staff to suppress their opinions altogether; and as long as we have (as we certainly do have) the type of student whose attitude is "let's find out what the lecturer thinks, and then we'll know what to write in our papers," such lecturers will have a very strong case.