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

Professor Hughes writes . . . — From The Staff a Clarification

page 3

Professor Hughes writes . . .

From The Staff a Clarification

Dear Mr. Editor,—

One of your henchmen has persuaded me to write about your favourite theme of "academic objectivity," and this is the result I should in fact like to know much more clearly than I do at present what your own attitude to the question is and what you would like me and my kind to do about the matter; and in part payment in advance I shall tell you some of the things I am prepared to do and am not prepared to do. You have been trying to provoke me; you can't complain if I try to reciprocate.

It wasn't long after I arrived here last year that I discovered your anti-objectivity campaign in full swing. I confess it annoyed me a little, because what I call "academic objectivity" is something I believe in with some earnestness. You may not mean quite the same as I do by the phraser—few words are more desperately ambiguous than "objective"—but I should like to be sure, because I think that some of your remarks could be construed as a most insidious attack on what I (and, I am sure, most of my colleagues) regard as one of the most vital principles a university has to defend.

The Teacher's Way

It's about the way we teach that you chiefly complain, so I shall confine myself to that. As a teacher of philosophy. I take it as my duty not to inculcate my own beliefs into my students but to help them as best I may to think problems out for themselves and to reach their own conclusions the hard way. Of course I have opinions of my own about various philosophical issues—it would be odd if after thinking about them for several years I didn't, though I am not ashamed to admit that about many of them I haven't by an means made up my mind as yet—but as a teacher of philosophy I don't think it is my job to be a propagandist or a missionary. I believe, for example, that when I am lecturing on the views of any particular philosopher, be he St. Thomas or Karl Marx, my first task is to explain his arguments as sympathetically as I can before going on to criticise them; and in discussing a philosophical problem I think I ought to state both (or all) sides of the case as fairly as I can and leave it to my students to decide which has the better of the argument. (If you say this represents my ideals rather than my practice you may be only too right, for I am but mortal; but ideals are important.) Perverse as it may seem, I have far more intellectual respect for the person who has thought carefully through a problem and come to what I think is a wrong conclusion than for one who agrees with me but whose thinking seems to me slipshod and superficial. And there are even times—to such depths of depravity do I descend—when I think it is my duty as a teacher to argue against the position I am in fact inclined to adopt, when I am talking to someone who does not seem to me to appreciate the difficulties and objections to which it is subject,

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.

Some Questions

This letter has already reached alarming proportions, but what I should like to know is just how far you dissent from the things I have been saying in it. I should like to know this because some of your remarks have led me to suspect (I hope unjustifiably) that you would like me and my colleagues to go much further than I have said I am prepared to go. Do you, for example, want me to take it as my aim as a University teacher to convert as many students as possible to whatever philosophical or religious views I may happen to hold? I am just not going to do that, for reasons which ought to be clear by now. My job is to teach people to philosophise, not to tell them what conclusions to come to. Again, I have sometimes suspected that you have the idea that there is something meritorious about the mere taking up of a definite stand on an issue, as if not to do so implied a lack of interest in or concern about the subject. But of course the reason why a man is unable to take such a stand may be that he has come to realise the difficulty and complexity of the problem, or that he finds the arguments on both sides unconvincing; and in such a case it is not the refusal to commit himself but the taking of a definite stand which would be [unclear: intelletual] treason. Finally (though I could go on), I confess to the suspicion that you would like the college to be officially committed to some "point of view," religious, political, or what have-you. Now I should be all in favour of the college being dedicated to the spirit of impartial enquiry (I don't want to suggest it isn't), but if what is meant is that it should be committed to some set of conclusions, then it is as well to bear in mind that what this amounts to in practice is such things as credal tests for members of staff, and perhaps for students too; there is precedent for that kind of thing, but I for one (though I know I'm not the only one) should be opposed to it to the last ditch.

Just to make myself thoroughly unpleasant, can I have a last fling at your reporter who, a few issues back, said that I spent most of a lecture discussing academic freedom? Quite apart from the minor point that it wasn't "most" of the lecture (though I admit that it may have seemed so to him), what I spoke about wasn't academic freedom at all, it was this "academic objectivity." Admittedly there is a connection between the two subjects, because if we don't preserve our academic objectivity we shall be in danger of losing our academic freedom, but they are not the same.—Yours without a trace of ill-will.

G. K. Hughes.

Department of Philosophy, Victoria University College.

P.S.—I have been re-reading your leading article, "Dear Students . . in the last issue of last year, and I have been puzzled to know how belief in the existence of God would affect the teaching of pure mathematics. This is only a minor point (though it isn't entirely unconnected with the main one), but it intrigues me.