"The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize 'inconvenient' facts - I mean facts that are inconvenient to their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others. I believe the teacher accomplishes more than an intellectual task if he compels his audience to accustom itself to the existence of such facts. I would be so immodest as even to apply the expression 'moral achievement' though perhaps this may sound too grandiose for something that should go without saying." - Max Weber, "Science as a Vocation" (1918).
The essay by Weber from which I have extracted this passage is, of course, typically seen as a classic brief for separating facts and values in academic settings, especially in the classroom. Let's set aside the large question of whether it is possible coherently to defend anything like a fact-value dichotomy. (On this I recommend Hilary Putnam, The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy & Other Essays.
Harvard UP, 2002.) What Weber is saying here is that, as a practical matter, teachers, especially university teachers, are not in the business of making the classroom a comfortable place. Their task is to challenge the opinions and values students bring with them, to make the students think and question. That may seem "inconvenient" to students seeking simply to confirm their own views, political or otherwise, but even Weber seems to view this difficult and admirable task is central to the teacher's vocation. (Of course, among the "inconvenient facts" that many students find most disturbing is that the world is full of folks who disagree with us about important things like politics, who think our own views are nutty or worse.) And the point of academic freedom, on my view, is that it allows faculty to make the campus and the classroom inconvenient and uncomfortable.
What has prompted this post? Last night I was reading a short item in Inside Higher Ed
entitled "Fact Checking David Horowitz." Turns out that in his zeal to unmask "dangerous" faculty Mr. Horowitz stumbles repeatedly in terms of his own criteria of truth, fairness and so forth. The passage from Weber ought to illustrate just how far out on the fringe Mr. Horowitz and his acolytes actually have strayed. Normally I would not post even on such matters. However, this morning I arrived at my office to find a business card touting RochesterWatch
) tacked to the bulletin board directly outside my office door. (There were none left on the other boards in the department, so I can only surmise that this was intended as a "special" message.) This is a group of right wing zealots who have made some inroads among the students on campus here. So, I suppose I am being "watched." Perhaps whomever left their calling card outside my office should read Weber too. Perhaps, having done so, they would say that they are simply tryig to make campus an "inconvenient" place for me too. That is fine. I am simply talking back without the veil of anonymity.
PS: Although I think that playing the "fact-checking" game with Horowitz and his minions is more or less of a time/energy black hole, there are pages that take he and they to task for (let's be polite) "dissembling." For example, see Free Exchange on Campus
Labels: Academic Follies