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Professor Admits the Truth: Social Science/Humanities Classes Inherently Biased

University of Texas journalism Professor Robert Jensen was brutally honest about the nature of social science and humanities courses his peers teach across the country in his latest opinion piece, and he wants fellow university-level educators to come clean, too.

Saying “good teaching is living your life honestly in front of students,” something he learned from his late mentor, Jensen said that means “a rejection of the illusory neutrality that some professors claim. From the framing of a course, to the choice of topics for inclusion on the syllabus, to the selection of readings, to the particular way we talk about ideas—teaching in the social sciences and humanities is political, through and through.”

Jensen went on to claim he’s not talking about partisan advocacy of a particular politician, party, or program, offering some academic doublespeak: “Political, in this sense, (means to) assess where real power lies, analyze how that power operates in any given society, and acknowledge the effect of that power on what counts as knowledge.”

Sure, whatever.

At any rate, Jensen goes on to call for academic honestly all around, saying students deserve it:

Every professor’s “politics” in this sense has considerable influence on his/her teaching, and I believe it is my obligation to make clear to students the political judgments behind my decisions. The objective is not to strong-arm students into agreement, but to explain those choices and defend them when challenged by students. At the end of a successful semester, students should be able to identify my assumptions, critique them, and be clearer about their own.

Jensen claims offering students some rabid rhetoric is what they want and expect, anyway:

The first course I taught in the university-wide program called First-Year Seminars, “The Ethics and Politics of Everyday Life,” was straight out of Koplin: I had students read five books that touched on the political, economic, and ecological implications of our choices in our daily lives. Every time I worried that I would be pushing students too far, Jim would tell me that the students were hungry for honest, jargon-free radical talk, and he was right.

Jim Koplin was a former professor, co-founder of the Center for Nonviolence, and a community organizer dedicated to social justice and ecological sustainability. Koplin died in mid-December at age 79, and Jensen wrote his piece on intellectual honesty in honor of Koplin and their friendship.

Jensen’s piece appeared on Koplin’s website as well as the New Left Project website, described as “dedicated to producing high quality comment and analysis on issues of concern to the political left.”

Whatever you think of Jensen (remember he’s the one who recently described Thanksgiving as a “white supremacist holiday”) it’s nice to see he’s willing to call a spade a spade.

Click here to read Jensen’s entire piece.

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Add to the Discussion

  • LarryNelson2014Captain

    Jensen is a tool. A radical wannabe who can’t stand up to serious questioning. I got into it with him about 12 years ago in grad school – he was whining about Clinton’s imperialism and the economic injustice of the 90s. He didn’t appreciate a 30 year old attacking his premises – he was too used to intimidating undergraduates.

    Nice to see him admit the obvious, but I don’t think he receives any extra credit for it.

  • barthomew

    Social science historian Ernest Becker provided evidence and argument about the roots of the particular social sciences as they arose in turn. A good portion of those sciences started ou individually with the goal of transforming society. And this was in line with the idea that change and progress is possible, rather than with an emphasis on Divine Providence and the idea that humans could not drastically alter society. One factor in this emphasis was also the fact that the physics of Bacon had been applied to produce the industrial revolution; so the social sciences decided they wanted to and needed to (as a science) change the social world the way Bacon’s ideas had changed the physical world and our use of it. Recall that Mondale proposed that social scientists be given special status by Congress to aid in writing law.
    Becker argued that over time particular social sciences found they could not easily change society or found strong opposition to their plans to change society. He says they then tended to make a bargain with the universities whereby they would agree to be “objective” and neutral and “scientific” rather than transformational in return for being funded. Once nestled in apparent neutrality in the university and its funding, they continued, to some degree, their efforts to change society, as Jensen argues is occurring even today. An extreme example of this was the statement that once showed up in a report for the US News and World Report on Marxists after Marxism had been discredited and even thrown out in Eastern Europe: the Marxists have found their last place of refuge in certain universities, including some American universities.
    An ironic point is that universities, including departments of philosophy and of the social sciences and the humanities, spend a great deal of time uncovering the worldview and goals implied in works by thinkers. An attendee at a Modern Language Association once said that the hermeneutical critics spent so much time uncovering the (currently popular) allegedly buried racism, sexism, and classism in works of literature that they never got to the meaning of the work itself. (On the other hand, deconstructionism tends to teach that there is no one defensible meaning in works of literature.) Jensen is doing the logical thing of uncovering the worldview and goals of social sciences and the humanities: what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
    There is also the argument of Michael Novak: that the social sciences tend to break up the human person in such a way that they have undermined their own value. For example, psychology studies the individual and sociology studies the group, and never the twain shall meet or produce comprehensible and comprehensive meaning, truth, and value.