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Blog Log

Friday, April 23, 2004  

I have been busy with work and school, hence the lack of recent updates. However, this piece called The Professoriate and the Truth at Tech Central Station caught my eye. It is a transcript of the Kneller Lecture delivered by John Kekesto the North American Philosophy of Education Society meeting in Toronto, Canada on 27 March 2004. The below excerpt is a concise treatment on the fallacious concept of relativism.

It goes without saying that any institution should be open to challenge, research and teaching should be receptive to promising new possibilities, and it is wrong to exclude people from university and college positions on the basis of characteristics irrelevant to teaching and research. What preferential treatment aims at, however, is not these desirable goals, but the inclusion of people on the basis of characteristics irrelevant to teaching and research, the undermining of truth for political purposes, and damaging the one institution in North American life whose traditional and indispensable contribution to the well-being of society used to be upholding the truth. This destructive policy moreover is presented and supported by falsehoods intended to obscure the fact that it aims to transform universities and colleges into political tools by replacing better with worse qualified teachers and researchers.

The administrative units of most universities and colleges are departments, and it is through them that the truth is usually subverted. One of the ways this is done is through indoctrination with the view that truth is a cultural artifact that has no relation to objective facts, and merely reflects beliefs individuals have been conditioned to hold. Truth is said to be a product of how the world is seen, not how it is. This is relativism, which is virtually the official doctrine in departments of sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, and, under the name of deconstruction, in many departments of literature and languages as well.

The implication of relativism is that the truth cannot be subverted because it does not exist. What exists are beliefs people hold, express, and act on, but, since all beliefs are cultural artifacts, ultimately one is as good as any other. If there are no objective grounds on which beliefs could be criticized or justified, then all beliefs have an equal claim to recognition and respect. Any attempt to show that some cultures, individuals, values, practices, or institutions are better than others is a coercive and arbitrary authoritarianism that fails to respect the integrity of other systems and ways of life. This is why "Western civ" must go, why there should be no canon, why teaching the classics is a form of oppression, why science is a plot by men to impose patriarchy on women, and why professors have as much to learn from students as students from professors. This is politics with a vengeance because it attacks the very possibility of legitimately regarding any authority or belief as better than anything else.

Suppose for the moment that relativism is right: all beliefs are cultural artifacts and they do not conform to objective facts; they merely reflect how a culture views the world, not how the world is. Two consequences follow, each devastating for relativists. First, if what relativists claim holds for all beliefs, then it holds for relativism as well. It, too, is a cultural artifact and it does not conform to objective facts. Relativism, then, tells us nothing about the truth; it tells us merely what relativists have been culturally conditioned to believe about the truth. People who believe that relativism is false because some beliefs do conform to objective facts are also culturally conditioned. In that case, however, there is no more reason to be a relativist than to be an anti-relativist, since neither is a matter of reason at all. Both depend on the cultural conditioning to which people have been subject. It would, then, be just as wrong for relativists to try to impose their views on defenders of "Western civ," the canon, the classics, the objectivity of science, and the authority of teachers over students as relativists say it is wrong for anti-relativists to impose their views. If relativists attempt to defend their position by claiming that it is not culturally conditioned but actually true, then they cannot consistently maintain their central claim that the truth does not exist. It must exist if they have found it.

The second consequence that follows if relativism were the right view of beliefs is that universities and colleges teach our beliefs: the beliefs arrived at in the course of the long history of our culture, using our methods of inquiry, criticism, and justification. Even if all this were culturally conditioned, it would nevertheless be ours. Higher education is important because it teaches students about the great achievements of our way of life, our culture. That is what universities and colleges are meant to do, and that is their justification and the basis of their claim for support. By accepting an appointment at a university or college professors commit themselves to teaching and research as they are understood in our culture. It is on the basis of that commitment that professors are paid their salaries, enjoy their benefits, and are entitled to teach students. If relativists act consistently with what they claim to believe, they must dishonor that commitment. They must deny that our beliefs are really true, that our methods of inquiry are really effective, and that what we value is worth valuing. If consistent, relativists must systematically violate the commitment they have made as a condition of being a professor. They, then, enjoy their salaries and benefits and teach their students fraudulently. Some of them are guilty of just that.

Most relativists, however, are not consistent. Their actions are at odds with what they claim to believe because no sane person could seriously hold the pernicious and absurd beliefs to which relativists are committed. This is shown every time relativists consult a physician, not a faith healer; call a plumber to unclog a sink, not a magician; want rapists prosecuted, not held up as role-models; and send their children to school, not to a shopping mall. But this does not stop many professors from using relativism to further their political ideal. For they appeal to it to justify using the classroom as a political forum, making political speeches instead of teaching, belittling the great achievements of the past, and hypocritically claiming that they are merely doing knowingly what the vast majority of humanity is doing in ignorance. The net effect is the betrayal of truth, the gross violation of professional obligations, the corruption of students, and the subversion of higher education. All of which is made even more egregious by the knowing cynicism with which it is usually done.

I am not claiming that political activists must be relativists and relativists must be political activists. I am claiming that there is a natural affinity between the two views as they are currently held in the North American system of higher education. If all beliefs are cultural artifacts, then all beliefs have an equal objective status, namely, none. And then all authorities and hierarchies, all judgments of better or worse, more or less reasonable are unmasked as coercive and arbitrary attempts to deny equal respect to all opinions by ranking some lower or less reasonable than others. Inequalities of wealth, status, power, and life prospects reflect unjustifiable hierarchies, and they ought to be abolished. Since universities and colleges perpetuate these hierarchies, they must be radically transformed. And the way to do that is to subordinate what is regarded as the truth in those corrupt and unjust establishments to this fine political idea. So say - perniciously and absurdly - those relativists who are also political activists.

posted by Marc | Friday, April 23, 2004

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