The Value of Informed Opinion

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 12/31/06

The avowed liberal bias and fairly strident mission statement of this site may give the idea that ProgressiveHistorians advocates some sort of New Left historical inquiry where scholarly detachment is replaced with partisan polemic.  As we move into our fourth month of operation, I want to dismiss this notion once and for all.  I do not now, nor have I ever, advocated politicizing the process of historical research, writing, or analysis.  I do acknowledge that every scholar has an inherent bias of some sort that will inevitably manifest itself in his or her work.  I believe such bias should be acknowledged but not celebrated.  Historical objectivity may be a myth, as Peter Novick has ably demonstrated, but it ought also to be a goal for all serious scholars.

The reason I started ProgressiveHistorians was not that I felt a lack of partisanship in scholarly historical work.  It was that I felt a decided lack of interest on the part of the historical community in participating in a meaningful way in the debate over current political events.  Certainly historians appeared regularly in print and on television opining about politics, but their contributions were generally mindless pablum about how “historically important” something was, rather than substantive analysis or criticism.  Meanwhile, the most respected voices in the field remained eerily absent from the political arena.

Since then, I have seen some encouraging signs both online (as a look at the blogroll at left will show) and in print media; but I still believe there is much work to be done in encouraging members of the historical profession to take a stand on the issues of the day.  Historians, in my view, have a unique opportunity to shed some much-needed light on the increasingly convoluted world we live in today.  They have something that many of us do not, something that is of great value in current political and policy debates: an opinion informed by knowledge of similar situations in the past and how they played out in the historical arena.

What is the value of an opinion?  In a world devoid of absolute certainty, everyone’s beliefs have at least a miniscule possibility of being true.  While I do not accept that any beliefs are absolutely true or absolutely false, some opinions have more validity — that is, more probability of being correct — than others.  These are the informed opinions: those based on observation, rational consideration, and knowledge of the relevant background material.

Whose opinions are more informed than others?  In general, anyone who possesses a lot of knowledge of the background material for a certain event or situation and who has devoted considerable time and effort to observing and analyzing that event or situation.  Anyone can fit these criteria, from blog readers to the President of the United States.  But in particular, people who are professionals in a field with relevance to the particular situation are uniquely suited to opine publicly on the issue.  Their background comes with certifiable credentials; in the course of pursuing their daily occupation, they have imbibed enough of the background material and considered enough of the issues that they are qualified, without compromising their professional disinterestedness in their daily work, to present their informed opinions to the public.

If you’ve ever lived in a city where water fluoridation was on the ballot, as I have, you’ve seen this sort of professional dichotomy first-hand.  As November rolls around, all the dentists in town band together and work publicly to support the new water treatment measure.  They’re not doing so out of self-interest; strictly speaking, they’ll actually lose business if fluoridation passes, because there’ll be fewer cavities to fill.  And they don’t throw over their daily practices in order to play politics or deliver their opinions on the subject with their daily cleanings; they remain as active and professional as ever in their daily work.

Rather, the town dentists speak out on fluoridation because they know what rotted teeth look like, how children scream when you dig around in their moldy gums, how pain becomes a fact of life for the poor who cannot afford dental treatments.  They do not know for sure and certain whether fluoride is good or bad for the system; but they do know more about it than the average person.  Theirs is an opinion just like anyone else’s, but it is an informed opinion, worthy of proclaiming to the public at large as based on observation, training and experience.

Historians possess the same type of informed opinions regarding current political events.  Our craft is not as scientific as dentistry, but it is similarly based on observation and analysis.  Our peculiar talent lies in drawing connections between the past and the present, in making analytical comparisons with meaning.  We should not refrain from using this talent in the public square, from setting forth our informed opinion for public perusal, for fear of tarring our scholarly work with political bias.  Like the town dentists, we are capable of separating our professional work from our public duty — and we should not fear to do so.

My mother had the privilege of studying with the late Stephen Dunning, Professor of English and Education at the University of Michigan.  Dunning was an innovator, a man of large appetites and atranscendent vision for his profession who rose to the Presidency of the National Council of Teachers of English.  In his 1974 NCTE Presidential Address, Dunning articulated a principle of scholarship and education that is in my opinion valid for all fields of academic endeavor: the notion that the sword of academic truth should be wielded for the good of humankind in the here and now:

The orientation of English, her magnetic North, should be to the profound needs of all people.  Our classroom compasses should swing regularly toward magnetic North.  The problems there are not those of our profession–not accountability in English, not performance-based certification.  The imperatives radiating from that magnetic North are those of all people and all professions: to face the two-headed monster of hunger and overpopulation.  At magnetic North are some narrow (and some noble) dreams of national destiny; are dreams of peace and freedom; are problems of racism, the environment.

I’m describing the direction we point to, not the subjects we teach.  But orienting toward such imperatives might mean, for example, giving first attention to the life matter of literature, and less attention to its form.  It might mean stopping to consider what lies behind the statistics used to report on desperate human needs.  On hunger, for example.  News reports heavy with numbers: millions of tons of grain; centimeters of rainfall; and thousands of strikers on the docks, where the millions of tons of grain pile up.  Students must see in these numbers the one that really matters: how many people died last week because they had too little food.

The imperatives, then, become our orientation.  We show by what we do in school, and what we encourage students to do, that we are fully aware of the real world, and of its real problems.  Sometimes, asking questions of myself, I feel certain this is right, and necessary.

How silly are such questions as:

What grammar should I teach (or what language study undertake), when in my school the sounds kids make are taken by teachers and classmates alike to be indications of social class, of intelligence, and even of personal worth?

or:

What stories should be read aloud to fourth graders–in a world where thousands of children last year died from hunger?

Of course, I don’t know the answers.  Yet I cannot shrug off the querstions.  For our culture is telling us we are less important, less vital an enterprise, than we think we are.

Dunning believed, as I do, that academic study is useful only insofar as it helps humanity to define itself — and that such an endeavor necessarily requires an attention to current events from the perspective of the academic discipline.  Dunning tailored his argument to the classroom, arguing that professors should expose their students to the wider world through the lens of English — or, as can be extrapolated, of any academic study.

But I would take Dunning’s argument one step further.  For historians, at least, the “classroom” is not merely our students at the academy but the public at large — the people who look at the world with confused and downcast eyes, who open a newspaper looking for enlightment and find, all too often, only more muddled emptiness.  Certainly it is our professional duty to provide them through our scholarly work with the most accurate, unbiased, and incisive historical knowledge available; but I believe it is also our duty to offer for their benefit our informed opinion on the world around us, on editorial pages and television news and in the public square, without fear of seeming “impartial”.  As historians, with our bird’s-eye view of decades and centuries and millennia, we have literally “seen it all,” or at least seen more of “it” than the average person.  We owe it to the public whom we serve to offer up our informed opinions as lights in the darkness of uncertainty.

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