Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Quoted in UCSD Alumni Magazine

@ UCSD, the UCSD Alumni magazine, published a letter to the editor from me in this month's issue. The letter was in response to an interview in last month's issue with Professor Wm. Arctander O'Brien, in which he asserted that there is no such thing as "truth". Professor O'Brien evidently didn't like what I had to say, because he took the time to write a lengthy response, which the magazine also published.

The link to the web version of the magazine's Letters to the Editor section is here. Scroll down to the second comment.

Here the is text of my comment and his response, as well:

In your recent interview with humanities Professor Wm. Arctander O’Brien, he stated, “I think neutrality is a myth, just like presenting the ‘truth’ would be a myth.” The hallmark of great teachers, especially at the university level, is their ability to remain objective while carefully holding the tension between conflicting ideas, enabling young thinkers to engage those ideas without having to wade through someone else’s bias. Asserting that “truth” is just “myth” is exactly the kind of bias that distorts learning in the lecture hall.

-Terrence X, Marshall ’02

Professor O’Brien responds: I share Mr. X's conviction that a good teacher shows his students without needless “bias” that the world of ideas is one of dynamic and “conflicting ideas.” We disagree about how one goes about this. Mr. X believes a great teacher can “remain objective” and communicate “the truth.” My experience as a teacher and scholar has led me to conclude that things are not so simple, especially when addressing the kind of complex historical and literary issues that I regularly teach. Here, “objectivity,” like “truth,” becomes a myth—the belief that one can transcend one’s human condition, one’s very subjectivity, and reach the objective truth. Histories of the same events and interpretations of the same literary works continue to be written precisely because there is no way to be “objective” or to settle “the truth” here. When I walk into a classroom, my goal is to deliver the most penetrating, scrupulous, and comprehensive interpretation I can, and to provide my students with tools for honing their interpretive skills for life. I make it clear that I pretend neither to objectivity nor to any final truth, and I begin every class by inviting questions and comments on the last one. For me, the classroom is a place for interpretation and dialogue. Claims to possess “objectivity” or the “truth” preclude both.

-Professor Wm. Arctander O’Brien

***UPDATE***

Here are some of the responses I recieved from friends:

Good take. I found the prof's response bordering on arrogant hogwash. To say that questions are invited ignores the terror many students feel in the lecture hall, including being used as a foil for what the prof's think is rapier-like wit, though in reality is usually vicious.

And exactly how does he make it "clear" that he is biased? By a disclaimer at the start of each lecture? That is inherently unbelievable; when has a professor ever (regularly) started a lecture stating "I'm a biased SOB and you need to vomit back my truth to get a good grade," or words to that effect?

Whenever anyone has to resort to "I am a scholar" to make a point the red b.s. light triggers.

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Great job, Terrence! I had O'Brien at UCSD - a real jerk.

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Very interesting. O’Brien was one of my favorite professors. He is a very dynamic and very challenging teacher. I’m not surprised at the length of his response, as he has always loved to engage students. I had him for Humanities 5, and we studied Nietzche among other folks. Class included a lively debate about Jesus (we were reading The Antichrist). He’s very open to any line of discussion—and he is a formidable opponent of the faith.

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Good job, T. I've had professors that totally divest themselves from the notion of objectivity. While it may be true that our subjectivity may sometimes reveal itself despite our best efforts, to totally abandon objectivity is nothing more than an excuse to indoctrinate.

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Gettt'em T-dog...ripp his ugly face off...

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Good stuff!!! Thanks for the email. I read your letter to the editor. Well Done!

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Keep pushing for truth in this relativistic world.

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