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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

“Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” Or, the Problem of Lag Time

I’ve noticed a pattern often enough to now propose it as a theory: discussions that take place in the academy — in the debates among experts in papers and conferences which then form into competing “schools” of thought carried forward by graduate students — reach the world of K-12 books in about twenty years. Perhaps that is about as long as it takes for a highly abstract set of contentions to filter through the professions, the ed schools, the classrooms, to become a set of criteria in evaluating the books written for our readers. The latest proof of this is a marvelous paper that I first read in graduate school and returned to as I think of how to discuss the Common Core focus on “point of view” with teachers, librarians, and students. In 1988 a well-known historian named Peter Novick published That Noble Dream — a survey of the history of historians in America that was a kind of expose, showing that experts who claimed to be so objective and above the fray actually had strong prejudices and political views that shaped their view of the past. But Novick was not merely listing instances of discordance between what a historian said he was doing and what his private notes revealed. He claimed that the whole idea of historians aiming for objectivity was either false or misguided. Two years late Thomas Haskell, himself a fine historian, wrote a spectacular review essay titled “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality” that took issue with Novick. That essay, which I urge you to read, explains everything about the Common Core approach to IT (informational texts). Here it is:

Novick demonstrates (in all of the right ways, using evidence, reason, logic, as well as personal passion) that historians were not neutral on subjects they studied, and in cases also not objective (bending facts, ignoring evidence, etc). Haskell says, sure, we are human. We are limited. But there is something we can aspire to — a level of “detachment” in which we do our best to investigate and understand views that differ from or even are opposed to ours. The fact that we do this does not mean we are without passion. Our motivation to fully grasp a different view may be to demolish it. But even if that is what inspires us to look at new evidence or consider differing interpretations, we have to take that step. And, indeed, the more fully we step into the shoes of a different historian with a different perspective, the stronger our work will be. We are passionate human beings who can do our best to be fair and honest investigators of the past.

How does this approach differ from what IT books for our readers have always done? Haskell makes that clear, “I see nothing to admire in neutrality.” He sees no special value in “standing in the middle of the road.” This is not the world of the bland textbook. This is not the false balance of One from This Side and One from That Side. This is a world where the best most “powerful argument” wins. And what gives an argument power? The fact that you have weighed your side and the other side(s), you have tried to see the story from a totally different view, and have accounted for it. But then, you have brought forth your evidence. As Haskell so perfectly put it back in 1990, “the demand is for detachment and fairness, not disengagement from life.”

And so friends that is it — CC has put us, in 2012, into the debates of the late 80s, and has given us a guide in this wonderful essay. I hope it is useful for you.