Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:40 | SYDNEY
Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:40 | SYDNEY

Can the study of politics be free of bias? Should it be?

8 December 2008 14:40

Guest blogger: Ed Cohen is a research associate at the Lowy Institute.

Reading Ms Devine's latest op-ed denouncing alleged bias in Australian humanities teaching inspired a familiar feeling of disappointment. Yet it is also a little surprising that The Interpreter is taking on the debate in the same terms Ms Devine sets out in her piece: whether students are being subjected to academic bias at university.

The issue here is not the extent of 'bias' in Australian universities and whether we should be gathering evidence to make the case one way or the other, but the apparent and quite bizarre assumption that we can (or should) aspire to live in some kind of bias-free academic utopia where all arguments are scrupulously given equal treatment. I am not suggesting that some political viewpoints be deliberately excluded from debate according the prejudices of academic staff. Any respectable course in a humanities field will carefully and fairly lay out most, if not all, views in the field and critically examine their assumptions and methods.

What is important for this debate, however, is not the need to fairly debate different points of view but rather the need to properly understand the nature of political discussion. This is where Ms Devine's argument runs into real difficulty. When was the last time any of us heard an unbiased argument? Is there even any such thing? Surely we have moved beyond the idea that complete objectivity is ever possible in political discourse. Andrew Davies’ goal that his students should not be able to tell how he votes may be admirable, but that doesn’t detract from the inevitable selectivity and value judgements that characterise political discussion.

The real question, therefore, is this: should the end-point of vigorous and open debate be some sort of pseudo-intellectualism that avoids saying anything very interesting for fear of giving offence and where the standard of success is whether the same number of minutes is given to discussing each viewpoint, or should it be to actually reach some conclusions about the quality and rigour of political arguments? If conservatives want to advance their arguments, they should stop focusing on process issues and argue for their ideas instead.

Universities are ineluctably political and have always lived by engagement in politics. They need to do so to survive. Much like her fellow travellers in the US, Ms Devine implicitly claims that conservatives are being intellectually persecuted by an entrenched left-wing elite. Yet she is most likely using the seemingly legitimate issue of 'bias' (after all, what fair-minded person would want that?) to push a much more far-reaching agenda. Does anyone really believe that ideologues such as Ms Devine want scrupulously fair treatment of all arguments?

One suspects that what she really wants is for conservative ideas to be dominant in universities. But as Gerard Henderson has reminded his readers on numerous occasions, conservatives have scored few lasting victories in the 'culture wars', particularly when it comes to the intellectual culture of key institutions such as universities. The real sore-spot then for conservative culture-warriors is that they are losing, not that intellectual discourse might be slanted in a particular direction.

Rather than hiding behind an argument about bias, conservatives should go back to their intellectual drawing-board, examine honestly why their ideas have not taken hold in universities and work out new ways to squarely engage their opponents.