Weekly Whaaa…?

Giroux’s “Schooling and the Culture of Positivism: Notes on the Death of History”

Over the holidays I read Giroux’s On Critical Pedagogy, a collection of some older and new essays. The one that particularly sticks with me is “Schooling and the Culture of Positivism: Notes on the Death of History.” It’s a bummer that he hasn’t figured out a way to make this open access. If you can get ahold of it—perhaps you have access to the Educational Theory journal or can get On Critical Pedagogy through ILL—I definitely recommend it.

Of all the essays in this volume, this might have the most relevance for librarianship / archivists / LIS / etc., for it deals at length with the myth of “neutrality.”

This essay links the ways that history is taught with ways that produce “common sense” understandings of the world—a production of a particular, politically-inflected common sense that Antonio Gramsci terms “ideological hegemony,” which legitimizes the present distributions of power while attempting to foreclose thoughts that the world should be otherwise.

Giroux is careful to clarify that:

“Culture of positivism,” in this context, is used to make a distinction between a specific philosophic movement and a form of cultural hegemony. The distinction is important because it shifts the focus of debate about the tenets of positivism from the terrain of philosophy to the field of ideology. […Furthermore…] the culture of positivism undermines any viable notion of critical historical consciousness. (p. 25)

Among its other insights, this essay helps articulate the difference between certain types of theory and what I consider properly critical theory. Theory in the culture of positivism attempts primarily to refine methods and attempts to limit “knowledge” to only things that are value-free. On the other hand, Giroux reminds us:

In classical thought, theory was seen as a way men could free themselves from dogma and opinions in order to provide an orientation for ethical action. In other words, theory was viewed as an extension of ethics and was linked to the search for truth and justice. The prevailing positivist consciousness has forgotten the function that theory once served. Under the prevailing dominant ideology, theory has been stripped of its concern with ends and ethics, and “appears unable to free itself from the ends set and given to science by the pre-given empirical reality.” (p. 26)

Believing that this sort of research and education has successfully evacuated itself of history and values, however, comes with the cost of not recognizing or contending with the socially-embedded foundation of its own pursuits.

Giroux again distinguishes between “objectivity” and “objectivism”—both of which promote rationality and minimize bias, but only one of which can reflect on its own uses and outcomes:

Missing from this form of educational rationality is the complex interplay among knowledge, power, and ideology. The sources of this failing can be traced to the confusion between objectivity and objectivism, a confusion which once lays bare the conservative ideological underpinnings of the positivist educational paradigm. If objectivity in classroom teaching refers to the attempt to be scrupulously careful about minimizing biases, false beliefs, and discriminating behavior in rationalizing and developing pedagogical thought and practice, then this is a laudable notion that should govern our work. By contrast, objectivism refers to an orientation that is atemporal and ahistorical in nature. In this orientation, “fact” becomes the foundation for all forms of knowledge, and values and intentionality lose their political potency by being abstracted from the notion of meaning. When objectivism replaces objectivity, as Bernstein points out, “is not an innocent mistaken epistemological doctrine.” It becomes a potent form of ideology that smothers the tug of conscience and blinds its adherents to the ideological nature of their own frame of reference. (p. 34)

This lack of reflection about outcomes and ways of being embedded within societal structures is not only a false claim to neutrality, it leaves educators unwilling to consider how they might be located in institutional oppression. 1

Objectivism suggests more than a false expression of neutrality. In essence, it tacitly represents a denial of ethical values. Its commitment to rigorous techniques, mathematical expression, and law-like regularities supports not only one form of scientific inquiry but social formations that are inherently repressive and elitist as well. Its elimination of “ideology” works in the service of the ideology of social engineers. By denying the relevance of certain norms in guiding and shaping how we ought to live with each other, it tacitly supports principles of hierarchy and control. Built into its objective quest for certainty is not simply the elimination of intellectual and valuative conflict, but the suppression of free will, intentionality, and collective struggle. Clearly, such interests can move beyond the culture of positivism only to the degree that they are able to make a distinction between emancipatory political practice and technological administrative control. (p. 35)

Wending its way around to discussing how false neutrality promotes social control rather than liberation reminds me of another excellent—and sadly also not open access—essay, Christine Pawley’s “Hegemony’s Handmaid? The Library and Information Studies Curriculum from a Class Perspective”.

If you’re looking for a reading on library values, hegemony, and what claims of neutrality promote, Giroux’s essay provides a lot to think through! I can only hope that as LIS seems to continue moving from “library studies” and towards calling ourselves library science, information science, and operating with metrics, we recognize that these cannot operate without social values and ethics. If we do not make these values explicit objects of intentional reflection, we run the risk of implicitly accepting the larger social structures around us.

  1. Indeed, the situation goes beyond individual predisposition or “will.” By structuring professional education rhetoric away from considering the complexities of values and toward technical certainty, a self-congratulatory belief in neutrality steers journals and publishers away from publishing works that prioritize considerations of ethics or how the present configuration came to be. It therefore leaves individuals wary of attempting research on values or history, for these imperil their ability to publish and thereby make a solid case for tenure. In other words, to the extent that this false neutrality afflicts education and related disciplines such as LIS, it goes beyond individual will and instead materially structures the professional literature, the professoriate, other administrators, and the institutions’ practices. 

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