To continue the commentary on the Cry Wolf project . . .
In the final sentences of the story on the project at InsideHigherEd.com, Peter Dreier offers this remarkable defense of the plan: “‘This is legitimate work,’ he said, and the essays will be scrutinized for accuracy.” In other words, the results will undergo careful review and, if necessary, correction.
The statement clashes, however, with this sentence from Dreier’s letter: “We therefore need to construct a counter narrative that demonstrates the falsity or exaggeration of such claims so that the first reaction of millions of people as well as opinion leaders will be ‘there they go again!'”
The project findings claim “accuracy,” but the “narrative form” in which they are constructed suggests something else, namely, myth-making to counter (presumably) the myth-making of the right. This is not to say that the findings are false, or that myths are false, but rather that the narrative form will inevitably filter and shape and re-arrange and color the facts. Some distortion is bound to occur.
Not only that, but in claiming to aim for “accuracy” at the same time that partisan conclusions are already settled, Dreier ignores one of the central contentions of the academic left for several decades. It is that inquiry is always shaped by political, social, economic, and other interests. Objectivity is never fully achieved, inquirers are never fully un-biased. Furthermore, the institutions that support inquiry have their impact as well.
Michel Foucault delivered a classic statement on the theme 40 years ago in The Discourse on Language. In it he cast the search for truth as a “will to knowledge,” a particular specimen of the will to power. In resounding cadences, he declared:
But this will to truth, like other systems of exclusion, relies on institutional support: it is both reinforced and accompanied by whole strata of practices such as pedagogy—naturally—the book system, publishing, libraries, such as the learned societies in the past, and laboratories today. But it is probably even more profoundly accompanies by the manner in which knowledge is employed in a society, the way in which it is exploited, divided, and, in some ways, attributed. . . . Finally, I believe that this will to knowledge, thus reliant upon institutional support and distribution, tends to exercise a sort of pressure, a power of constraint upon other forms of discourse . . .
Inquiry, that is, however neutral and impartial and free-ranging it may appear, has certain presuppositions and boundaries and directives already written into it from the start. They may be so customary that people don’t notice them, and the inquirers themselves may be so trained (or indoctrinated) that they act upon them unconsciously, but they nonetheless undergird the activity.
Dreier’s first formulation (the “counter-narrative”) accords well with this conception, for it accepts the contest of opinion and dispenses with objective notions of truth. But his defense (“accuracy”) doesn’t. It would have been more consistent for the Cry Wolf project to come out and announce, “We aim to produce vivid historical episodes and compelling moral arguments that shore up the progressive vision and contest the conservative dominance of the public sphere.”