The incoming freshmen in the Honors Tutorial College are required to take a course called the "Freshman Seminar", which is intended to introduce them to the rigors of life in an academically selective institution like the HTC. Usually a leading instructor from the university community is chosen to lead the seminar; this fall it will be lead by Jeffrey St. John, an associate professor of "communications studies" here at Ohio University and serving next year as "Faculty Fellow" in the HTC. Recently, faculty were contacted by Ann Fidler, Dean of the HTC and St. John, who requested "help" with the freshman seminar. They wrote, in part:
We want to begin the year by persuading our incoming students that college is a new intellectual experience requiring new ways of thinking. In particular, we would like to introduce the idea that many of their professors grapple with certain questions or problems in their respective fields of study for which there are no firm, final answers. (For example, in the field of rhetoric the question "To what extent is public knowledge rhetorically generated?" has been the subject of almost continuous debate since the days of Plato-- with no definite answer anywhere in sight. In legal history, we are always bumping up against the question "to what degree is the law autonomous?"--but are no nearer to any firm conclusions about this than we were when the witenagemot was all the rage.)Now, I'm all for teaching students about "new intellectual experiences" and helping youngsters to acquire "new ways of thinking". Those kinds of buzz words are just jargonics for "getting a good education". No problem there. But take a closer look at the precise nature of what is being proposed here.
The thesis that is being put forward is:
[R] Certain questions or problems have no firm, final answers.Now, that seems to me to be almost trivially true. When two people argue over what is "more beautiful", Bach's B minor Mass or Beethoven's Missa Sollemnis, surely each of them will offer all sorts of reasons in defense of the superiority of the one over the other but just as surely neither will be able to persuade the other and, arguably, there is no "correct" answer in a case such as that. Or, to take a more prosaic example, two parents might differ with regard to what is the best name for their new baby girl. Each, for example, might favor naming her after a grandmother, but they might disagree over which grandmother ought to be so commemorated. Each parent will have his or her particular reasons for favoring one over the other, but again, it seems at least plausible that there is no "firm, final answer" to the question: "Who ought to be commemorated by having a granddaughter named after her?"
These are questions, in short, that involve personal, subjective values and preferences, and in many such cases it seems that the notion of a "firm, final answer" is irrelevant. Indeed, it may even be something of a category mistake to suggest that there could be a "firm, final answer" to such questions.
Well, let's return to our Freshman Seminar once again. Fidler wrote that she wants the seminar to "persuad[e] our incoming students" that there may be certain kinds of questions in certain fields of study for which there are no "firm, final answers". OK, what kind of reasoning will she use to "persuade" our new freshman of this thesis, thesis [R] above? Well, let's have a look at her own "examples":
 In the field of rhetoric the question "To what extent is public knowledge rhetorically generated?" has been the subject of almost continuous debate since the days of Plato.In short, we may summarize examples  and  under the general rubric:
 In legal history, we are always bumping up against the question "to what degree is the law autonomous?"--but are no nearer to any firm conclusions about this than we were when the witenagemot was all the rage.
[I] Certain questions appear intractable, because experts have argued long and irreconcilably about them over many years.Now, let's bear in mind that the freshman who are coming in to this seminar are supposed to be really smart. They are, after all, an elite group, usually in the upper 1% or 2% of their graduating class. What if I were permitted to address this seminar and make the following argument to them:
I have many friends who claim to have been to a place called "Australia". Some of them come back and tell me, "Hey, Australia's a great place: delicious beer, beautiful people, fabulous weather--it's like heaven on earth!" But others of them come back and tell me "Man, Australia sucks: crappy beer, ugly people, insufferably hot, humid weather--it's like hell on earth!" Suppose this goes on for several years: I continually get conflicting reports about Australia from these alleged "experts" who have all "been there", or so they claim. So, quite naturally, I draw the only reasonable inference available: there is no such place as Australia.I submit to you that if these freshman are as smart as we think they are, they are going to see what a silly argument that is right from the start. Or, to put it another way, if they don't see what a silly argument it is, that in itself ought to be a sufficient reason for excluding them from the HTC.
And yet the Dean of the HTC is proposing to base a fundamental discussion in the Freshman Seminar on just that supposition: the supposition that extended, apparently intractable disagreement among experts is in and of itself some kind of valid evidence in favor of the thesis that no "firm final answer" exists. Possibly all she means is that thoughtful, intelligent people disagree about certain issues even when a great deal of evidence has been amassed, but that point seems too banal to impose on these exceptionally bright, intelligent students in the allegedly elite group that is the HTC. Plus it's not what she said.
And I think there may be additional reasons for thinking that Fidler and St. John intend the thesis in just the sense I have attributed to it. Thesis [R] may be nicknamed the Relativism Thesis, because it is very similar to an argument that sometimes gets made in freshman level philosophy courses about moral relativism:
There are no firm, final answers to questions such as "Is abortion right or wrong", "Is polygamy right or wrong", and other such normative questions, because people have been arguing about such things for millennia and we are no closer to having a consensus about such things now than we were millennia ago.The Relativism Thesis seems plausible, at least to freshmen, because it really is difficult to imagine there being an answer out there to a question that has been debated for so long. With so many smart and clever people out there looking for the answer, why haven't we been able to find it? Surely the answer is simple: Because the answer doesn't exist!
The similarity of [R] to the music and baby-nomenclature examples, however, is only superficial. In each of those cases, as I explained above, a subjective preference is at the heart of the question, and it seems at least plausible that subjective preferences are entirely private, hence it doesn't even make sense to ask whether one is "correct" relative to some other one. But in the cases of  and  above, however, the matter is different. Take , for example: the question at issue seems to be at least partly empirical: to what extent is public knowledge rhetorically generated. Clearly much will depend here upon such things as: what sort of "measurement" are we talking about when we ask "to what extent"; what is meant by the expression "public knowledge", or by the expression "rhetoric"; and who counts as the appropriate "expert" in this domain of discourse? But in spite of all this vagueness, it still is not a question of subjective preferences, but of what a certain measurable quantity is supposed to be. (Possibly the example is just poorly worded: perhaps all that is really meant by the question is nothing more than "Why do people in the field of "communication studies" argue so much?" But that is another matter.)
In the case of  there is the same vagueness as to terms, but the question is still not one of subjective preferences, but of to what degree is the law autonomous? We need to know, among other things, by what "degrees" such things can be measured, what "autonomy" means in this context, and, again, who the "experts" are, but presumably if the question means something more serious and interesting than just "Can you believe what windbags legal scholars are" then the question has some kind of non-arbitrary answer, whether or not anybody has found it yet.
It is easy to confuse methodological uncertainty in such cases with genuine aporia. Take the case of moral relativism. Because most folks tend to be what one might term "folk relativists" about many moral questions, they often simply assume that there are no "firm, final answers" to moral questions, and then interpret the intractability of moral problems as evidence or even proof of what they have already assumed. In other words, there is a very strong temptation to beg the question in this kind of context.
I once gave an example of [R] to a class that substituted the argument about "the beginning of life" in place of morality generally. It went like this:
People have been arguing for years over the question, At what point does human life begin, but they have never been able to come to anything like a consensus on the issue: some say conception, some say "quickening", some say third trimester, some say birth, etc. Hence it follows that there is no point at which human life begins.Now, you have to be very careful here: the argument does not say that there is such a point; it says that "it follows" from the fact of disagreement that there is no such point. But that does not follow, even if it happens to be true that there is no such point. However, ask yourself whether it makes any sense to say that there is no point at which human life begins, and then ask yourself whether there was ever a time at which you did not exist, and you will quickly see what a stupid thesis we have on our hands.
It is true that people have argued for millennia over what the best moral standards are, but the fact that they have never been able to come to anything like a consensus on the issue does not entail that there are no objective moral standards out there. The history of science teaches us, if it teaches us nothing else, that answers can be elusive even when they are "out there", so to speak. Indeed, the history of science is nothing more than the history of failed, refuted theories about the world. One might as well say "People have been arguing for millennia over whether there is life on other planets, hence, because people can't reach a consensus on the issue, we may infer that there is no answer to this question." Huh? It seems as though there either is, or is not, life on other planets. There is a "firm, final answer" to the question, we just don't know what it is--yet. At the point in time at which Newton proposed his theory of universal gravitation, someone might have remarked "Oh, these physicists are always arguing about such things! Aristotle said that everything moves towards the earth, now Newton says everything with mass moves towards other things with mass! Will it never end? Obviously there is no answer to such a question!"
Science is often seen as somehow the "opposite" of the humanities in its "firm, final answer" finding capacity. Maybe it's just the humanities where there are no "firm, final answers". But science is littered with failed hypotheses and intractable arguments. We can learn from the history of science, however, because one thing that stands out in that history is the fact that what is sometimes needed, when a question appears intractable, is not a throwing up of the hands and a declaration that no answer exists, but rather a new approach, a new methodology, indeed, a new way of looking at the world. Teaching students that they need to abandon their presuppositions, their biases, their a priori certainties and try to see the world in a new way seems to me to be precisely what a good education sets out to do. As Fidler herself put it: "We want to begin the year by persuading our incoming students that college is a new intellectual experience requiring new ways of thinking." It would be an abandoning of that mission to teach them "Whenever you have a hard time finding an answer to a question, you may infer that the answer to your question does not exist."
It seems to me that we run a risk of doing our incoming freshmen a disservice if we pretend to take the mere fact of disagreement as counting in favor of thesis [R]. Logically it is about as bass-ackwards as a methodological principle could be, and we manifestly do not want to "persuade" our freshmen to see the world in that way. Or at least I don't: the moral relativists out there might have other ideas, which, I suspect, is part of the problem to begin with. Many academics are also folk moral relativists, without even realizing it, and this a priori methodological stance informs most of what they do, even in their own domain of discourse. So much for "diversity", but that is old news in academia.
The good news is that, when I told a few of my own HTC students about the proposed seminar topic, they mostly laughed. One of them said "Man, that's pretty stupid", which is maybe not the most articulate response in the world but it sums things up rather nicely. If we want to hold HTC students to higher--indeed, the highest--standards, we'd better start abiding by those standards ourselves. We can begin by putting a little more thought--elementary, coherent thought--into the courses that we design and the questions that we ponder.