Politics, As Usual

Wednesday, May 5, 2010
The recent decision by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) to hold a news conference condemning Arizona's new immigration law was somewhat unpredictable, and according to at least a few observers, unwise. For example, Rick Hess told the Chronicle of Higher Education it wasn't "smart politics" to "baldly politicize the role of research." The Chronicle's editors fanned the flames further by titling its article, "Education-research group puts itself on the border of advocacy."

Oh, the horror--research and advocacy meeting, having coffee, perhaps even deciding to date. The children which could result are feared by PhDs everywhere, particularly those evil twins: Compromised Objectivity and Biased Conclusions.

Of course academia trains us to think, like Hess, that research is worthy only when fully divorced from politics. Our research questions should be derived from theory, stemming only from the reading of great books and dusty journals, and never from a desire to enter policy or social debates. Puhleese. Every research question is inherently political--we conceive and ask questions the way we do because we have a desire to know something. Knowledge is socially, and therefore politically, constructed.

I'm the first to admit that AERA is a deeply flawed organization, but aren't they all (Hess's included)? I think honesty and transparency are among the best qualities, and would much rather AERA's leaders and members take visible positions on issues they care about rather than pretend not to have opinions. Research lacks an agenda only in the most naïve of imaginations. But agendas lack research all-too-frequently. If AERA begins to use its members' work to create a research-backed agenda, that can only be a good thing.