Truth, Facts and Liberal Education in a 'Post-Truth' Era

Colleges and universities must ensure that students know not only how to exercise intellectual skills but also that certain things are so, writes Grant Cornwell.

December 3, 2018
 
 
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Across continents and millennia, universities have played a central role in democracy by preparing students to critically engage with the issues that affect their lives.

But our current cultural moment has raised an urgent question: What is the role of higher education at a time when the very ideas of truth, facts and core principles of justice seem up for grabs? In response, I would argue that liberal arts education is more valuable and more urgently needed than ever before.

In the anti-intellectualism of our current political culture, I see a smug, perhaps even sinister, disregard for the value of truth and its pursuit with integrity. Maybe worse, I see a dismissive attitude toward the knowing of facts -- or worse still, a cavalier disposition toward facts, as though they are things that can be selected or even created according to one’s preference and politics.

What is true has been displaced by what reinforces one’s ideology and politics -- and ideology trumps facts. I see this as a threat to democracy.

This is where the university -- with its core principles of freedom of inquiry and expression, and its capacity to educate graduates with the independent and critical acumen to deliberate about all manner of issues -- plays a vital role.

My larger theme is the role of higher education in general and liberal education in particular in a democracy founded on principles of freedom and equality. After all, the term "liberal" in that context is not a reference to political values. Rather, it comes from the Latin, artes liberales, an education in personal liberty or freedom. It is an education not in what to think but how to think; it is a process of becoming free from bias, ignorance and authoritarian control over thought.

Critical thinking, then, is a tool of liberation. It is a set of skills that enables one to make up one’s own mind, to be a discerner of information, an evaluator of evidence. It is, in brief, an education in how to have independent judgment. A liberally educated person is one who is free -- equipped and empowered -- to make up their own mind, not subject to the authority of others, not easily swayed by charlatans. If we accomplish nothing else, our graduates should have sufficient skills in reasoning and critical thinking to recognize the difference between a sound argument and demagoguery.

A Return to Teaching Facts

All that said, we academics have become shy about teaching facts. Because we are all so schooled in the tools of critique, there is hardly a truth claim that we cannot interrogate, deconstruct or criticize. Consequently, we have often substituted the teaching of intellectual skills and critical thinking for teaching with any confidence what is the case in the world.

At Rollins College, I want our students to know not only how to exercise intellectual skills but also that certain things are true. Again, the intellectual skills we embrace as learning goals -- information literacy, critical thinking, ethical reasoning, mathematical thinking and scientific literacy -- are exactly the tools we would select to combat the abuses of a post-truth era. As educators, our job is to encourage students to understand how widely they should be applying those skills in the classroom and as citizens to evaluate information and sources, to reckon with credibility of evidence, and to consider both one’s own assumptions and the claims of others.

Yet students need to graduate with more than knowing how; they also need to know that. We academics are quite good at being able to talk about the architecture of the liberally educated mind, but we are too shy in talking about the content knowledge, the furniture, of a liberally educated mind. What does a global citizen and responsible leader know?

We sometimes talk about academic disciplines as ways of knowing … actually knowing. I have great respect for the fact that faculty members have invested years in becoming experts in their disciplines, that they have deep knowledge of the methods of inquiry in their fields, the ability to assess with rigor knowledge claims within their fields of expertise.

When I ask our faculty members to uphold the highest standards of academic rigor in their teaching, what I am asking is for them to mentor students in the means and methods of assessing knowledge claims in their disciplines, and to hold them accountable to these standards as they struggle to form their own conclusions.

The Virtue of Objectivity

Like many people in higher education, I spent time this summer reading those things I can’t during the press of the semester. One of the books was Factfulness by Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician, statistician and global health demographer.

The central argument of Factfulness is that there are important, large-scale global trends -- facts, if you will -- with considerable, rigorous and reliable evidence behind them that we do not hear about in public discourse. Why? Either because they do not appeal to the appetite for sensational news or they do not conform to popular opinion.

Before his recent passing, Rosling made a practice of giving a sort of global trends literacy test to audiences including the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, several corporate boardrooms of multinational corporations from Coca-Cola to IKEA, and the World Economic Forum in Davos. This was in addition to much broader-scale polling. Again and again, he found that the answers he got were not only consistently wrong but also, in his words, “systematically wrong” -- worse even than what one would get from guessing.

His explanatory hypothesis is twofold. First, the news media is market driven, and therefore what gets reported is skewed towards the sensational. Worse, media outlets are often now politically focused, so that the news they report appeals only to the politics of the target market. The totality of this impact is that the popular worldview is framed with “mega-misconceptions.”

Second, in his view, political contest takes place in an arena of accusation and blame. Arguments in this arena selectively marshal facts to demonstrate all of the sins and calamities to be laid at the doorstep of the opposition. The consequence is that we all live on a constant diet of purported facts about all that is going wrong, hurled across the aisle and across the street as weapons in ideological contest.

What is missing, what is lost, in the view of Rosling in Factfulness, is the basic epistemic virtue of objectivity. He calls his work data therapy, introducing basic facts that realign one’s view of the world. He is arguing that what we need most urgently is what he calls a “fact-based worldview.” If we begin with a well-grounded account of what is actually the case, we will have a much better chance of addressing the problems and perils that actually threaten us.

I know that when some academics read a term like “fact-based worldview,” their critical acumen goes on red alert. My point here is simply to say that, as premier institutions of higher learning, it behooves us to send our graduates into the world, as global citizens and responsible leaders, knowing certain things about the way the world works. Certain facts, such as natural scientific facts, social scientific facts, historical facts and, going out on a limb, what I would call social justice facts. As global citizens and responsible leaders, we have a drop-down menu of critical global problems to be solved, and we can’t engage them without a basic grasp of the facts that contextualize them.

I am not, of course, going to offer a catalog of the essential facts that a global citizen and responsible leader should know. That process of discernment and deliberation belongs to faculty and university leadership. The motivation of my comments is that I am worried. I am worried that outside our campuses, knowledge is taking a back seat to ideology. I am worried that inside our campuses, we have withdrawn from the idea of pursuing truth and become shy from even suggesting that quest as core to our purpose.

Rigor and Intentionality

What higher education leaders owe students, and what they owe us, therefore, is a commitment of seriousness of purpose and collaborative engagement with this project of liberal education. Anything less is not simply a squandering of opportunity -- a kind of negligence, a failure to put privilege to good use. Our faculty members must bring forward the very best teaching they can muster and hold students to the highest standards of rigor and intellectual accountability.

Our students need intentionality, an evolving sense of purpose to their being on our campuses, to pursuing a liberal education. We can’t expect students to arrive with a fully developed vision of that purpose. A liberal education is a process of discovery, of making up one’s mind, quite literally.

But this process requires mentoring, and that is where faculty members and university leaders come in. If we ask them to be intentional about their purpose, if we mentor them in a process of discernment and discovery, they can craft a narrative of their educational projects. By the time they graduate, they will be able to articulate what they learned and why. And they will go into the world with knowledge -- and a fact-based view.

We academics owe this mentoring to each student for their own sakes, in order to give them a launchpad into a postgraduate trajectory as a global citizen and responsible leader, empowered for a meaningful life and a productive career.

We also owe this outcome to the world our students are entering. A liberal arts education is, in the case of each and every student, a significant social investment. All those who make it possible have every right to expect that the investment will produce social value, good not only for the student but also for the world.

Bio

Grant Cornwell is president of Rollins College.

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