President Speaks: The role of higher education in a 'post-truth' era
Editor's Note: Grant Cornwell is president of Rollins College, a liberal arts college in Winter Park, Florida.
From the Ancient Greeks to educational reformer John Dewey, and from the suffrage and civil rights movements to modern issues of inequality, educated citizens have played a key role in participatory democracy.
And universities have advanced this role by preparing students to critically engage with the issues that affect their lives. At institutions of higher learning, students gain the tools to discover and evaluate facts, test theories and deepen their understanding of themselves and the world.
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? At a time like this, I would argue that liberal arts education is more urgently needed than ever before.
A threat to democracy
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 dismissiveness towards the knowing of facts — or worse still, a cavalier disposition towards 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 critical role.
The larger theme here 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 this 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 that certain things are the case, not simply know how to exercise intellectual skills. 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 these skills, not just in the classroom, but as citizens. To evaluate information and sources, to reckon with credibility of evidence, and to consider one's own assumptions and the claims of others.
"We have often substituted the teaching of intellectual skills and critical thinking for teaching with any confidence what is the case in the world."
What I am suggesting, in addition, is that students need to graduate with more than knowing how, but also knowing 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?
I don't think it is reaching too far to say that a global citizen and responsible leader knows the facts about climate change, about the global distribution of wealth, about the history of democracy and capitalism and the tension between the two, about the variety of human meaning-making in the form of religions, arts, literatures and philosophies.
We sometimes talk about academic disciplines as ways of knowing, actually knowing. I have great respect for the fact that our faculty 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 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 in our field, I spend time during the summer reading those things I can't during the press of the semester. One of the books influencing this column is "Factfulness" (Flatiron Books, 2018), by Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician, statistician and global health demographer.
"Factfulness" came to my attention after Bill Gates gave a copy to every newly minted college graduate in America last year, calling it "an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world."
Rosling writes that there are important, large-scale global trends — facts, if you will –— with considerable, rigorous and reliable evidence behind them. We don't often hear about these trends in public discourse, either because they don't appeal to the appetite for sensational news, or they don't conform to popular opinion.
Before his passing recently, 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 boardrooms of multinational corporations from Coca-Cola to Ikea, and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This was in addition to much broader-scale polling.
Again and again, he found not only that the answers he got were consistently wrong, but that they were, in his words "systematically wrong," worse even than what one would get from guessing.
"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."
His explanatory hypothesis is two-fold. First, the news media is market-driven and therefore what gets reported is skewed towards the sensational. Worse, media markets are now politically segmented, so that the news reported is only that which appeals to the politics of the target market. The totality of this impact is that the popular worldview is framed with what Rosling calls "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.
In Rosling's view, what's missing from our post-truth culture is the virtue of objectivity — and the antidote is adopting a "fact-based worldview." He calls his work data therapy, introducing basic facts that realign one's view of the world.
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 — certain facts — about the way the world works: natural scientific facts, social scientific facts, historical facts, and, going out on a limb, a category I would call social justice facts. I think there is a drop-down menu of critical global problems to be solved, and one cannot engage them as global citizens and responsible leaders without a basic grasp of the facts that contextualize them.
I am not, of course, going to offer a catalog of the essential facts 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 college 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, 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, it is a kind of negligence, a failure to put privilege to good use. Our faculty must bring forward the very best teaching they can muster and hold students to the highest standards of rigor and intellectual accountability.
"The motivation of my comments is that I am worried. I am worried that outside college 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."
Our students need intentionality, an evolving sense of purpose in their being here, to pursue a liberal education. We can’t expect students to arrive on campus with a fully developed vision of their purpose and trajectory. 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 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, so that by the time they graduate they will be able to articulate what they learned, and why.
We academics owe this mentoring to each student for their own sakes, in order to give them a launchpad into a post-graduate 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 for the world.